Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages' ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles
"Since the beginning, I've known that I'm the straight man in this. I'm the setup guy." Stark Sands is describing Charlie Price, his milquetoast-turned-provocateur character in Kinky Boots, which is now in previews at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. And rarely has the term "straight man" been used as aptly.
Charlie, the reluctant inheritor of a dying shoe factory in Northampton, England, comes up with the audience- and costumer-friendly notion of repurposing Price & Sons Shoes to create sturdy boots for drag queens. And as envisioned by composer-lyricist Cyndi Lauper and bookwriter Harvey Fierstein, there is nothing straight about Charlie'92s drag queen business partner, Lola (Billy Porter).
As Lola throws shade in all directions, the challenge is to keep Charlie from being completely eclipsed. Sands, who first gained attention in the well-honed stage ensembles of Journey'92s End and American Idiot, says the entire creative team (including director Jerry Mitchell) worked hard to make sure that didn't happen.
"Harvey has done a great job of giving me little bits of humor here and there," he says. "Still, usually I'm feeding Billy these lines that he can smash." Sands, who played soldiers in his previous two Broadway shows (as well as in the HBO miniseries Generation Kill and the upcoming Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis), describes the role of Charlie as "really in my wheelhouse. It'92s a sort of all-American good-old-boy kind of role, even though he's British."
Along the way, he and Lola spark an unlikely friendship, just as the two men do in the 2005 film that inspired the musical. But Sands says the entire Kinky Boots team struggled with hitting the right tone for a late plot twist in which that friendship and the fate of the entire company is jeopardized. "The second act is a tricky balancing act," he says. "I have to push the factory workers away, and I have to push Lola away. But if I push the audience away, we lose them, potentially for good." A confrontation between the two men was repeatedly tweaked until it became what he calls "less personal" and therefore a big improvement.
That willingness to rewrite and re-rewrite the material has been a crucial part of the process, says Sands, who describes several instances in which Fierstein supplied new dialogue, often right on the spot, at the actors'92 request. "We have a ton of jokes and physical bits that we all came up with together over the course of rehearsals," he says.
Lauper, for her part, realized at one point that an early song she had written wasn't connecting properly with Sands. "She asked me, 'What songs did you listen to when you were learning to sing?' I listed Weezer, Pearl Jam, Elton John, Cat Stevens---everything I was listening to at that particular time and singing in the shower---and she went back and listened to all of those artists. Two days later, I got a voice memo with her singing a brand new song for me. I still have that recording."
Eric Grode is a freelance arts writer and a professor at Syracuse University'92s Goldring Arts Journalism Program Photo by Matthew Murphy