For the record, I did not bring up the icon thing. Cyndi Lauper brought up the icon thing. And when she said it, in her trademark, chewy, perhaps-only-slightly-exaggerated-for-effect Noo Yawk accent—“You can’t be an icon and still do the work. For me. Some people can, and that’s great. But I can’t”—she bracketed the word icon with two of the most aggressive air-quotes I have ever personally witnessed. She jabbed at the air with two pairs of curled fingers, sharply, twice, like snake fangs biting down hard on each syllable: EYE-KAHN.
Up to that point, we hadn’t been talking about icons, or lingering fame, or the fact that when you hear the name Cyndi Lauper, even twenty years later, it’s impossible not to picture that high-energy explosion of dyed hair and eye shadow and adenoidal Noo Yawk attitude that splattered all over MTV in 1984. Instead, we’d been talking about her Broadway debut in The Threepenny Opera, which goes into previews on March 24, in which she’ll play Pirate Jenny, having stepped in for, of all people, Edie Falco, who had to leave because of commitments to The Sopranos. Lauper had been looking for a Broadway role—she was passed over for Patti LuPone’s part in Sweeney Todd—so when she heard about Threepenny, she pounced. “The casting director said to me, ‘Cyndi Lauper is interested in doing theater,’ ” says the show’s director, Scott Elliott. “That happened on a Friday, Cyndi and I got together on Monday, and she accepted the job on Monday night.”
So while the production features a remarkably eclectic cast—Cabaret’s Alan Cumming, SNL’s Ana Gasteyer, rapping cabaret prankster-prodigy Nellie McKay, the transvestite Flotilla DeBarge—Lauper is arguably the most remarkable. In fact, casting her runs the risk of seeming like dinner-theater gimmickry. But Elliott gathered his ensemble according to a particular philosophy. He didn’t just want interesting actors—he wanted interesting lives. “There’s no one on this stage who hasn’t lived an interesting life, no matter how old they are,” he says. “That’s what people are bringing to the table—these interesting lives.”
“In my mind, I’m Dietrich! I’m Cleopatra on the Nile! I’m whoever I think I am.”
The old Cyndi Lauper—she of the spasmodic dancing and blowfish pucker and certain enduring titular catchphrase (a 2004 Times headline, 50, SHE STILL JUST WANTS TO HAVE FUN, makes you want to slit your wrists just out of empathy)—is so successfully tattooed on our collective memory that it’s easy to feel like we got older but she never did. Instead, she merely receded, still she-bopping madly, in the rearview mirror of our lives. (Perhaps the last time you thought about her was in 2005, when it was reported that “1980’s pop sensation Cyndi Lauper” was battling over her rent-stabilized apartment in the Apthorp.) And, at 52, she still has that same adorable squinty face that once made goo-goo eyes at Hulk Hogan and Captain Lou Albano. Her skin is surprisingly smooth, in the way that the faces of people whose livelihoods depend on the illusion of agelessness find ways to stay surprisingly smooth. But her outfit is understated—no crinolines, no tutus—and her face is framed by cropped, dyed-blonde hair that, somewhat alarmingly, makes her look a bit like Shirley Jones, the mom from The Partridge Family. Alarming because no one really wants to think of Cyndi Lauper as a mom, even though she is one, in real life, to an 8-year-old son named Declyn. “His dream is to be a hockey player,” she says. “I tell him, if that’s what you want to be, then learn how to skate faster than any of those bastards who just know how to hit. Because the people who like to hit are not good skaters.”
When Lauper talks about her own career, she insists she’s been lucky and she just tries to walk the walk and keep her work real. When she talks about Threepenny, she says it’s “wonderful, wonderful.” She mentions that she’s been toying with a TV show that “is going to be funny, and it’s going to incorporate what I do and what I know in my life,” though she pointedly avoids the R-word—reality show—shying away from the has-been-ish taint of the phrase. But it’s only when she talks about other topics, like hockey—her son zigzagging on ice skates, away from the menacing thugs—that she sounds slightly wistful for a certain kind of freedom she hasn’t had for a while: the freedom from being an EYE-KAHN.
Like when she talks about her latest musical obsession: the dulcimer, an elongated stringed instrument associated with Appalachian folk music that you play on your lap and that looks like a violin that’s been tortured on the rack. “Do you know how many people told me, ‘What is that thing? Don’t you know nobody likes that hillbilly shit?’ ” she says. “Of course, that never stopped me. And it began to blend with me. I haven’t played it in two weeks, which is weird. But I’ll play it again this weekend, and I’ll feel better.” Or the collaborators on her new album, The Body Acoustic: “Ani DeFranco is a big hero of mine. She basically told everyone to go … well, she said, ‘I’ll do what I’m going to do.’ ” The album is a collection of duets, with everyone from Shaggy to Sarah McLachlan, singing new versions of Lauper’s old hits. “I took a little of this and a little of that and mixed it all together,” she says. “And you have to be brave to do that! I can’t be focused on who other people think I am. You have to just leave that shit someplace else.”
So when she takes the stage in The Threepenny Opera—and she has monologues that open both acts—she’ll be faced with a funny, familiar conundrum: trying to get the audience to forget she’s Cyndi Lauper, while knowing that people are there—that she’s there—because she’s Cyndi Lauper. “I think it’s always better when people don’t know you and don’t have a preconceived idea of who you are,” she says—which reminds me that she probably hasn’t met a person like that since about 1984. But, as she says, “I walked away from all that other stuff a long time ago. Because if you’re in the isolation tank all the time of the persona, who you gonna be, really? You’re not gonna be nobody. You’re just gonna be Miss Thing. I’m not Miss Thing.” And when she says persona, she digs again at the air with two more snakebites.
Nellie McKay, who has, more recently, had some understanding of what it’s like to be Miss Thing, is having her own struggles, having fought with her label, Columbia, over her latest album, which the label consequently quashed. But when I ask Lauper if she’s been able to guide McKay through the conflict, she says, “The business is changing so much right now. I couldn’t give her advice.”
Though, Nellie, if you’re listening, here is a kind of advice: “You cannot be self-conscious,” says Lauper. “If you have a watcher in your head, you’re done. Door closes, everything’s over. I can’t even look in a mirror sometimes. Because in my mind—I’m Dietrich! I’m Cleopatra on the Nile! I’m whoever I think I am. Then you look in the mirror and you see, Oh, it’s so not that. And you’ve broken the magic spell.”