Cyndi Lauper on Her New Doc, ‘Let the Canary Sing,’ and Meaning It When She Says Farewell Tour: ‘I Want to Do Something Great… and Then Say, Bye, That’s It!’ (2024)

Sometimes girls just want to take a load off, too. Cyndi Lauper will be calling it quits as a touring performer after she does what is billed as her “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun Farewell Tour” in arenas this fall — an outing she insists really will have her calling it a day on any kind of road show, although she’s not ruling out one-offs. “We always used to have a good time together,” she says, in characterizing why she wants to celebrate with fans on one last trip around the world. If she seems like a woman with a still inexhaustible supply of glamour and verve, who hasn’t yet come off the peak of her powers… “So what? I’d rather let them remember me like this,” Lauper says.

Truth be told, Lauper hasn’t done significant touring in about a decade, so when this one is over, she will likely resume doing what she spent much of the last 10 years on: focusing on her successful, Tony-winning shift into creating for Broadway. Her Tony-winning success with “Kinky Boots” makes for a rousing third act in her new music documentary, “Let the Canary Sing,” which premiered last week on Paramount+. If musical theater work is where her true colors might best be found nowadays, the Alison Ellwood-directed doc is a timely reminder of how Lauper revolutionized pop in the early and mid-’80s as a visionary icon of fashion and style… who also happened to sing like a canary blessed with apparently bottomless lungs.

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Variety caught up with Lauper at her hotel after a recent Chinese Theatre handprint ceremony for a conversation about saying goodbye to fans on the road; facing sexism and legal obstacles in her early career; how she feels about Madonna comparisons; and why the battle over women’s rights makes voting this fall especially critical, even if you won’t hear her espousing her candidate from the stage.

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Let’s talk about the farewell tour that’s coming this fall. You’ve done isolated shows in recent years, like a couple of nights at the Hollywood Bowl with the LA Phil prior to the pandemic. But it felt surprising to see it stated in the press release that you really haven’t done a major tour in 10 years.

No, I haven’t. And I just figured, I’m getting older, so I may as well do it while I can, so that I can do something great. That’s what I’d like to give them back, and say “Thank you,” and come up with things that they are gonna have fun and laugh with. Laughter is so important, and having a good time is important, because life gets hard, very hard, for people. So I want them celebrate them, you know? Because we always used to have a good time together.

And I don’t want to just be like, “One hour, super hits — bye!” I want to be able to play my work, because I think that the people that are coming to see me know the hits and they know other stuff that they want to hear. Because they wrote me [with requests]. It’s a lot of stuff! I can only do this amount. But I want to do some visuals … I mean, I’m not gonna have pyro and it’s not a Cecil B. DeMille production, but I’m excited about it.

Putting the term “farewell tour” on it, do you feel comfortable with that? Because obviously people can look at you now and think that you’re beautiful and full of energy and still in the prime of life as a performer.

Yeah. But so what? I’d rather let them remember me like this. I’m not gonna be like with a walker, like, “Okay, girls!”… [She mimes slowly pushing herself on stage.] I’m not gonna do that. And I’m tired. I want to be able to do something and do it well and say, “Hey, I love all of you.” I’m going to do North America, I am going to do Europe, I’m going to do Asia, I’m gonna do Australia and New Zealand and stuff, I’m going to go to South America. And then I’m gonna say, “Bye! That’s it.”

Do you think that will be it for you doing concerts? Or could you do a residency, or one-offs?

No, I’m sure I’ll do a concert, but I’m not gonna do the big blowout thing. This is it. But I’m excited, because this way it’s a nice present for them, you know?

And do you think your focus is going to go strictly toward theater work after this, or will you still be recording?

I’m finishing “Working Girl,” definitely doing theater. I don’t know what I’ll do. I think now, after I do this, I can do anything, and why not? You know, I always wanted to do something with (Boy) George before we were too old and gray. I love my Georgie, so I want to do something with him.

How is “Working Girl” coming along?

Oh, it’s going well. I really feel like we’re a team, so that’s what makes it great. Theresa Rebeck is the writer, and she’s wonderful. We have Chris Ashley, the director, and I got Stephen Oremus again that I worked with on “Kinky Boots” as our orchestrator. He’s so talented, it’s sickening. And I’m writing with Rob Hyman, who I wrote “Time After Time” with, because it’s set in the ‘80s, so it’s gotta sound ‘80s. We were the ‘80s for a minute, you know? It’s kind of like we were the world, but now we’re not. [Laughs.]

There has been a lot of celebration of you in connection with “Let the Canary Sing.” How did it feel having a handprint ceremony at the Chinese Theatre?

It was a surreal week. It just felt like I was in this magical place that had the DNA of all these people that you saw watching movies as a little kid. As a kid that used to live in my imagination, bowing in front of the shower curtain, giving interviews — I don’t know who the hell I was talking to! — and putting on shows in the middle of doing laundry, busting out into “I’m the Greatest Star” [from “Funny Girl”]… it’s amazing to go to Hollywood and stick your hands in the cement.

And Cher was standing next to me at the ceremony. I love Cher. And she’s finally going in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. I don’t know what the hell they were waiting for. She was always a rocker. She married a rocker; they were kind of a rock ‘n’ roll couple. Like, what the heck? So, I’m happy for her because she needs acknowledgement. I would also like to see Diana Ross’s hands in the cement.

Cyndi Lauper on Her New Doc, ‘Let the Canary Sing,’ and Meaning It When She Says Farewell Tour: ‘I Want to Do Something Great… and Then Say, Bye, That’s It!’ (4)

Let’s discuss the documentary. You had some reluctance about doing it early on, didn’t you?

I’m very proud of what she did. She’s a filmmaker, and I wanted a film, not just a TV gossippy thing. I was hoping that she would make a real film, and I think she did. The only thing is, I was in it — it was me. But it’s still interesting. It tells a story. … And I didn’t want to be like Saint Cyndi. I’m not perfect. I say the wrong things sometimes, and I keep trying to be a good leader and I’m still learning.

Didn’t you also have some reticence about the title of the movie?

She wanted to call it “Let the Canary Sing.” Fine; I understand what that was about. But it’s a long, long story to get into on Jimmy Kimmel. It’s not a short story.

But people want to hear you tell it. It’s worth it to get to the punchline that became the title.

That manager, Steve Massarsky [Lauper’s rep in the early ‘80s, from whom she was trying to separate], was just about (saying) “No.” I was like, “Listen, if we give you a sunset (clause), you’ll make money, but let us move forward and make money.” And he wasn’t having it. If we were going to do it without him, he wanted to see us all never do it. And I would always think to myself: “Did I not bring you over to my family’s house? Did you not see that I am a Sicilian Italian American? Do you not know those kind of women?” [Laughs.] I tried to reason and then I had to go to court. He was fighting me going bankrupt, because once I went bankrupt, there was nothing for him to take. So in court, finally the judge just looked at us, took his gavel and said, “Let the canary sing.”

And then that was the end of that. So I went and signed with Lennie Petze (Portrait Records’ A&R head), and he was different … I didn’t want to be a puppet. I worked my whole life to sing, and I sang to feel free. I wasn’t going to sing for somebody telling me how to sing, or what they would sing if they could. I wanted to sing my own notes, and eventually I wanted to sing my own words. You know, I collaborate all the time with people, always. And Broadway’s one of the biggest collaborations you could do. … But you have to figure out why you came to the planet. And sometimes it sucks because you are out there blazing the trail by yourself. You still have to make sure you’re not going down the wrong path, but sometimes the wrong path leads you to the right one.

There had been a VH1 “Behind the Music” special on you back in the day, right?

Yeah, I remember I saw a VH1 thing one time with me talking around 2002, and you know, there were a lot of execs. It was so male-dominated. And one of them actually said, “I can’t sign her because she’s old…” How old was I? I was only a year older than him. So if you are that concerned, what are you doing in the music business? You’re too old, right? That’s bullsh*t. I think that they have different rules for women. I say crash through the ceiling. It’s only glass! And there are many women in this world, and we are going to just keep coming until we get equality.

The only problem with the movie is it could stand to be a half-hour longer.

Really? Because (on the first viewing) I kept thinking, oh my God, how long is this? … But I kept watching because I was wanting to see my family again, because it was my grandmother; my great aunt Stella, who came from Italy; Aunt May, who was in the “She-Bop” video… I had all my aunts in the “She-Bop” video. That was pretty funny. They had no idea.

You say in the documentary they had no idea “She Bop” was about masturbation, despite co-starring in your video. How much later did they find out?

No, I never discussed it with (the aunts), but my mother, I discussed it with. She said [gasping], “Really? Oh my God, Cyndi.”

The documentary may be valuable maybe for younger people who didn’t live through that period who don’t know what was kind of revolutionary about you.

Oh, everything. And I scared a lot of people.

It feels like sometimes people talk like Madonna was the first pop star to do anything that shocked anybody or was revolutionary or feminist, and yet you really preceded her, with some particularly trailblazing elements.

When Madonna did “Like a Virgin” on MTV and she took the microphone and was doing some things with it, I was sitting next to my mother. And I was laughing because I thought, “Oh my God, you go girl.” And Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly, they wrote that one too [as well as Lauper’s “True Colors”]. And they were thinking, “Oh no, it’s never going to be a hit now.” But it was. I mean, it’s an undeniable track, that “Like a Virgin,” undeniable. But you know, they always compared us. It’s like apples and oranges. I don’t want to play that game. I’m not doing it. I didn’t.

Do you feel like the documentary corrects anything that people misunderstood about you that you’ve felt over the years?

I don’t know. All I know is, I am who I am. It’s like that song from “La Cage.” No, you know, when I came back from college to visit my mom in Queens, I had some kids throw rocks at me because my clothes were freakish, being like, “Oh, what the hell is that?” And I said to them, “Where’d you get that from, Archie Bunker? A rack, with 10 others just like it?” And then of course, they threw bigger rocks. But in the ‘80s I got to see those same kind of people wearing my clothes, like what I was doing.

The explosion of color and just accessorizing you brought to music can’t get enough due.

I didn’t expect to change fashion. I was wearing something because I loved Screaming Mimi’s [the vintage store in New York City]. I loved the radical downtown or uptown or just radical artists’ look, which could be creative. You create what you want, right? That’s what an artist does. You know, I didn’t know it was going to affect fashion. But apparently it did. And I did feel like everybody just took everything that I did and just sucked it up and then spit it out and went on to the next, like I was nothing. And I just felt like, “Huh?”

They called my clothes and jewelry “grab-bag.” That wasn’t grab bag. I would eat peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches to buy a skirt or a top and put them together. I would go to the church ladies when they had their bazaars and buy the rhinestone necklaces, because I couldn’t afford to buy the chains when everybody was wearing them. I could afford one chain, and then I thought, if I string together the rhinestone necklaces and put ‘em above and below the chain, then it would look like it’s one thing. …. I think that anybody who is an artist and is creative, who puts sh*t together, puts their clothes together, they’re going to influence people and you influence each other.

I wanted to show with “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” a community like what New York is. It’s everybody — that’s what makes New York great. So many different kinds of people, not just one. And I was sick and tired of looking at MTV or anything with just one kind of people: Just white people, just Spanish people. Because that’s not how we live. We live all mixed together, and that’s what makes it fabulous. That’s what makes life full, and that’s what makes your music full too, you know?

One nice thing about the movie is that it actually talks about music, which frankly you don’t always get in a music documentary. There’s an especially interesting segment just about the long history of the evolving arrangement of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” and how you incorporated bits of reggae and Motown and a Coney Island feel into what could have been a pretty staid new-wave song. And if you don’t spend that much time perfecting that particular arrangement, your history is certainly different, and maybe pop history is also different.

Well, Rick Chertoff brought Ellie Greenwich in for that. As soon as Ellie Greenwich came in, I had that thing: “That’s all they really wa-a-a-a-a-ant,” right? “Some fu-uh-uh-un…” And then, “when the working day is done” — all of that was influenced by all the stuff that John Turi taught me before, in (her earlier band) Blue Angel, studying music history, so I was able to whoop, whoop, whoop. And the Shirley & Lee song, “Feels So Fine,” was why I sang it high, because there was something trumpeting about that. When he brought Ellie in and she heard that, she said, “Come on, use your accent! Let’s go in the hallway and sing ‘Girls, they want… wanna have fun… girls.” And of course, I was like, “What accent?” You know? [Laughs]

So I sang with Ellie Greenwich — come on! She was one of the first female producers of pop that never even got her name on the record. She was fantastic to work with and I loved her. I got so busy with my life and my career, and that’s what sucks about the business: you are always working, and then people slip away. Especially at this age. So now I try and get ahold of them to talk to ’em. because all the people that were in that documentary, I love them dearly, and the people even that weren’t in the documentary that I worked with, I love them and feel lucky that they shared their talent with me. Because it’s always a collective. Even if you think it’s not and you’re doing it all yourself, well, good for you — I don’t live like that.

Cyndi Lauper on Her New Doc, ‘Let the Canary Sing,’ and Meaning It When She Says Farewell Tour: ‘I Want to Do Something Great… and Then Say, Bye, That’s It!’ (5)

The last chapter of the movie of course focuses on your Tony-winning success with “Kinky Boots.”

You’ve got to think of how you can step around the gatekeepers. Sometimes you’ve got to just enjoy yourself and try and find another path. I didn’t have the same career… I didn’t even know what I was gonna do. But I became enamored with Harvey Fierstein and what he was talking about. He was always one of the great leaders of the LGBTQ community, and I’m a friend and family member, so everything he said made sense. … In “Kinky Boots,” you had all these different (creative) people who their whole lives were working on civil rights, and we’re all here together, and we are doing this story about a lot of different kinds of people and their arc — and how eventually, if you share your stories together, there’s not a lot of difference in human beings.

The basic common denominator of human beings is the same, whether you are a transgender person or you’re gay or you are straight or you are a blockhead — still, underneath, we’re human beings, right? I had a friend who used to say, when somebody would be cruel, “Yeah, button up your shirt, your heart’s falling out of your chest.” But you;ve gotta try and see things through your heart because that’s how things get better. And when “Kinky Boots” came around, you had all kinds of people (as characters) — you had the bully; you had the woman who’s going upwardly mobile; you had this guy who didn’t know what the hell he wanted; and you had Lola, and she just wanted to be fabulous. In the end, no matter how different they are, when you are rolling up your sleeves, working together, all of that other sh*t goes away. Everybody has somebody like that in their family. And what do you do? Turn your family away? Oh, no, no, no, no, no. Not in my family. I’m Italian. And if you do, then disgrazia, that’s what I say.

You just don’t give up on people, and remember to help people. You’re a community. You find out what’s going on with the guy next door. You are living on the same block. Things like that — that’s what I hope they see in the documentary, because that’s important: Family, community, artistry. … I just think it’s good to share your stories. I still believe in my heart of hearts that Americans, underneath all the bullsh*t, are fair-minded people. And in the end, if it’s somebody in your family or someone that you love that is affected by laws and fascism, then you are gonna stand up, right?

It may be a rough year that you are bringing your tour into, for a lot of people that are sensitive to these things, given the political climate.

Fascism is what our grandparents fought against, right? And now all of a sudden we’re going right back into the fascist thing, which is not gonna be good for anybody. It never turns out well. It really doesn’t, unless you are rich, rich, rich. And I don’t think making serfs is a good idea. But then again, that’s very political. It has nothing to do with my tour. It’s just how I personally feel.

Your tour will be joyful, in what is likely to be a tense time. It can be hard to compartmentalize between wanting to celebrate and wanting to be vigilant, in times like this.

Well, I’m not going to. Listen, people need to escape from the bullsh*t. … But, you know, I think that if you are thinking of not voting… I will never tell you who to vote for. You know, I’ll support Biden because the alternative is not democracy. But people have got to make their choice and really research, not troll the internet with all the bullsh*t stories that aren’t real. … As it is now, the Supreme Court is all jacked up. You’ve got people in there who forgot that there’s separation of church and state… When Bernie Sanders said, “If you don’t vote, it’s going to affect the Supreme Court,” it did. Ooh, gosh. Hit yourself in the head! Ooh, what happened?

I don’t know about you, but I’m not comfortable with the government owning my body, telling me what I’m going to do. And there are men who get all bent out of shape because they had to get a vaccination and they don’t want to put that in their body, but you are telling women that they don’t have sovereignty over their own body, like it’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” If you are a father, do you really want your daughter to live like that? Who’s going to protect her when you are gone, if she doesn’t have civil rights and equality? You won’t be able to, unless you’re coming from the grave. … The very rich keep us divided and get you all crazy about this, while they’re underhandedly doing something on the other side. You’ve got to keep your head clear and vote every time — you have to.

I’m a big proponent of people needing hope and people have got to have redemption, and people have got to understand how they can move forward in their life creatively, happily and healthily. What else do you want? Unless you want billions of dollars to knock yourself out. I don’t. How much money do you actually need?

GIRLS JUST WANNA HAVE FUN FAREWELL TOUR DATES:

Fri Oct 18 | Montreal, QC | Bell Centre

Sun Oct 20 | Toronto, ON | Scotiabank Arena

Thu Oct 24 | Detroit, MI | Fox Theatre

Sat Oct 26 | Boston, MA | MGM Music Hall at Fenway

Sun Oct 27 | Washington, DC | Capital One Arena

Wed Oct 30 | New York, NY | Madison Square Garden

Fri Nov 01 | Nashville, TN | Bridgestone Arena

Sun Nov 03 | Columbus, OH | Schottenstein Center

Wed Nov 06 | Tampa, FL | Amalie Arena

Fri Nov 08 | Hollywood, FL | Hard Rock Hollywood

Sun Nov 10 | Atlanta, GA | State Farm Arena

Tue Nov 12 | Dallas, TX | American Airlines Center

Thu Nov 14 | Austin, TX | Moody Center

Sat Nov 16 | Houston, TX | Toyota Center

Tue Nov 19 | Phoenix, AZ | Footprint Center

Wed Nov 20 | San Diego, CA | Viejas Arena

Sat Nov 23 | Los Angeles, CA | Intuit Dome

Sun Nov 24 | Palm Desert, CA | Acrisure Arena

Tue Nov 26 | San Francisco, CA | Chase Center

Sat Nov 30 | Portland, OR | Moda Center

Sun Dec 01 | Seattle, WA | Climate Pledge Arena

Wed Dec 04 | Minneapolis, MN | Target Center

Thu Dec 05 | Chicago, IL | United Center

Cyndi Lauper on Her New Doc, ‘Let the Canary Sing,’ and Meaning It When She Says Farewell Tour: ‘I Want to Do Something Great… and Then Say, Bye, That’s It!’ (2024)

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