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Sons Can Never Really Please Their Dads

02/13/2015 10:38 am ET | Updated Apr 15, 2015
Klaus Tiedge via Getty Images

The Broadway favorite "Kinky Boots," an emotional roller coaster of a story based on the 2005 film of the same name, has gotten attention for its racy bits, musical sass, and overall very modern appeal. It's a high-energy show: There is song and there is dance. But the musical hit actually centers on an age-old, and pretty sobering, theme: the question of whether all sons are destined to become their fathers--and destined to resist that fate along the way.

The Tony Award-winning musical, now on a national tour as well, follows Charlie, a shoe factory heir who reluctantly takes over the family business when his father dies. The company is failing, as is Charlie's resolve to save it, until Lola, a drag queen in need of a sexy pair of stilettos, comes to his rescue, helping Charlie diversify (in more ways than one). Charlie and Lola are very different men. And yet in their shared desire to live out of the shadow of their fathers, they find very common ground.

Over the years, I've spoken with many sons, and their fathers, about the expectations inherent in the father-son relationship, and the questions both sides face regarding this "shadow." Namely, how much should sons want to be like, or unlike, their fathers? How much should fathers want their sons to be like, or unlike, them? And what about the idea of competition, a quality so naturally felt by most men? Do all sons want to be "better" than their fathers? Do all fathers want the same for their sons -- that they grow to be "better" -- or do they secretly, perhaps unconsciously, always want to be someone their sons can look up to in every which way?

Certainly, there is a competitive tension throughout the course of a father-son relationship, to varying degrees. That tension shifts over time as the relationship evolves, and both men grow. What's so striking about "Kinky Boots" is that this evolution -- the highs, lows, and in-betweens -- plays out over the course of a single night at the theater. Charlie's father isn't even alive anymore and yet he still feels his spirit looming over his every thought and action. But this concept isn't theatrics -- not even a little bit.

I've witnessed the power of the father-son connection in my own family, in more ways than one. My husband, who has made a name for himself in the retail business, grew up the only child of a father who worked as a button and piece goods buyer in the garment district in New York City. He will tell you that, from an early age, he strove to be better than his father, if mostly unconsciously. Despite that -- or, maybe, because of it -- he landed in basically the same field as his dad. My husband remembers his father as a man who always looked up to those who were more successful than he was. Is it really any surprise, then, that he aimed to become one such man? A man like those his own father had idolized?

I saw this again when we had a son. Alex is now grown -- and, it so happens, working in retail, with a menswear line of his own called Alex Mill. For many years, Alex resisted the notion of "following in his father's footsteps." In college, he was a White House intern and night doorman at an Ian Schrager hotel in Manhattan (near the Theater District, it so happens). Later, he spent time working as a magazine writer, in hotel hospitality, and in fashion advertising and production. He went to law school for a bit. I think the search was necessary, and it was as much a part of growing up as it was about running from his father's vocation, but to be sure: There was some running.

And when he did decide to launch Alex Mill, he had to make a choice. That his father is very well established in retail could have been a help, or it could have been a hindrance. People would pay more attention. They'd be looking to him to succeed. They'd also be looking to him to fail -- evidence that the pressure for a man to live up to his father comes from all sides: from the two men actually intimately involved, but also from the rest of the world, too. After all, we judge fathers on the merit of their sons, don't we? And often the other way around, do we not?

In "Kinky Boots," Charlie and Lola both wonder whether they can ever please their dads enough, and I think most men would relate. Eventually, both characters get over this feeling, as do most non-fictional sons. That's part of growing up, and becoming your own person, and it's an occasion both happy and sad, this separation and individuation. This "living up," however it manifests itself.

Which, of course, makes for great theatrical fodder, if fodder based entirely in real life. Like with Alex. It may have taken him a while to realize, or accept, what his true calling was. But realizing it -- and, more poignantly, realizing it on his own -- was essential. Do all sons turn into their fathers? No. Also yes. Either way, like it is for Charlie, the father is always there, in one way or another.