Seven days after opening on Broadway, “The Prom“ became the little musical comedy heard ‘round the world.
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The newly-opened show from director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw was part of the block of musical performances at this past year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and those of the 23.68 million viewers who tuned into the NBC broadcast early enough witnessed a moment of history. The cast performed the show’s closing number, “Build a Prom,” and it concluded as it does in the show: with stars Caitlin Kinnunen and Isabelle McCalla sharing a kiss as their characters finally, after a show-long battle, get to go to the prom together.
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For the live parade broadcast, it was the first time it’d ever aired a kiss by a same-sex couple in 92 broadcasts.
“To make history with this show and this message of acceptance felt so special,” Kinnunen recounted in an email to GO. “We were going to reach millions of people and let them know we see them, we accept them, and there’s always a place for them in the world.”
Five months later, after a brief threat of possibly having to close early, “The Prom” is holding tough. Traditional musical comedies are being produced less frequently, having made room for a wave of the more dramatic, but it was the first show of the 2018–2019 Broadway season to receive a New York Times Critics Pick. Kinnunen, along with co-star Beth Leavel, will be eligible for Tony nominations when they’re announced on April 30 amongst “Hadetown“’s and “Be More Chill”’s.
Not only that but, at a recent curtain call, show-runner extraordinaire Ryan Murphy made an appearance to announce he will be adapting the show into a film for Netflix, calling it “one of the most uplifting, heartfelt and special musicals [he has] ever seen on Broadway.”
The show itself mirrors our reality in more ways than one. Over the past decade, especially, stories have cropped up about queer girls trying to take their girlfriends to prom, only to be told no, to be banned from the prom, or, in an extreme case, to have the whole prom canceled.
“The Prom” follows a similar extreme case: a small Indiana high school choose to cancel prom after Emma (Kinnunen) tries to bring her girlfriend (McCalla) as her date. Upon hearing the news, a group of self-absorbed Broadway actors (Leavel, Brooks Ashmanskas, Christopher Sieber, and Angie Schworer) who need to find something to make themselves appear selfless, decide to go to Indiana and intervene.
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The character of Emma feels unique to theatre. She is not looking for the spotlight, and she is not trying to change or save the world. On the surface, she’s quiet, inconspicuous, and not-yet-brave. In Kinnunen’s words, she’s “complicated and shy, independent and strong.” But, by the end of the show, she saves herself, goes to prom, and gets the girl.
The show has had a long life, having brewed for over three years with runs at Alliance Theatre in Atlanta and a lab presentation last January that brought co-producer Jane Dubin on board.
“I started to laugh, do a little toe-tapping to the music and before I knew it, I was crying. And that was the moment I knew,” Dubin tells GO.
When I saw “The Prom” a few months back, it felt like a beacon in the midst of chaos. Much of theatre does, but we’re not in a particularly funny time in history, and “The Prom” is a rare instance of a show in recent years that has made me cry from laughter, cry from joy, and cry from sadness within its runtime, before stepping back onto the street into reality. (Across the street at the moment plays Hadestown, so, currently, leaving “The Prom”’s home at the Longacre Theatre literally feels like stepping into Hell.)
It’s also one of few LGBTQ-centric new shows—there have been several revivals, including “Torch Song,” “Angels in America,” and “The Boys in the Band”—that have made it to Broadway since the 2016 presidential election. Others include the late jukebox musical “Head Over Heels,” a show that not only starred a queer female character—and a non-prototypical one, at that—but may have a run at being Broadway’s queerest show, featuring a rendition of “Vacation” by The Go-Go’s set on Lesbos and a non-binary oracle, played by Peppermint.
The show also received its setting of small-town Indiana, according to lyricist Chad Beguelin, due in large part to former Indiana governor Mike Pence, who has a somewhat contentious relationship with Broadway after his trip to “Hamilton” in 2016 turned sour. Pence received a plea for humanity from the show’s cast, followed by an attempt by MAGAites to boycott the Tony, Pulitzer, and Grammy-winning international hit musical.
That, in itself, is a welcome surprise. It’s easy to talk and write about queerness in urban and coastal areas, but, according to a new study, up to 20 percent of LGBTQ people live in rural communities nationwide.
The point is—as it is in the show when Emma performs her climactic song, and as it was when millions saw the Macy’s Parade performance—that it’s about seeing yourself reflected on the stage.
“The most exciting part was how many individuals were moved by seeing themselves represented and in such a positive way,” Dubin tells GO. “There certainly is an added resonance to this story in this climate, but there is never a bad time to tell a story about tolerance, and acceptance, [and] about finding our similarities instead of focusing on our differences.”
Queer representation is, thankfully, not a rarity in the theatre; the history of LGBTQ-centric shows and LGBTQ actors has been well-documented, surviving through the worst periods of theatrical drought and communal tragedy. Though Broadway is unabashedly queer, that pride is usually reserved for queer men. Despite shows like “Falsettos,” “Rent,” and “The Color Purple” where queer female characters are supporting roles or co-lead roles, it’s more of an anomaly to have a queer female character be the starring role. The most notable is “Fun Home,” the adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir that garnered 12 Tony nominations and won five (including Best Musical) in 2015. While, yes, that does have its flashes of hope, most of these stories feel like they’re more for catharsis than for hope.
“The Prom” feels a little different. It’s a love story with a happy ending and an ordinary protagonist in a traditional dance-heavy musical comedy—in the middle of a political war. The cast is not taking that for granted.
“A lesbian love story that ends with a happy ending is a hard thing to find right now,” Kinnunen tells GO. “It’s exciting that we get to bring these honest and grounded characters to life and that, in the end, they get to be happy. Everyone deserves that.”
In the climactic scene of “The Prom,” Emma’s song goes viral, and queer teens all over the nation post their reaction videos online in appreciation of finally feeling seen. Five months ago, as I sat crying over that parade performance, all I could think about was how much pre-out, 14-year-old me in the middle of nowhere, grasping at anything even subliminally queer in representation needed that performance—dare I say, deserved it.
In a time where hope can be hard to find, “The Prom” is there to make you feel a little braver.
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