Twice Tony Award–nominated actor Christopher Sieber remembers walking to the gym one day several years ago and running into Tony-winning director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw. “And Casey was like, ‘Hey, I have something for you that was written with you in mind.’” For veteran performer Angie Schworer, it happened by the craft-services table on the set of the former NBC series Smash: “Casey looked at me and said, ‘You know, we’re writing this new show and we have this character named Angie.’”
Nicholaw was referring to a project now coming to fruition on Broadway: The Prom, a show he developed with three other old colleagues and chums. Composer Matthew Sklar, book writer Bob Martin, and librettist/lyricist Chad Beguelin, who have collectively (and often simultaneously) teamed with Nicholaw on critical and audience favorites such as The Drowsy Chaperone, Aladdin, and Elf.
For The Prom — a new original musical that follows a teenage girl in small-town Indiana whose hopes to take her girlfriend to a high school dance ignite a local scandal — the creative team enlisted veteran performers they’d also worked with, on Broadway and elsewhere, to play a posse of down-on-their-luck thespians who seize on the teenager’s dilemma as a golden public-relations opportunity and head to the Midwest.
The interlopers include Sieber’s Trent Oliver, “an actor who went to Juilliard and reminds you of that every chance he gets,” Sieber says, and Schworer’s Angie, whom the real-life actress describes as “a jaded chorus girl with a heart of gold. She’s been around, like I have. She’s been in Chicago for 20 years, not getting the part she wants” and understudying Roxie Hart. (For the record, Schworer did get to go on as Roxie when she toured with the hit revival.)
There’s also Tony winner Dee Dee Allen, played by nonfictional Tony winner Beth Leavel, who affectionately deems her character “a Broadway diva to the nth degree.” And there’s the rather less flamboyant Drama Desk Award winner Barry Glickman, portrayed by Tony and Drama Desk Award nominee Brooks Ashmanskas, who modestly describes Barry as “a little more famous and well-known than I am. He means well, and he’s funny; his sense of humor is his armor. That’s something I can relate to. ”
The four characters devise their scheme after the opening night of a new musical starring Dee Dee and Barry—Trent is working as a cater waiter at the afterparty—that closes the same evening. “It gets terrible reviews,” Leavel explains, “and Dee Dee and her comrades realize they have to do something to revive their careers. So they try to find a social cause, a cause célèbre, and decide it would be wonderful to help this young girl—that is, to help themselves get more attention. But, of course, she ends up helping them, changing them.”
What happens along the way took shape during a series of table readings and workshops in which the performers provided constant feedback to the creators. “The writers are very collaborative people, and they encouraged all of us throughout,” says Ashmanskas. Leavel notes, “Casey knows us so well—our comedy, our timing, or voices, who we are—and so do the writers.”
For Sieber, “it was insanely wonderful. They let us find things and try things over and over again, and they listened to us. And we’re old friends, so it was a blast every time.” Schworer agrees: “It was like playing with your friends. Casey has been so joyful with this project; he’s literally jumping out of his skin with joy.” The actress remembers the director at one point “doing jazz runs across the room to make everyone laugh. When he’s at the helm, you just jump on board.”
The social relevance underlying The Prom’s wacky comedy has not been lost on its stars. When the show premiered at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre two years ago, “we did talkbacks and many people raised their hands and said, ‘I get it now.’ I think we actually changed minds there.” Leavel also found the response “very emotional. You have these two different worlds in the show that end up coming together. Dee Dee meets people in Indiana who help her hold up a mirror to her soul.”
Ashmanskas notes that the musical “breeds a great deal of empathy. In the atmosphere in this country today, it’s easy to see things on the surface and judge them. I may be a gay guy from New York City and immediately have an opinion about a person from small-town Indiana, and vice versa, but what this show brings out is that it doesn’t matter who we are or who we vote for or sleep with or what clothes we wear: We’re all essentially the same.”
As Schworer sees it, “everyone in the show ends up getting something they want.” And she and her costars are cautiously optimistic that will extend to the audience. “I’m the first person to be critical of things that I’m in, though I’ve been lucky,” Ashmanskas says. “But I am so glad this piece has made it to Broadway. I know that if people come to see it, they’ll love it. This one is special.”
Pictured Above: Brooks Ashmanskas, Beth Leavel, Caitlin Kinnunen, Christopher Sieber, and Angie Schworer. Photo by Nathan Johnson, 2018.