The Book of Mormon. Something Rotten!. The Drowsy Chaperone. What do these boisterously witty, aggressively entertaining, critically lauded musicals have in common? All were choreographed and directed (or codirected, in the case of Mormon) by Tony Award winner Casey Nicholaw, who over the past dozen years has established himself as Broadway’s leading purveyor of big, brash, and entirely original musical comedies.
Add to that list The Prom, a brand-new musical beginning previews October 23 and opening November 15 at the Longacre Theatre. It reunites Nicholaw with some of his favorite collaborators. Bob Martin, who cowrote Drowsy Chaperone’s Tony-winning libretto as well as Elf’s book, crafted The Prom’s with librettist and lyricist Chad Beguelin, an alum of Elf and Aladdin. The team reunites with The Prom composer Matthew Sklar who also crafted the music for Elf.
The Prom is based on a concept by another longtime colleague, the veteran producer, and creative director and consultant Jack Viertel. “Jack called me up one day and said, ‘I have a crazy idea,’” Nicholaw recalls. “He said that there had been stories in the news about girls not being able to take girls to the prom.” This was much earlier in our decade, before the Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal throughout the country, when couples of all ages were confronting similar struggles along with glimmers of progress.
Viertel suggested that Nicholaw reach out to Martin, Beguelin, and Sklar, with whom he was working on Elf at the time. After some back-and-forth, the four decided to focus their story on a group of battle-scarred Broadway actors who, while resilient in their solipsism, “want more for their lives,” as Nicholaw puts it. “And they decide they’re going to go to this small town and help this girl who’s going through this—but end up making things worse.”
Specifically, The Prom introduces us to Emma, the Indiana high school student banned from the dance; Alyssa, the student-council head to whom Emma is linked (secretly, at first); and other local folks, who find themselves visited by a posse of well-meaning narcissists ranging from Tony-winning diva Dee Dee Allen to Trent Oliver, a Juilliard graduate who sustains an air of pomp even while serving as a cater waiter at parties.
Nicholaw’s goal, he says, was to “reconcile the tones of both stories. You’ve got the comedy of the actors, these narcissists who can seem so self-serving, and then what’s happening in the town. But eventually the actors get another message, and everybody learns something, and everybody softens a bit. The show is full of heart, in addition to being hysterically funny.”
Making it so proved an enjoyable balancing act for the director and creators. “We all have such a shorthand with each other,” Nicholaw says. “We don’t settle for anything; we keep working together as a group to get the best results.” Their camaraderie was enhanced by a decision to craft the Broadway-based characters specifically for actors with whom they also shared histories of productivity and good times: Beth Leavel and Christopher Sieber, respectively, cast as Dee Dee and Trent; Brooks Ashmanskas, who plays the long-suffering Drama Desk Award winner Barry Glickman; and Angie Schworer, the veteran chorine playing Angie, a veteran chorine.
Nicholaw, a performer himself for years, had both directed Leavel (in Chaperone, which earned her a Tony, and in Elf) and shared a stage with her (in 1992’s Crazy For You, his Broadway debut, and in a North Carolina production of Show Boat). Schworer, an alumna of Something Rotten!, worked a decade ago with Nicholaw—and Leavel, and Bob Martin—in the world premiere of the musical Minsky’s in Los Angeles.
The Prom’s younger principals were also nurtured, and in fact promoted, by Nicholaw. Isabelle McCalla, who plays Alyssa, appeared as Jasmine in Broadway’s Aladdin earlier this year, and before that was plucked from the chorus of The Prom’s premiere production in 2016, at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre. “Izzy is a strong, strong actress. Her character is afraid to make a move, to come out of the closet, and Emma is like, ‘I can’t live with that.’”
Emma is played by Caitlin Kinnunen, who “came to audition for the role of the girlfriend,” Nicholaw remembers, “but we were all like, ‘No, she has to be the lead.’ Her voice is gorgeous, and we needed someone who would gather her strength as the story moved on rather than coming off as ball-busting at the beginning. But you can see all along that she marches to her own drummer.”
Nicholaw describes The Prom’s score as “a combination of contemporary and comedic and romantic,” accommodating the differences between the town locals and the showbiz visitors, just as his choreography does. “I’ve had to study hip-hop dance, as I did for Mean Girls,” he says. He acknowledges that the social and political turbulence in recent years makes The Prom’s story “more relevant than ever,” though fans can also expect his characteristic exuberance and wackiness.
“My favorite thing is when people laugh their butts off, and are then like, ‘When did I get this tear in my eye?’” Nicholaw says. “But you can’t make that happen by manipulating people. You take the truth and heighten it, but you have to be truthful. And this show is very truthful.”