Back when celebrated director Casey Nicholaw was working on the 2010 Broadway musical Elf, he approached members of his creative team with something one of them, composer Matthew Sklar, describes as “the spark of an idea” for an entirely original musical.
“There were all these stories at the time about same-sex couples wanting to attend their school proms,” Sklar recalls. “And we thought, ‘What if a few crazy Broadway actors decided to try to help one of these kids, but they wound up coming in like bulls in a china shop?’”
The first seeds for The Prom were planted by longtime producer, theatre owner/operator, and creative director/consultant Jack Viertel, who reached out to Nicholaw after reading one such story. Viertel suggested the director confer with Sklar and Elf’s other creators: librettist Bob Martin (who worked with the late Thomas Meehan on Elf’s book) and Chad Beguelin, who would write the lyrics and, with Martin, cowrite the book for Prom.
All are old friends and collaborators: Martin had also worked with Nicholaw, as a writer and actor, in the acclaimed musical comedy The Drowsy Chaperone, and Beguelin had joined the director as a contributor to Aladdin.
For The Prom, the collaborators got to channel their collective flair for sharp wit and broad wackiness into a subject — drawn not from a popular film or brand, like other new musicals arriving on Broadway this season, but from an original concept inspired by real events — worthy of serious reflection. “It’s not only really original, but really of-the-moment,” Beguelin says.
“It’s definitely a political show, but it’s first and foremost a comedy,” says Martin — a comedy that’s “very much tuned to the zeitgeist, because the idea of activism is present in a way that it hasn’t been for a while. The show deals with that in a comic way, so that you ask, ‘What can I do to make a difference?’”
There were moments when Prom’s creators believed its topicality might be waning. The story, inspired by several incidents, follows a high school student in small-town Indiana whose wish to take her girlfriend to the big dance is so controversial that the PTA votes to ban the event altogether. Signs of progress in recent years — including, notably, the Supreme Court’s approval of same-sex marriage in 2015 — did not go unnoticed.
“There was a period about midway through when we thought, ‘Maybe this show isn’t relevant to the world today,’” Sklar remembers. “And then, of course, the world went crazy again.”
When The Prom premiered in Atlanta in September 2016, two months before the election of President Trump, post performance talk-backs reflected both political differences and the commonality of human experience at the core of the musical. “There were people who told us they wouldn’t have come if they’d known what the show was about, but that they were glad the two girls got together in the end,” Sklar says.
Another woman who saw the show identified herself as the mother of a lesbian, admitting she had been upset when her daughter came out. “She kept saying, ‘I was Mrs. Greene,’” Sklar says, referring to the PTA president in the show. “And now her daughter is married, and she has a granddaughter she loves.”
The creators were all keen not to reduce the small-town characters to stereotypes — and to emphasize, for both fairness and entertainment value, the silly and vain behavior of the city slickers who descend on their town, hoping to revive their own sagging careers.
“It’s a parody of the egos in the theater world, which is a great metaphor for the clueless elite of the East Coast,” Martin says. “Then you have the deeply rooted prejudices on people of the other side of the political equation. We try to be kind and cruel to both, to be even-handed. The biggest problem today is that people don’t listen to each other; this show asks us to step back and relax for a second and try to understand where other people’s opinions come from, and maybe learn a bit.”
Beguelin points out, “I’m from a small town in the Midwest that has really been struggling, and I get that. You can’t paint everyone with a broad brush. One thing we learned in Atlanta is that we had to make this Midwestern high school and town very real.” He cites Caitlin Kinnunen, the young actress cast as Prom’s teenage heroine, as central in accomplishing this goal: “She’s so honest and pure that the juxtaposition of these divas who come in” — played by veteran actors, in roles tailor-made for them — “is even more obvious, and hilarious.”
And that hilarity, and sense of joy, are as key to Prom as any other element. “Casey Nicholaw knows how to give an audience what it wants,” says Beguelin. “He can build a production number like no one else, and I think he’s outdone himself here.”
Sklar adds, “This show has really been my heart. I’m just so excited that we get to put it on Broadway, and I can’t wait for audiences to see it.”
Pictured above: Caitlin Kinnunen and Isabelle McCalla. Photo by Nathan Johnson.