As a goth theater critic whose everyday wear includes a skull-and-rose headdress and lots of black velvet, most people—particularly me—assumed Beetlejuice or Hadestown would end up being my favorite Broadway musical this season. I was as shocked as anyone that The Prom is the show that melted my cynical heart, especially since I never even went to mine in high school.
But in a world that seems more dispiriting by the hour, watching The Prom feels like mainlining joy. No, it’s not groundbreaking or edgy or dark or angry; it’s a traditional musical comedy about one of the most urgent issues today: the need for people to talk to one another. I’ve seen it twice now and can honestly say that both times I laughed, I cried, and found it way better than Cats*.
Loosely inspired by the real-life story of a lesbian in Mississippi who fought to bring her girlfriend to prom, the musical follows four narcissistic Broadway performers who, for their own self-aggrandizement, invade an economically depressed Indiana community to help a gay teen, even though the last thing she craves is the spotlight. Instead of satirizing small-town small-mindedness, which might have been the obvious choice, creators Bob Martin, Chad Beguelin, and Matthew Sklar target the myopia of elitist urbanites and get in plenty of hilarious digs about the self-importance of the theater industry.
While there have been plenty of drag queens and gay men in musicals, when’s the last time you saw a lesbian couple profess their feelings in song on Broadway?
The performers playing the interlopers are essentially sending up their own careers. Tony winner Beth Leavel plays Dee Dee Allen, a self-involved, Tony-winning diva of a certain age who wields her belt like a weapon. Seasoned scene-stealer Brooks Ashmanskas plays perennial second banana Barry Glickman, who’s so desperate to impress that he totes around his Drama Desk Award. (Don’t know what that is? Don’t worry—few do!) Olsen twin sitcom vet Christopher Sieber is Trent Oliver, a Juilliard grad–waiter, who’s best recognized for his stint on an inane TV comedy, and perpetual chorus girl Angie Schworer is Angie, a perpetual chorus girl. But you don’t need to be able to get these in-jokes to appreciate the humor. These egotistical archetypes will be recognizable to anyone who’s ever watched five minutes of an awards telecast.
But The Prom would quickly grow tiresome if it were just two and a half hours of over-the-top camp. When the solipsistic quartet and their clueless publicist hit the Hoosier State, the tone shifts and the focus expands, as out Emma (the effortlessly sincere Caitlin Kinnunen) and her closeted girlfriend Alyssa (Isabelle McCalla) fight the PTA, their parents, peers, and own personal fears in the name of love. Admittedly, on Broadway, celebrating LGBTQ acceptance may seem like crooning to the congregation. But while there have been plenty of drag queens and gay men in musicals, when’s the last time you saw a lesbian couple profess their feelings in song on Broadway? Fun Home and Rent are pretty much it.
Even a jaded old theater warhorse like me sees how this show—on the road, on Netflix, and, yes, even on Broadway—has and will make a difference.
Plus, The Prom reminds us that New York City isn’t like the rest of America—hell, it’s not even like the rest of the state. The majority of the show takes place in Indiana and illustrates what even modern-day LGBTQ youth are up against. No wonder director-writer-producer, gay activist, and Indiana native Ryan Murphy recently brought 500 LGBTQ teens to see the show, then announced he’s turning it into a Netflix movie. Opening hearts and changing minds, one love story at a time, is the only way to win this civil rights war.
Even a jaded old theater warhorse like me sees how this show—on the road, on Netflix, and, yes, even on Broadway—has and will make a difference. As the mom of a pansexual teen, I enjoyed watching my kid see herself reflected onstage. (For the record, Be More Chill was her favorite musical this season, but The Prom was a close second!) And I’ve heard through an acquaintance who’s one of The Prom‘s producers that the cast and creatives regularly receive messages from young people saying, “I’m here with my mom/dad/sibling, etc., and they don’t know I’m gay. The show is giving me the strength to tell them” or “Their response to this show is giving me the comfort to be able to come out.” It’s a good reminder that not everyone who sees The Prom is already a member of the choir. Instead of attacking the intolerant, the musical goes after bigotry by cleverly deconstructing the ignorance that fuels homophobia and showing that love is love is love. The message may seem simple and maybe even overused, but in such a polarized age, it’s a positive way to spark perspective-changing conversations—much more than pissed-off social media posts.
And it’s funny! Personally, I found it such a relief to laugh at a production again, and not in the oh-my-God-how-is-this-even-happening way I do when watching late-night talk shows. I laughed so hard I was actually in pain.
Although The Prom received seven Tony nominations, including one for Best Musical and actor/actress nods for Ashmanskas, Kinnunen, and Leavel, I expect it to go home empty-handed come June 9. I suspect Hadestown will win most of the big ones—and I get it. It’s brilliantly staged and passionately performed and oh so dark and brooding. But right now, that’s not what my soul craves. That’s why I’ve become one of The Prom‘s biggest evangelists. In a depressing era, it’s the perfect mix of hilarity, heart, and hope.
* To be clear, I’ve loathed Cats ever since I saw it at age 12.