Broadway musicals are finally starting to have more representation of lesbians, from “Head Over Heels” to“The Prom,” and it is certainly something to be thankful for.
Based on the title alone, “The Prom” may seem like yet another high school show, joining the likes of “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Mean Girls,” and the upcoming “Be More Chill” (not to mention the fact that Casey Nicholaw of “Mean Girls” is also directing/choreographing this show). But don’t be fooled, this musical is quite different: it combines a high school plot of a lesbian trying to go to prom in Indiana with a hilarious group of washed up Broadway actors trying to work a cause celebe for good press after a flop.
Seemingly, the musical (book by Bob Martin and Chad Begeulin, music by Matthew Skylar, lyrics by Chad Begulin), has a lot going on: Midwestern homophobia, teenage drama, a failed Broadway musical, angry PTA, and humor galore. Instead of this feeling like too much, it feels just right. “The Prom” is not another dramatic musical about gay highschoolers nor is it another campy show about actors, but, to quote a song from the show, “something in between.” Think “Bare” meets “The Drowsy Chaperone.”
The desperate Broadway actors include two-time Tony award winner Dee Dee Allen (Beth Leavel), her leading man Barry Glickman (Brooks Ashmanskas), their “Chicago” aging chorus galpal Angie (Angie Schworer), and Julliard actor-between-gigs Trent (Christopher Sieber). After a failed show they head to Indiana to “help” — in the most narcissistic way possible, of course — the local lesbian, Emma (Caitlin Kinnunen) who has caused a town scandal by wanting to take a girl to prom.
If for nothing else, this musical is so refreshing for its focus on female teenage sexuality, especially what that means outside of the stereotypical “coming out” narrative (don’t worry, there’s one of those too, but it’s not for Emma, is for her closeted girlfriend). To get to see the aftermath of the coming out — the bullying, the parental disowning, the day to day struggles — is something new for Broadway.
This show is giving teenage girls something to look at, finally giving young lesbians the representation they have been waiting for on the Broadway stage. Yes, we’ve already had “Rent” and “Falsettos,” but having a young girl who is still working through things can certainly be meaningful to the teens out there watching.
This performance is groundbreaking in more ways than one; the cast performed at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the song included the first ever lesbian kiss in the parade’s history. For all those watching, “The Prom” spread a message that being gay is ok and is it something that families can watch on TV on a holiday.
But back to the show: the songs are incredibly fun, catchy, smart, and energetic. The musical manages to perfectly balance comedy with a heartfelt discussion of some serious issues, like selflessness and sexuality. The six main characters (the actors, Emma, and her girlfriend) all give incredible performances.
Beth Leveal is herself a camp icon, and therefore plays one with such enjoyable ease. Although she can’t compete with the brilliance of her performance in “Drowsy Chaperone,” this certainly gives audiences all they could ask for. Brooks Ashmanskas gives perhaps one of the gayest performances yet, but manages also to tap into his character’s own difficulties with queerness and acceptance. Angie Schworer, the aging Fosse girl, is probably the funniest part of the show, her number “Zazz” is probably the best comedy tribute to musical theater choreography ever written.
At the center of everything (or more often, hiding stage left) is Emma, unhappy to be in the spotlight. Kinnunen plays her with a certain shyness, but not ready to be an icon, but willing to fight for her rights. Her vocals are strong and emotional; she gives the show the emotional core that it needs to hold its otherwise desperate parts together.
“The Prom” has almost as many musical theater jokes as “Something Rotten” or “The Book of Mormon” and will certainly make for an amazing night of inside jokes for frequent Broadway audience members. But what makes this musical so special is that it is not only a comedy, but is in an important piece of theater, a radically queer show that provides a voice, a face, and an anthem to young queer girls out there. This is the exact type of art we need to be making right now.