As my friend and I left the Longacre Theatre, he and I were both humming different parts of the same song from the exuberant new musical we had just seen on Broadway, The Prom. On the subway we talked about Matthew Sklar’s high energy pop-infused score in congress with Chad Beguelin’s clever lyrics that harken back to musical comedies of days gone by. About halfway through the conversation, I realized we had been discussing the songs by singing out the basic tunes from the score. And that’s when it hit me: My God, a musical with a hummable tune? And more than one? In this day and age?
With a book by Bob Martin and Beguelin, and direction and choreography by Casey Nicholaw at the top of his fucking high-energy game, The Prom is a joyous celebration of uniqueness that wants to be a jubilee of queerness, but never quite gets there. Which isn’t a bad thing, necessarily.
Across the board it’s a great musical comedy full of wonderful performances by a cast clearly having a blast. Brooks Ashmanskas kills as Barry Glickman, a professional narcissist – excuse me, an actor – whose latest show closes on opening night (“Eleanor: The Musical,” a stage biography, in which Barry played FDR) after a slew of bad reviews. He teams up with his Eleanor, Dee Dee Allen (Kate Marilley) to do some PR damage control through celebrity activism. With some help from Trent (Christopher Sieber), a Juilliard-and-don’t-you-forget-it graduate between gigs, and Angie (the hilariously self-aware Angie Schworer), a “leggy chorine,” they settle on their self-serving activism’s target: a high school student in Indiana who just wants to bring her girlfriend to prom.
As an aside, normally, the role of Dee Dee is played by Beth Leavel, but on the night Exeunt attended, understudy Marilley stepped in with no previous rehearsal except that afternoon’s matinee and gave a show-stealing turn.
Back to the show. On their arrival in Indiana, the actors interrupt a contentious PTA meeting where ignoramus parents don’t want their kids to “be forced to attend a homosexual prom,” that doesn’t reflect their values. Principal Hawkins (Michael Potts, in another of his endless list of moving performances) says that an inclusive prom will be more reflective of America’s values. Mrs. Greene (Courtenay Collins, in a stunning Broadway debut), the president of the PTA sees things differently, saying “This is not America. This is Indiana.” The actors burst in, naturally in song, and they’re there to get Emma (Caitlin Kinnunen) her prom night, come hell or highwater. What follows is, with the exception of the Act I finale, a fairly predictable tale of acceptance, minds changing, and hearts opening.
Bob Martin’s book is exceptionally funny, with a slew of particularly sharp in-jokes openly hostile towards the New York theater community. However, I cannot forgive a book where there are jokes about bulimia and Jewish folks being monsters. In this day and age, particularly in this political climate and with recent events at Columbia University, it feels tasteless to have these sorts of jokes distract from an otherwise well-crafted piece of writing.
That being said – what does this show want to be? Does it want to be Hairspray, which with its John Waters camp promoted its own powerful social justice message? Or does it want to align itself with Head Over Heels, an equally loving tale of acceptance? In this case, Head Over Heels and The Prom strive and ultimately fail to push their own individual queerness far enough at the risk of potentially alienating teens and their families who are both shows’ target demographics. Frankly, for a show that considers itself so L, so G, so B, so T, and so Q, the wigs in The Prom are unforgivably bad, and maybe that’s a sign that the show just isn’t quite gay enough.
Casey Nicholaw’s choreography here is stunning. His work during the Act I finale brought me to heaving tears. It’s thrilling, surprising, beautiful. I was talking to another Exeunt writer at intermission, and she and I briefly discussed how Nicholaw never seems to know how to differentiate between men and women in his heavily masculine choreography, but here, it succeeds entirely, with a payoff at the evening’s conclusion that is subtle and thrilling.
All in all, it’s a heartwarming night out. We left with heads full of earworms to hum in the shower, on the subway, on the treadmill. I just wish The Prom were a little less universal, a little less accepting of America’s values, and a bit more uncomfortably, specifically queer. There’s a conversation to be had about the commoditization of the newfound American Queer Identity on Broadway. But that’s another essay for another time. Until then, it’s exciting that a musical is on Broadway that shows its audiences that with a little bit of work we could “make people see / how the world / could one day be.”