Pucker Up: Why Right Now Is the Perfect Time to Attend “The Prom”

Director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw knows how to throw a party.

Will you go to The Prom with us?

Written by Chad Beguelin, Bob Martin, and Matthew Sklar, this ripped-from-the-headlines Broadway musical stars Caitlin Kinnunen as Emma, a small-town Indiana girl whose prom is canceled after she’s forbidden to bring girlfriend Alyssa (Isabelle McCalla) as her date. Enter a troupe of self-involved Broadway actors to save the day—whether the girls like it or not.

After an empowering but polarizing performance on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which featured the event’s first televised LGBTQ kiss, The Prom will dance into more homes and hearts through the show’s original cast recording, out today.

The Prom director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw, a Tony winner for co-directing The Book of Mormon, spoke to NewNowNext about why this party is imperative, now more than ever.

Walter McBride/WireImage

Hey, did you happen to catch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade?

[Laughs] I was there! It was awesome, right?

There was such a heartwarming positive response to The Prom’s performance. Did you anticipate there would also be some strong negative reactions?

I did. Of course. I haven’t read them, though, because I think it’s a waste of time, quite honestly, and it doesn’t make me happy about the world. But I’ve loved reading the positive ones. Hearing from teens who feel like outcasts, thanking us, saying how seeing people like them helps them feel like they belong, makes it all worthwhile.

Did you know beforehand that Emma and Alyssa’s kiss would be the first same-sex kiss in the parade’s history?

We did know that, theoretically. But it wasn’t until rehearsal, when I looked up at the monitor and saw it happen, that it sunk in, like, “Oh, my god, that’s going to be on TV in the Macy’s Parade!” It was thrilling. As someone who’s 56 years old and couldn’t go to my prom, to see how far we’ve come is pretty awesome. But we still have a long way to go.

Taylor Hill/WireImage

Why did you choose “Time to Dance” to represent the show? Did that kiss have anything to do with it?

Not really. Truthfully, it was because that number has all the adults and the kids in it together. Then it was like, “Oh, right! They kiss at the end!” But we were like, “You know what? Let’s go for it. If someone has an issue with it, we’ll see.” But Macy’s was completely supportive of it, and we were able to share the message of the show, which is about accepting other people no matter what. You don’t have to share the same beliefs, but just let everyone live and be who they are.

There’s a moment in the musical when the gang realizes their fight is about something bigger than a prom—it’s about right and wrong. Likewise, The Prom has become bigger than a Broadway show.

Yeah. We’re a little insular on Broadway, because people who come to the theater know what they’re coming to see. It’s a whole different thing when it’s suddenly reaching so many people.

What do you hope audiences take away from the show?

I just hope they start being nicer to each other. One of my favorite things is hearing straight people, dads, say, “This is my favorite show I’ve ever seen.” It makes me really happy.

You’ve also directed and choreographed hit shows like Mean Girls, Aladdin, and Something Rotten! But it must be a bonus to work on a show that’s inspiring important conversations.

It takes it to another level, yeah, and it sort of takes you outside of yourself. This show means so much to me. It’s a really—sorry, I’m getting emotional about it—it’s a really cool feeling. I don’t know that I expected this, because we’re just telling a story, but it’s ended up touching so many people. Yeah, it’s angering some people, too, but we’ve crafted it carefully to make sure we show both sides, because we’ve all grown up with different beliefs in different parts of the country. We don’t want to villainize anyone.

Before the kiss made history, how did you approach that big moment in the musical?

It’s funny because there’s a number near the end of Act 1, “You Happened,” when the girls find out the prom is back on and that they’re going to go together. It made sense that they would kiss at the end of that number, so we did that in rehearsals, but I worried it would take away from the kiss at the end. Before we started performances, I said, “Let’s not do that kiss.” I think it means more when you have to wait two-and-a-half hours for that moment, when they finally kiss with the whole company onstage.

It’s crazy that such a beautiful moment could still piss so many people off.

It feels like there’s more hate out there these days, so The Prom is more important than ever. We’ve been working on the show for seven years. It felt relevant when we first started, then it felt a little dated, back and forth, and now it feels like the show is happening on Broadway at just the right time. It needed to happen now.

The Prom/Deen Van Meer

In other words, “Thanks, Trump.”

[Laughs] Well, don’t put those words in my mouth! But that certainly has helped with the show’s relevancy.

What first attracted you to the project?

I thought it was such an interesting, original idea. It just sounded really fun. It’s satirical, and I loved the idea of taking a serious subject with heartfelt moments and adding so much humor with the plight of the Broadway celebrities. I love to make people laugh and suddenly have them go, “Wait, why am I crying?”

Barry, Brooks Ashmanskas’ gay character, laments the fact that he couldn’t go to his own prom. Did you relate to him?

Yeah, when Matt and Chad wrote “Barry Is Going to Prom” for Brooks, that song wrecked me more than anything else because I related to it so much.

The Prom/Deen Van Meer

In a way, though, now you’ve finally gone to your prom, too.

Oh, totally. Well, I actually went to, like, 20 proms in high school, because I was a safe date for every girl I was friends with. I just never got to go with a guy.

In addition to the lesbian love story, the heart of The Prom is the unlikely friendship between Barry and Emma—that rare bond between an aging gay actor and a lesbian high schooler.

Right? [Laughs] The role of Barry was written for Brooks knowing he would be hysterical, but as the show started progressing, we realized that what also makes Brooks so special is his emotionality. He has a flamboyant sensibility, but he’s able to go deep and be really human. That became clearer after the first reading, and that’s when we started building up that friendship between Barry and Emma. That wasn’t the original intention, but that’s the fun of an original show, because you don’t always know where it’s going to go.

I’ll admit I was relieved to learn The Prom had a gay director. Do you feel your experiences as a gay man inform your direction and make you a good fit for certain shows?

Yes, absolutely. Of course. But there could’ve also been a straight director who just really connected to this material. I think it’s about passion. If you’re passionate about something, if you can find a way in, it will work. Like, I don’t really need to do a musical about football.

The Prom/Deen Van Meer

The Book of Mormon and Mean Girls opened on Broadway with gay actors in the gay roles: Rory O’Malley as Elder McKinley and Grey Henson as Damian. But The Prom’s Caitlin and Isabelle identify as straight allies. What’s your take on the push to cast LGBTQ actors in LGBTQ roles?

I understand it can seem like a better fit when actors have actually lived their characters’ experiences. But I think it’s really just about heart and sensibility. I totally believe that Caitlin and Izzy are gay on stage because their love for each other as friends is so palpable.

Some of these characters could have easily become caricatures—a butch lesbian and flaming queens. Was that on your radar as a director?

Every step of the way. I wouldn’t want to be portrayed as some lisping, limp-wristed person just flitting around on the stage. It’s the most important thing to me for these to be full-fledged characters, so I made sure every single actor stayed grounded. I drilled that into them, actually. Because if it’s not truthful, if it starts getting campy or cartoony, it’s not going to have the same emotional impact.

“Reel it in, honey.”

That’s basically what I have to say, yeah. [Laughs] But with people you’ve known for a long time and worked with before, nobody takes it personally. I can say, “I know it’s really tempting to go further with this… but don’t.”
 

The Prom is now playing at the Longacre Theatre in New York. The Original Broadway Cast Recording is out December 14.

Celebrity interviewer. Foodie and Broadway buff in Manhattan. Hates writing bios.
@brandonvoss