By Cady Drell
The evening I had tickets to see The Prom, the new Broadway show that’s been nominated for seven Tony awards including Best Musical, I was not really in the mood. It was the day that Alabama passed the country’s most restrictive abortion ban, just a week after Georgia passed a similarly heinous bill, and Marie Claire had been covering the news extensively. Spending the day watching the rights of women get stripped away didn’t exactly put me in the headspace for a theatrical jaunt about a small-town high school prom.
But it’s a hot ticket and I wasn’t going to skip it, so I buried the anger and sadness and walked from work over to the Longacre Theater, where The Prom has been running since November. And within a couple hours, something amazing happened: I forgot about how upset I had been. Or rather, I didn’t forget, but by the time I walked out of the theater, I felt rejuvenated and ready to keep fighting the good fight. I’m telling you: It’s a potent musical, and the perfect show for our times.
The story follows Emma, an out student from the tiny town of Edgewater, Indiana. The PTA has just cancelled the prom rather than let Emma bring her girlfriend to the dance—which has also made Emma the perfect cause célèbre for a group of self-righteous Broadway stars who bus it over to the midwest hoping to drum up some good PR. It's utterly hilarious, the twists that pop up throughout are genuinely surprising, and the resolution—including breakout song "Unruly Heart"—will make you cry.
Better still: At no point is it preachy or retro, and treats even the characters who end up on the wrong side of history with dignity and understanding.
Plenty of folks wax poetic about how important theater is. But, if The Prom can make me feel better about one of the worst news days in recent memories, it's a testament to just how vital and important the arts are at this point in history. And that holds especially true for a show that can uplift us without glossing over what’s at stake.
Of course, The Prom’s actors are the main reason it works so well. Caitlin Kinnunen, who's been nominated for a Tony for her turn as Emma, is a Broadway vet at just 27 years old after landing a role in Spring Awakening 11 years ago. She’s been with The Prom since it was just a script four-and-a-half years ago, through two labs and a run in Atlanta. “From day one, it was so impactful,” she tells me of the first time she read the script. “It was an honest story, it was real, and they weren’t making light of it. To see this teen character portrayed so realistically and honestly was great.”
“What I love about this story is that it’s so diverse,” adds Isabelle McCalla, who plays Alyssa Green, Emma's secret girlfriend and a perfectionist hellbent on placating her controlling mother, the PTA president. “Regardless of who you are, I feel like there’s somebody—some character you can connect with and relate to, and that’s your way into the story.”
On the phone with the two leads a few days after catching the show, we talked about how the news cycle made it feel like so much progress was being compromised, and how the show could serve as an antidote. “I love theater because I think when it’s at its best, it can be peaceful social activism, and that’s what our show is,” says McCalla. She explained that, as The Prom was being developed, there was a time right before the 2016 presidential election when they thought that under Hillary Clinton the show might not be as relevant a story anymore. “And then Trump won and it was more relevant than ever,” she says. “Our show has become a beacon of light and acceptance.”
“Our show is so full of love,” says Kinnunen. “The script itself is full of love and our company is full of love.” It’s that reason, she says, that it’s so wonderful to be in this production even when the news cycle is awful. “Stepping into this theater and sharing a dressing room with Izzy [McCalla] and Courtenay [Collins, who plays Alyssa's mom], they automatically surround me with love and acceptance and joy. So even if you’ve had a really crappy day, there’s something magical about this building that just turns it around.”
It’s a feeling that permeates into the audience: The show is so warm and understanding, full of such imperfect characters, that it feels like experiencing it is charting a path forward for everyone, regardless of political stance. “It helps, I think, that audience members feel like the most important thing we can do is communicate with each other and see the humanity in the person that we may have disagreements with,” says McCalla. “We are probably at our most divided time right now, and because you're able to empathize these human girls—who, all they want to do is dance together, it's not harming anybody—I think our show has the power to not only reflect the time but also get people to change their opinions.”
That’s a lofty goal for any piece of art, but there is something truly special about The Prom that makes the notion of changing someone’s mind seem less far-fetched than usual. This show represents a few hours of hope at a time when that is exactly what many of us need.
The Tony Awards air June 9 at 8 p.m. EST on CBS. The Prom is currently on Broadway at the Longacre Theater in New York City.
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