It’s a story you’ve heard before—one that’s made headlines for discrimination and violation of a person’s rights: The prom is canceled because a female student wanted to take her girlfriend.
Most notably was the 2010 controversy, where the Itawamba County School District in Mississippi canceled the Itawamba County Agricultural High School prom when 18-year-old lesbian student Constance McMillen planned to take her girlfriend. The attendance of same-sex couples and females wearing tuxedos “violated” prom policy, and the contro quickly made headlines when the school faced lawsuits and secret proms (excluding McMillen) were organized.
Who’d think such events were a perfect match to be musicalized onstage? Tony-winning producer Jack Viertel, who enlisted The Wedding Singer’s Chad Beguelin (book and lyrics) and Matthew Sklar (music) and The Drowsy Chaperone’s Bob Martin (book) to write the new musical The Prom, which recently opened at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre and is aiming for a life on Broadway.
“It’s loosely based on a lot of [those kind of stories], actually,” explains Caitlin Kinnunen, who plays Emma, the teen who’s dating a closeted cheerleader—and plans to finally go public with their relationship at the school’s big night.
On the other end is the cheerleader, Alyssa, played by Anna Grace Barlow. “Whenever we do meet at school,” she explains, “it’s actually in the band-room closet that we’re meeting and talking. But Alyssa has definite plans to come out at the prom, and the fact that it’s been canceled—and there’s so much drama surrounding it—is upsetting because it was her plan. That’s when she was going to come out, and it’s getting foiled because of the PTA and because of the other students, but you find out that she and Emma have been together for a long time. This has been a secret relationship for over a year, so it’s high time that this happen.”
It sure is high time that a musical empowering young, same-sex female couples take the stage. The Tony Award-winning Fun Home is paving the way—but rather than a high-stakes drama like the one by Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, The Prom is told through teenage eyes with a pop-kissed score. (The ladies describe it as Hairspray-meets-Legally Blonde, with something for everyone.) And it’s hitting home with young adults.
After a performance, Barlow says, “there was a girl who came up to me and said, ‘My girlfriend’s name is Emma, and I’ve been in the closet at a Christian school for three years, and I came out and my mom was cool with it, and this was just amazing. I’m obsessed with this show.’ It’s amazing that somebody could relate to it so closely.”
Unlike the real events that happened in Mississippi, The Prom pulls from multiple stories of same-sex discrimination in high schools—and then spices it up with a slew of Broadway performers, splashy choreography (by director Casey Nicholaw), swanky costumes (by Matthew Pachtman) and a plot twist direct from New York City.
When the prom gets canceled, “these veteran Broadway performers decide that they want to do something better with their lives and make a difference in the world,” explains Kinnunen. “They find a news article about this girl who wanted to take her girlfriend to the prom, and they decided that that is their cause and that they want to go and save her. It’s about them going and helping out this girl. Shenanigans ensue, and it’s lovely.”
Tony winner Beth Leavel plays a Broadway diva named Dee Dee Alan, and Tony nominee Christopher Sieber plays a former Juilliard grad named Trent Oliver. But the heart of the story lies with Barlow and Kinnunen.
Kinnunen’s been seen on Broadway in The Bridges of Madison County and Spring Awakening, which is why she was home-schooled—so she never went to a prom before The Prom. As for Barlow, the actress attended college at Pace University before leaving the city behind for a Los Angeles-lifestyle and scoring television roles on the Disney Channel as well as Scream Queens and The Fosters. She did go to high school, but—like Kinnunen—did not attend a prom.
“I went to a high school that I didn’t love, and I was doing theatre outside of the school,” she explains, relating to the troubled teenage life her character also lives out in The Prom. “What’s funny is that while I feel like Alyssa, my character [who] is a cheerleader and would be ‘popular,’ [she] has a lot in common with my high-school self of being like, ‘These people aren’t my friends. High school is not the end-all/be-all. I’m going to do so many more amazing things with my life than this.’ I feel like Alyssa has a lot of clarity about that, so she can see past all the petty issues of high school. I know that my high-school experience was really tough for me to see past 12th grade. I was like, ‘What is going to happen? This can’t be as good as it gets! It really can’t be!’ I feel like Alyssa has that and also a little more clarity about knowing that it’s going to get a lot better.
“I didn’t ever go to prom. I was like, ‘Nope!’ … It’s funny because I get to go to prom with Caitlin every night.”
Ditto for Kinnunen. “She’s kind of my rock in the show,” she says, “and my rock in life.”
Michael Gioia is the Features Manager at Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.