‘The Prom’ on Broadway Shows the Limitations of LGBT Stories on Stage
It’s great that ‘The Prom,’ a musical about a lesbian teen fighting back after being banned from her school prom, is on Broadway. But this feel-good story also feels too familiar.
Throughout The Prom, sporadically entertaining as it was, I felt as if I had seen each of the characters before, or at least their kind of characters. After 30-plus years of watching LGBT-themed movies, TV shows, plays, books, and musicals, The Prom’s story lines were hardy familiars too.
It’s lovely that there is a musical with a teenage lesbian coming out and falling in love in Indiana at its heart on the Great White Way (as it was to see the same in the truly original Head Over Heels), and yet The Prom is encumbered with hackneyed familiarity when it comes to characters and plot, and a broad comedy and forced brightness and lightness where at least a tinge of darkness or reality would have been more welcome.
After all, there really are LGBT teens being banned from their school proms. And, of late, there are heartwarming stories of LGBT teens going to the prom openly, with the date of their dreams on their arms. It’s the kind of news story that encapsulates very real, very lived experiences: LGBT teen isolation, bullying, prejudice, discrimination, and (hopefully, at the end of a day that shouldn’t have been this long) coming out and acceptance.
These issues, have an added urgency now: the Trump administration, with Vice President Mike Pence as its crusading avatar, is seeking to roll back LGBT equality and protections, through base discrimination (as against trans servicepeople) and sinister-sounding, undefined initiatives like the Religious Liberty Task Force.
Pence was governor of Indiana, of course. It's where he earned his anti-LGBT training wheels. The Prom doesn’t bother addressing or interrogating the wider political and cultural context of now (apart from a brief scene of media frenzy), which is strange because a teen lesbian in a red state being banned from her prom is exactly the kind of hot-button, steaming hot exemplar of identity politics to get both left and right juices going.
The musical seeks to tell a simpler tale, yet it also aims to be both satire and cultural lesson. It wants to be both small and big, but most of all easy and bite-sized.
A group of Broadway stars are all in various stages of professional freefall; two have been in a musical harshly judged by The New York Times. The stars want to glom onto something to return them to fame and public affection. They see a story online that a young lesbian is not being allowed to attend her school prom in Indiana. They decide to go to Indiana, read the riot act to the bigots, save the unfortunate lesbian teenager, and then return to glorious headlines.
There is a big-haired, me-me-me Broadway diva (Dee Dee Allen, played by Beth Leavel), a gay musical star on the skids (Barry Glickman, Brooks Ashmanskas), another (Christopher Sieber) who is a waiter whose best times were on a TV show he is ashamed of starring in, just like Justin Hartley’s “Manny” in This Is Us, and there is a high-kicking hoofer (Angie, Angie Schworer) never yet lifted out of the chorus.
This slice of The Prom, directed (and sparklingly choreographed) by Casey Nicholaw, is a fun surf through actorly vanity and ego: the stars are not monsters but opportunists, and it just so happens that this opportunism intersects with a belief in equality they all share.
In Indiana, there is the staple gay small-town teenager (Emma, Caitlin Kinnunen), the girl she fancies but can’t be together with openly (Alyssa, Isabelle McCalla), the wise black principal, Mr. Hawkins (Michael Potts), who is straight and likes showtunes and is like the wise black principal in Mean Girls, and Alyssa’s mom (Courtenay Collins), an anti-LGBT Wicked Witch—an Anita Bryant for 2018—out to ruin everyone’s fun and the musical’s commendable message of inclusion.
There are a few jangling elements here. Who is The Prom for? Presumably, as well as New Yorkers who want to see an affirming musical about an LGBT teen changing hearts and minds in small-town Indiana, it also wants to attract holiday-goers from outside New York, from red states like Indiana. Perhaps the musical’s producers know this, and want to change their hearts and minds too. Maybe they will be successful in that mission.
But The Prom sees small-town Indiana as an amorphous whole. There is no dissenting voice to Mrs. Greene’s homophobia at all. All the parents and all the children at Emma’s school are homophobic. That is not only insulting to people coming from red states to see a musical about a lesbian teen, but also unrealistic. Red states may elect homophobic and transphobic legislators, they may pass homophobic and transphobic laws, but not everyone who lives in them is homophobic and transphobic.
Will red state Broadway-goers this autumn want to come and see a show which accuses them uniformly of homophobia and bigotry? Wouldn’t it have made dramatic sense to have at least one accepting parental or other adult voice in the town, or one kid at Emma’s school not be a prejudiced asshole?
For the purposes of coming-out stories in small towns, it’s obligatory that the gay or lesbian teen is sweet, open-hearted, and ‘just like you, OK?’ I long for one small-town heroic gay teen in a pop-cultural product to be a bit annoying, to swear, fight back aggressively, joke, or have sex, or just do something other than be good, wholesome and doughty.
In The Prom, Kinnunen is a truly engaging performer and you will cheer her songs of resistance and strength. She also tries to give Emma a welcome edge to take her out of the sap territory that she has been written with.
Also, as LGBT-friendly as it claims to be, The Prom also sees lesbianism as inherently comic: it uses the tired trope of rhyming ‘lesbian’ with ‘thespian’ in one song. The musical isn’t unkind to Emma, but she is oddly sidelined and made safe—sanctified victim and hero all at once—during her own story too.
But the musical never answers the questions it sets up: Does Emma need the Broadway stars’ help? From the outside it seems like she does, but she recoils from it initially. What’s that about? A good writer may well ponder that having homosexuality so suddenly near and visible makes Emma feel scared, understandably so, so why not ask why of the character? Emma’s parents have kicked her out, and yet we meet none of her family or loved ones, or mine that drama.
Then there’s Alyssa, Emma's closeted girlfriend. The musical doesn’t know what to do with the relationship between her and her mother the kind-of-bigot, and it really doesn’t know what to do with her mother generally—stopping shy of making her out to be a bigoted monster, but not giving her and Alyssa’s story enough of a trajectory to give their final exchange as meaningful punch as it should have.
The musical has Alyssa’s mom spout prejudice in the form of carefully-worded slogans, but doesn’t interrogate her doublespeak, and doesn’t interrogate what it means to her to have a lesbian daughter. She’s an odd villain: not really that bad and eventually neutralized as a gnat-like vexation who should have more to say and do.
Leavel has fun, for sure (and we have fun watching her big-number the hell out of her diva numbers and struggle just as diva-ishly over the concept of small-town branches of ‘Applebees’ as ‘Apples and Bees’). Ashmanskas balances the camp the character has in glittering spades (but why does the musical introduce the idea of him wearing drag as if ‘of course he does’), with the touching relationship he builds with Emma.
This is the sweetest character connection in the whole show. She helps him exorcise a few ghosts of a prom nightmare of many years before, as well as the familial rejection he knows all too well. The ensemble is polished, with one particularly dazzling, stage-filling number by Nicholaw.
The message, ultimately, is positive—and that is to be welcome. it’s just sad and depressing that the story and characters have to be so simple and unchallenging to get there.
There is a lot written about the advancement of LGBT stories and characters in pop cultural genres, but this advancement shouldn’t simply be about presence.
It shouldn’t just be about bolstering numbers, and giving self-congratulatory pats on the back, as The Prom—oddly, just like as lead Broadway star characters—does. It should be about the quality of the drama and comedy the characters are experiencing, and the depth of the characters themselves. Sure, cheer the simple, feelgood purpose of The Prom, and also hope it can lead somewhere a lot more interesting.
The Prom is at the Longacre Theatre, NYC, booking through April 21, 2019.