'The Prom' Is the Hysterical-Yet-Heartfelt Broadway Musical Comedy LGBTQ Youth Deserve

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Deen van Meer 
Isabelle McCalla and Caitlin Kinnunen in "The Prom"

It’s almost ironic that only a few weeks into its Broadway residence, The Prom has already become a topic of controversy. The show, written by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin, recently performed their song “It’s Time to Dance” at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which culminated in the event's first-ever televised same-sex kiss, between two of the show’s lead actresses (Caitlin Kinnunen and Isabelle McCalla).

While the majority of the online response was positive, a surprising number of conservative viewers made headlines for their vitriolic responses to the moment. The negative responses ranged from parents expressing disappointment to organizations demanding a boycott of Macy’s for attempting to “push their agenda on little kids.”

The irony comes when you examine the plot of the new musical. The Prom follows a group of narcissistic, egotistical Broadway actors attempting to earn themselves some much-needed good press by helping Emma (played by the phenomenally arresting Kinnunen), an Indiana high schooler who wants to bring her girlfriend to the prom but is denied when the PTA cancels the prom outright at the thought of a same-sex couple attending. Think Hairspray meets Bye Bye Birdie meets Dear Evan Hansen.

Those critics deriding the show’s performance at the parade might as well be stand-ins for the show’s intolerant parents, their tweets practically ripped directly from the show’s script. Some of those commenters could have even been some of the real-life parents from Mississippi who indirectly inspired the show’s plot.

But The Prom is not a show for the would-be homophobes criticizing a televised kiss. It’s for queer youth around the country and the world who feel exactly as our lesbian protagonist does -- angry, abandoned and alone. While some aspects of the show may seem somewhat heavy-handed in its attempt to deliver a positive message, the overarching themes of queer acceptance and activism still stick their landing.

Much of the reason this show works so well is thanks to the hysterical lampooning of both rural bigots and self-proclaimed “liberal elites from New York.” The show moves deftly between emotionally resounding drama and gut-busting comedy at the expense of the egotistical Broadway stars descending on a local tragedy to reinvigorate their waning public image. “We’re gonna help that little lesbian whether she likes it or not,” belts the radically fey Barry Glickman (a deliriously funny Brooks Ashmanskas).

But where The Prom excels is in its compassion and attention toward the dejected Emma, who just wants to attend her senior prom like any other teenager would. She isn’t a high-schooler interested in making a capital-S “Statement,” nor is she merely the stereotypical damsel-in-distress in need of saving. She’s a sad, angry teenager who wants to do something but feels completely powerless in a society that doesn’t care about her.

While Emma is drawn as somewhat of a cliché (“You think I drive a pickup truck just because I’m a lesbian?” she asks one of the vainglorious actors before confirming that she, in fact, does), The Prom offers up multiple different looks at queer characters for LGBTQ audiences to latch onto. Ashmanskas’ Barry practically soars with his performed flamboyance (“I’m as gay as a bucket of wigs,” he screams), while Emma’s closeted love interest Alyssa (portrayed by the magnetic McCalla) doesn’t necessarily subscribe to the flannel-wearing, pixie-cut-sporting Sapphic formula that the entertainment industry so often thrusts on lesbian characters.

Conventions are also undercut when the show’s B-plot romance is the only straight one, between unnervingly self-centered actress Dee Dee Allen (a scenery-chewing Beth Leavel) and well-meaning principal Mr. Hawkins (the ever-charismatic Michael Potts). Queer lovers are usually left to fill in the spaces between heterosexual romances with a less-than-developed storyline, but The Prom transparently subverts that norm, giving straight lovers the same treatment.

As with any Broadway show, The Prom does deal in some tidy solutions and hackneyed moral absolutes. In the Act 2 gospel anthem “Love Thy Neighbor,” self-obsessed Juilliard graduate Trent Oliver (an endlessly watchable Christopher Sieber) changes the hearts and minds of the town’s religious teens with almost impossible speed by pointing out some of the most ridiculous rules found in the Bible. Potts’ Mr. Hawkins delivers a strikingly out-of-place ode to the Power of Theater with “We Look to You.”

But even when the show partakes in the kind of performative wokeness that it so expertly satirizes in earlier scenes, it still manages to let audiences walk away feeling warm and uplifted. The show occasionally dabbles in stark realism, through talking about Emma being disowned by her parents and in a particularly realistic coming-out scene but revels in its own fantastical resolution. LGBTQ people don’t need to be reminded of the omnipresent fear that comes with being queer in 2018; they instead need a brief break from it.

In one of the show’s final numbers, “Unruly Heart,” Emma grabs a guitar and a webcam to perform an overly earnest ballad about her unchangeable sexuality, followed by a group of queer teens joining her after her song goes viral. Yes, it’s cheesy, and yes, it’s very on-the-nose. But the kind of sincerity that the song instills is more important than its inherent artistry.

Despite what some disgruntled Twitter users may say, The Prom is exactly the kind of show that young men and women everywhere should see. It doesn’t pander to or patronize them by having the adults swoop in to save the day; it shows that even when you don’t feel like it, young LGBTQ people do have the power to flip the narrative, use their voice and make meaningful change in their community.