For 27-year old Caitlin Kinnunen, life has been imitating art this past Broadway season. In musical comedy The Prom, Kinnunen plays Emma, a high school student in Indiana who unwittingly enters the spotlight when a group of maniacally egoistic actors from New York invade her town, determined to score good publicity for themselves by helping her (a “little lesbian”) go to the prom with her girlfriend.
The Prom opened last fall to overwhelmingly positive reviews, and, much like Emma, Kinnunen seemed to become a major star overnight — a transformation only emphasized when, during the show’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, she became one of half of the special’s first ever on-air LGBTQ kiss.
Now nominated for leading actress in a musical at the Tonys, Kinnunen stands to become even more lauded yet — but as she shared with Billboard before the awards, she’s still wrapping her mind around her whirlwind past several months.
When you took on this role, what was going through your head? Did you expect the kind of trailblazer mantle that it seems you’ve been bestowed since?
From the beginning I knew how important the character of Emma was. I fully acknowledged and took pride in the fact that this was a story that had not been told on Broadway before and needed to be told. The weight of that was with me 100% from the beginning: this is a big deal and I need to treat it with respect and honesty. She’s a real person and people relate to her. [At the same time], I’ve been playing her for four-and-a-half years now, and I think that changes and grows and kind of mutates. I’m a completely different person from who I was when I started playing Emma. Figuring out my own self, that gets worked into my portrayal of Emma. When we first started the show, Trump hadn’t even announced the idea of running for president. At times we were like, “Is this show still relevant?” It’s now even more important than when we started.
It wasn’t a foregone conclusion that this show would be such a success. So much of the Broadway audience comes from outside the blue east coast. Was there a moment you realized, ‘Our show is reaching people we didn’t think it would?’
It truly has surprised us all, the amount of support the show has gotten. We do get people who come to see the show from Indiana, from middle America, who have their minds changed from seeing the piece. When we did the show in Atlanta we had a talkback one night and this woman came up to Bob Martin, one of the book writers, and said, “I did not support gay rights coming into this show. Through seeing this show, you’ve changed my mind.” We get those audience responses. It’s amazing, to have the power to have those conversations with people and have a positive impact on them.
Did you have a sense before the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade of how landmark your performance would be? What did the reaction feel like from the inside?
It was interesting because when they first told us we’d be doing that number, I didn’t even think about it. Like “Oh, it’s the finale, the kiss is part of it, it’s not a big deal to us.” It’s a simple kiss, nothing extravagant, though it means so much in the show. It wasn’t until our rehearsal the Monday before Thanksgiving that the director came up to us and said it’s a big deal, there has never been an LGBTQ kiss on the Macy’s parade. Then it sank in: this is a big moment. The day of the parade, it was cool, we just did it, it was so exciting and so cold and it wasn’t until we got home that we saw there was some backlash, there were some people who were not there for it. But for all the people who were against it, there was 10 times that amount of support for it.
What was Tony nomination day like for you?
It was insane. I had spent the night at a hotel because I wanted to just be alone and feel my feels and be sad in my bedroom (laughs). So it was like a staycation. I woke up and watched the Facebook Live and they started right off the bat with best actor and actress and they called my name and I was shocked. So I just started sobbing in this hotel room by myself! And then I called my mom and it was lovely. Truly, I did not expect to get nominated. My plan had been to have the day to myself, order room service and watch Game of Thrones. That plan went out the window.
Why do you think this season’s more progressive shows, like The Prom, are resonating right now?
I think it’s generational. We’re finally at a point when all these kids growing up in this climate are reaching young adulthood and adulthood and are able to use their voices to speak out for good. It’s just a positive reflection on where we’re at. It’s so cool that we can finally step up and say these are the stories we want to tell.