In theatre, timing is everything. Broadway nerds like me received a master class in this old adage a few weeks ago when FX’s remarkable limited run series “Fosse/Verdon” revealed that the now-iconic Broadway musical “Chicago,” Gwen Verdon’s long-gestating pet project with husband/choreographer/director/chief cad Bob Fosse nearly closed during its Broadway debut in 1975. That was, until Verdon accidentally ingested a feather during the finale one night and Liza Minnelli slipped into her Roxie Hart stilettos until Verdon recovered from throat node surgery.
Critics had complained the show about two 1920s show girls turned celebrity murderesses was “cynical and subversive.”
But “Liza with a Z’s” guest star turn in the role goosed ticket sales and created enough attention to keep the show open for another two years. Still, Michael Bennett’s smash hit “A Chorus Line,” debuting that same Broadway season, snatched the buzz, the ticket sales and the Tony Awards that year.
Fast-forward to 1996.
The Broadway revival of “Chicago,” staged in the wake of NFL star/actor OJ Simpson’s “trial of the century,” became a sensation, snagging rave reviews, six Tonys and the new record for longest running revival on Broadway.
The current Broadway hit “The Prom,” nominated for seven Tony Awards at tonight’s 73rd annual Tony Awards, which had its world premiere at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre in the fall of 2016, has enjoyed a similar societal trajectory. In reverse.
In the spring of 2016, back when Donald Trump’s presidential hopes were still being treated as a late-night TV punchline, I interviewed “The Prom” director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw and the musical’s lyricist and the show’s book co-writer Chad Beguelin about debuting in Atlanta the show they had been working on for four years.
To me, the musical’s plot — a quartet of egomaniacal Broadway stars invading Indiana to defend the civil rights of a high school girl who wanted to take her girlfriend to the prom — sounded funny and quaint and, well, about five years past its expiration date.
After all, we were living in Barack Obama’s America, an America where the Supreme Court had legalized gay marriage a summer earlier. Homophobes were safely tucked back under their rocks and quivering in fear of Hillary Clinton’s campaign momentum.
I delicately broached the question of the show’s timing to Nicholaw who conceded, “I have to tell you, here in New York, people have asked me, ‘Is that really relevant anymore?’ We’ve been working on this show for four years now so you begin asking yourself that question as well. But as it turns out, it is still completely relevant. Every time we start doubting it, there’s another story in the paper. This year, it was the girl who got kicked out of her prom for wearing a tux. For us, it’s about keeping the humanity of the piece, about a high schooler coming to terms with who she is. Everyone goes through that in high school, whether it’s about being gay, being a misfit or being a geek.”
Added Beguelin: “I’ve never felt that the moment had passed on this because I hear stories of discrimination every single day. Even if it becomes a metaphor for some other kind of social injustice, the show stands on its own.”
I saw the show on opening night in Atlanta and I cried. I saw it again when I chaperoned a group of teen theater journalists to a Saturday matinee and I cried some more. “It’s not a big political piece as much as it’s a musical comedy,” Beguelin had told me. “It’s not homework. It’s done with humor and heart.”
The show’s brilliance revolves around the very funny skewering of Broadway blowhards, tempered against the earnest honesty of high schooler Emma, who just wants to share a dance in public with the person she loves.
“Being gay and having gone through that myself in high school, feeling like you’re on the outside, I can relate to her character a great deal,” Beguelin told me. “It’s a different time now, but those emotions and feelings are universal. There’s a song in Act One that Emma sings, ‘Dance With You’ that has a very simple message but it’s one of the show’s most heart-felt songs. It’s hopefully that moment when the audience gets on her side. Then there’s a song in Act Two called [‘Barry is Going to the Prom’] written for Brooks Ashmanskas who plays Barry Blickman, one of the Broadway characters. He’s very outrageous. You realize he has a lot in common with Emma. It’s an explosion of joy and emotion.”
Added director Casey Nicholaw of the show’s satirical secret weapon: “Because [the show’s Patti LuPone-esque Broadway diva] Dee Dee Allen and Barry Glickman are ‘Broadway celebrities,’ they think they’re national celebrities when nobody really cares about them outside of Manhattan. They don’t see past their own little world until they’re thrust into Emma’s.”
“The Prom’s” Atlanta world premiere also boasted Tony winner Beth Leavel as Dee Dee Allen, Ashmanskas as Barry Glickman, Caitlin Kinnunen as Emma and Christopher Sieber as non-Equity actor and cater waiter Trent Oliver, all of whom were retained for the Broadway production. Leavel, Kinnunen and Ashmanskas are all up for Tonys tonight as is the show for Best Musical, Best Original Score, Nicholaw for Best Direction of a Musical and Best Book for Beguelin.
Over the past 20-plus years, the regional Tony-winning Alliance Theatre has served as the creative incubator for many shows that have ended up on Broadway. I’ve been in the audience for many of them.
In 1999, I snuck into a dress rehearsal for Elton John and Tim Rice’s “Elaborate Lives,” the show that would become the Tony-winning “Aida.” Despite a million dollar Disney Theatrical financed malfunctioning robotic pyramid that seemed to spew hydraulic fluid onto the stage nightly, I came back five more times because of the music and the performances from future Tony winner Heather Headley and future Broadway star Sherie Rene Scott. In 2004, I felt deflated walking out of the world premiere of “The Color Purple” but I recognized the possibilities of the show. Meanwhile, at the intermission of “Sister Act” in 2007, I closed my reporter notebook, promptly ordered a martini and waved away the ushers attempting to beckon me back inside for Act Two.
But walking out of “The Prom” at The Alliance Theatre, for the first time I remember thinking, with a few tweaks, the creative team could have the musical up and humming on Broadway within a matter of weeks. The funny and poignant book was solid, the songs were hysterical and heartfelt and the main cast, already in place, was note-perfect.
The only thing missing? The show’s timing was catastrophically off. We didn’t simply need this show anymore. People could get gay married in all 50 states. A black man had been elected president. The first woman was about to become president.
And then Donald Trump won. And the Trump White House instituted a military ban on trans soldiers. And white supremacists showed up in Charlottesville with tiki torches and counter-protestor Heather Heyer was murdered by a white supremacist. And now, the Trump administration is attempting to roll back protections for gay and lesbian couples who are trying to adopt children through federally funded adoption care agencies.
The homophobes weren’t just back out from under their rocks. They had been elected Vice President of the United States.
It was against this societal backdrop that “The Prom” debuted at The Longacre Theatre on Broadway last fall.
Still, I held my breath, thumbing through the Sunday New York Times until I saw the paper’s review — in 20-point type across a two-page ad in the Arts section: “A joyous hoot. ‘The Prom’ makes you believe in musical comedy again.”
Like the Broadway revival of “Chicago” 22 years earlier, the show hadn’t changed, just the world around it.
On Sunday night inside Radio City Music Hall, “The Prom” will need all of its heart and humor to beat “Hadestown,” the odds-on favorite to win Best Musical. There’s also growing buzz for the screen to stage musical adaptation of “Tootsie,” another competitor in the category.
But whether or not “The Prom” takes home Tony’s biggest prize, the show has already achieved something far greater — making marginalized LGBTQ teens across the country the stars and the heroines of the first Broadway musical where they feel seen and heard. The show also made history on the 2018 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade broadcast live on NBC when during its production number, Caitlin Kinnunen and Isabelle McCalla shared a same sex kiss, a first in the parade’s 94-year history.
Of his goals for the show, lyricist Chad Beguelin told me in 2016, “When the lights come up, I really hope that we’ve taken them on a ride. We want it to be funny and maybe surprise them and they’ve learned to care for the characters. It’s our job to transport them somewhere and make them feel something.”
Added director Casey Nicholaw: “I want them to laugh a lot, cry a lot, feel for the characters and maybe entertain the idea of changing or questioning their outlook. This is a show about being brave.”
If timing still counts for anything, Broadway’s bravest musical by way of Atlanta, might well take home an armload of Tonys Sunday night.
The 73rd annual Tony Awards will air live Sunday, June 9 on CBS at 8 p.m.