From “Spamalot” to “The Book of Mormon,” Broadway director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw has been creatively involved with some of the most beloved musicals of a generation. Still, he said his most recent hit, “The Prom,” struck a deeper nerve than many of his earlier shows.
“I’m a 56-year-old man who wasn’t able to go to his prom with a guy,” the 11-time Tony Award nominee told HuffPost. “I would never have been able to entertain it.”
Though “The Prom” is very much a comedy, its plot couldn’t feel more topical amid America’s current political divide. The musical follows Emma (played by Caitlin Kinnunen), a lesbian high school student who is banned from bringing her closeted girlfriend, Alyssa Greene (Isabelle McCalla), to the prom in Edgewater, Indiana.
After Emma’s dance debacle becomes national news, it catches the eye of four out-of-work Broadway actors (Christopher Sieber, Brooks Ashmanskas, Beth Leavel and Angie Schworer). The performers hatch a plan to travel to conservative Edgewater to rally on Emma’s behalf, but their involvement is rooted in the hopes of boosting their own showbiz relevance.
With its hot button, straight-from-the-headlines themes, “The Prom” has been one of the 2018-2019 season’s breakout hits, scoring seven Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical and Best Direction of a Musical for Nicholaw. In April, television mogul Ryan Murphy announced plans to adapt the musical as a film for Netflix.
Days ahead of the Tony Awards, HuffPost spoke with Nicholaw about his feelings on the success of “The Prom,” its early-run controversy and what he’d like the legacy of his show to be.
Given the social strides that the LGBTQ community has made in recent years, it’s easy to forget that a lot of kids still can’t attend their prom with same-sex dates.
Yeah, it really is. It’s funny because it was really relevant when we first started working on the show [seven years ago], and then we thought, “Oh, my gosh, maybe this isn’t a story anymore,” and then it became a story again. It feels like it’s just the right time. It may not have caught on or resonated as much as it does now if it had happened two, three years ago.
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“The Prom” is nominated for seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Direction of a Musical.
What tested you most about the show?
Honestly, it was about getting the tone right. We were trying to make sure that all sides of the story were represented.
There was some controversy early on when the show performed at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and the number concluded with what was reportedly the event’s first-ever same-sex kiss. Was there ever any concern it would be an issue?
No one said a word about it, and it wasn’t until we were rehearsing it in the street in front of Macy’s at 10 p.m. on the Monday night before the parade that I was like, “Oh, my God, this is huge!” I suddenly just started bawling, because [I thought], “Look what we’re doing on national TV!” It was incredible.
It was a statement. There’s always going to be people who disagree with it. I just thought it was the coolest thing ever, really, that we’re able to do a musical comedy and we’re able to get people talking and get people thinking, and also that we’re able to move so many people.
For as much hate as there was, there was so much more outpouring of love — so many kids saying, “This has made such a difference, to be able to see myself up there,” and parents, too, saying, “This has been so great for my daughter or my son.” That, to me, is the coolest part of it all.
Deen van Meer
The musical stars Caitlin Kinnunen, right, and Isabelle McCalla as a same-sex teen couple banned from attending their prom together.
Right now, you have four shows running on Broadway: “The Book of Mormon,” “Aladdin,” “Mean Girls” and “The Prom.” Would you say there’s a common denominator among them?
I think it’s a buoyant sense of energy ― a sense of joy. They all lean heavily on the dance side as far as moving things along.
What are your plans for Tony Awards night?
I’ll probably just relish the day, rehearse in the morning … then I’ll probably go home, maybe take a nap. Chill out, then maybe have a little Champagne or something beforehand to mark the occasion and go.
Are there things you’re hoping to achieve in your directorial career that you haven’t so far?
I just want to keep doing what I’m doing, to tell you the truth. I want to direct things that appeal to me, that seem exciting, challenge me or move me in a different direction. It really just depends on what the stories are, and if I feel like I want to tell them or I’m the right person to tell them.
Sean Zanni via Getty Images
Nicholaw, right, with his husband, Josh Marquette.
Ultimately, what do you hope the legacy of “The Prom” will be?
Well, I just hope it will give a lot of people courage, and that the teens who see it are able to have the strength and the permission to be who they are and be comfortable with who they are. [I also hope] it will reach parents as well and have them be present, talk to their kids and love them, basically.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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