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At This Tony-Nominated 'Prom,' The Theme Is Acceptance

May 3, 2019
Originally published on May 3, 2019 9:44 am

In the Broadway musical The Prom, a high school PTA decides to cancel the dance rather than allow two girls to attend together. The show's creators, Chad Beguelin and Bob Martin, started writing a musical eight years ago, before same-sex marriage was legalized in the U.S. They worried that the show might feel irrelevant by now — but they were wrong. The Prom just received seven Tony nominations, including Best Musical.

In the show, some out-of-towners rush to the students' defense. They're four washed-up Broadway actors — allies the kids never asked for. They're led by Dee Dee Allen, who shows up in the small Indiana town, hoping to make a name for herself as an activist.

"I think the tone and the message of this show is so special and so important right now," says Beth Leavel, who plays Dee Dee. "It's a tone of listening, tolerance, acceptance, love, being open to understanding someone you don't know."

The message is also that everyone is flawed — both the people who are intolerant and the people who rush to lecture a community that's not their own.

Beguelin based the town in the musical on his own hometown of Centralia, Ill. Factories have closed, it's hard to get a job, and "everybody's scared," he says. "It's tense, and nobody knows what the future is going to bring."

The show explores how fear fuels hatred — even the homophobic PTA parent who leads the charge is portrayed with sympathy. "It was very tempting to play her as an obvious villain and we did not want that," Martin explains. "We wanted her to be a recognizable person ... who is controlled by her own fears."

"She's motivated by wanting the best for her child," Beguelin adds. "She doesn't understand that [being gay] ... isn't a choice."

The subject matter was personal; Beguelin says lyrics for one song — about how theater can be an escape — came very easily to him. "When I was a kid ... I was called the F word all the time, I was bullied a lot," he recalls. "And what I would do to heal was I would go into my room, and I would put on a musical theater album, and I would lip sync. ... I could forget, like, the torture of walking down the hallway and being called names ... I would evaporate into this other world."

Martin says he's been heartened by the response to the show. When Prom actors performed at the 2018 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, the number included the parade's first televised same-sex kiss.

"On social media there was quite a reaction to that moment," Martin says. "There was a very small negative reaction — much, much smaller than we expected — and there was this wonderful positive reaction."

The creators look forward to the play being performed on high school stages — providing escape and healing for actors and audiences alike.

Kelli Wessinger and Dalia Mortada produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Emma is a high school student in a small town in Indiana. Just like her classmates, she's really excited to go to prom. She even has a date. But her school's PTA decides to cancel the dance - why? - because Emma's date is a girl.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADWAY MUSICAL, "THE PROM")

CAITLIN KINNUNEN: (As Emma, singing) Note to self, don't be gay in Indiana. Big heads up, that's a really stupid plan.

GREENE: So this is the premise for the breakout Broadway musical, "The Prom," which just got seven Tony nominations, including for best musical. In the show, some out-of-towners rush to Emma's defense, allies she never asked for.

They're four washed-up Broadway actors led by the self-described narcissist Dee Dee Allen, who shows up in Indiana hoping to make a name for herself as an activist.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADWAY MUSICAL, "THE PROM")

BETH LEAVEL: (As Dee Dee Allen, singing) Listen, you bigoted monsters. Just who do you think you are?

GREENE: After we saw the show on Broadway recently, we sat down with Beth Leavel, who plays Dee Dee.

LEAVEL: The tone and the message of this show is so special and so important right now - listening, acceptance, love, being open to understanding someone you don't know.

GREENE: The tone is also that everyone is flawed - in this case, people who are intolerant and also people who rush to lecture a community that is not their own. The show's creators, Chad Beguelin and Bob Martin, started writing this musical about eight years ago. That's before same-sex marriage was legalized in the U.S. They said they worried that the show would be irrelevant by now. Instead, they think the message is just right.

BOB MARTIN: Well, I mean, I think it's sending a message that is simply listen. Listen to the other party. Understand where their hate and fear is coming from - on both sides of the equation. I mean, that's, I think, the most important thing that can happen in this country today in such a divided country.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADWAY MUSICAL, "THE PROM")

ENSEMBLE: (As characters, singing) Love thy neighbor. Love thy neighbor. Love thy neighbor trumps them all.

GREENE: So walk me through. You had - you had these four self-described narcissists from Broadway in New York City arrive in a town. And they had certain assumptions. And it felt like you guys created a nuance in that community that started to emerge.

CHAD BEGUELIN: So I'm from a small town in southern Illinois, Centralia, Ill. And basically, we based the town on my hometown because everything that the principal says is true about my hometown. The factories have closed up. The prison is the only place you can get a job. It's hard to get a job there. And everybody's scared. And everybody's, you know - it's tense. And nobody knows, you know, what the future's going to bring. And so once we sort of adjusted that, it really felt like two different worlds colliding so that you have these Broadway people who come in and expect a certain thing.

GREENE: You also had the mom who was in charge of the PTA, and it felt like you really wanted to make her sympathetic in some ways, despite her what could be perceived as hate. I mean, how do you go about doing that?

MARTIN: It was very tempting to play her as an obvious villain. And - and we did not want that. We wanted her to be, you know, a recognizable person, again, who's controlled by her own fears.

BEGUELIN: It's really - she's motivated by wanting the best for her child. She doesn't understand that, you know, this isn't a choice.

GREENE: I think there was a moment that really grabbed me. It was when the principal, Mr. Hawkins, described why he loves Broadway so much. And it's an escape for him.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADWAY MUSICAL, "THE PROM")

MICHAEL POTTS: (As Mr. Hawkins, singing) My days have little glamour, writing memos, making calls and wincing at the grammar written on the bathroom walls. It's all school supplies and the budget size and wading through red tape. That's why I love the theater. It's how I escape.

LEAVEL: (As Dee Dee Allen) So theater is a distraction. Is that what you're saying?

POTTS: (As Mr. Hawkins, singing) No, a distraction is momentary. An escape helps you heal.

GREENE: And I just remember looking around the audience last night and wondering if that's what this show is. It's - I don't know. Like, you're confronting really difficult questions but making us laugh. And somehow it felt like escape was the right word.

BEGUELIN: For me, it was really easy to write the lyrics to that song because when I was a kid, I was - you know, I was called a - the F word all the time. I was bullied a lot. And what I would do to heal was I would go into my room. And I would put on a musical theater album. And I would lip sync and pretend I was Patti LuPone in "Evita," or, you know, I was Audrey in "Little Shop" - or both if it was a two-show day.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADWAY MUSICAL, "THE PROM")

POTTS: (As Mr. Hawkins, singing) We look to you in good times and bad. The worlds you create make the real ones seem less sad. The curtain...

BEGUELIN: And that - that was healing for me because I could forget all of that. I could forget, like, the torture of walking down the hallway and being called names because I would go in, and I would evaporate into this other world.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADWAY MUSICAL, "THE PROM")

POTTS: (As Mr. Hawkins, singing) ...Again. We need a place to run to when everything goes wrong, when the answer to each problem is to burst into a song. And standard rules of logic just simply don't apply when people dance in unison and no one wonders why.

GREENE: If you guys continue catching buzz and get more attention, are you worried about anything?

MARTIN: I don't know. I mean, one of the landmark moments in the development of this show was when we performed at the Macy's Thanksgiving parade, which was the first time there was a same-sex kiss between two girls. Was there ever a same-sex kiss of any kind before?

BEGUELIN: No, not in the parade.

MARTIN: Not in the parade. Well, yeah, I know they've existed before, but not...

BEGUELIN: (Laughter) Never in the world.

MARTIN: So there was - so on social media there was quite a reaction to that moment. And there was a very small negative reaction - much, much smaller than we expected. And there was this wonderful, you know, positive reaction. You know, it was a really beautiful reaction. The thing that we're most excited about is the idea of a couple of years from now, this show starting to be performed in high schools. And again, this - you know, normalizing this situation so that it isn't an issue anymore at that level. That's - that's, I think, the most beautiful gift that, you know, commercial theater can give us (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADWAY MUSICAL, "THE PROM")

KINNUNEN: (As Emma, singing) I just wanna dance with you, let the whole world melt away and dance with you. Who cares what other people say?

GREENE: That was Chad Beguelin and Bob Martin. They are creators of the Broadway musical "The Prom," which just picked up seven Tony nominations. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.