How Broadway Musical 'The Prom' Tackles Discrimination Against LGBTQ Teens
“No one is talking about the hate."
Across the United States, LGBTQ teens have faced immense hurdles in order to live out everyone’s high school dream: going to the prom.
Whether it’s a lesbian student barred from wearing a tuxedo or a gay student prevented from dancing with his boyfriend, discrimination against LGBTQ high school students has, on multiple occasions and in various ways, reached a boiling point at the prom.
Now, these controversies will soon be center stage on Broadway, when a new musical comedy, “The Prom,” takes on this national celebration of adolescent coupling as its subject.
The musical, written by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin, is set to premiere on Broadway in November, just days after the 2018 midterm elections, which could have a big impact on policies affecting LGBTQ communities.
The musical uses humor, song, dance, and heart to sound out a call for unity amid difference, love over hate, and acceptance of all people, no matter where they live or who they love.
“The Prom” takes place in a fictional, post-industrial Indiana town, but it’s based on real events, according to writers Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin, who spoke with Global Citizen.
After a young lesbian girl, Emma, is barred by her high school’s parent teacher association (PTA) from taking her same-sex partner to the prom, she files a discrimination case in court with the support of the school’s principal, Mr. Hawkins. The controversy gets picked up by various national news sources and catches the eyes of four Broadway stars who are looking for a cause to support and a little publicity along the way. They head to Indiana to be activists for Emma’s cause (and, in the process, jumpstart their floundering careers).
Along with the over-eager Broadway stars, who know nothing about activism and everything about self-indulgence, Emma must navigate the turbulent national political conversation that she finds herself at the center of — and show the country, and her community, why she deserves to go to prom just like any other student.
“[The musical] was inspired by several incidents involving this kind of prejudice and exclusion, all revolving around the prom,” Martin told Global Citizen.
The musical was written and trialled before the 2016 election, and, for a time, the writers worried that it may lose its relevance because of the progress made in recent years to extend protections to LGBTQ students — and the evolution of the national discourse surrounding LGBTQ issues.
“We thought the politics had changed to the degree that we thought maybe people wouldn’t be interested in seeing this anymore,” Martin said. “But unfortunately politics have taken a very dire turn, and we think that it’s more relevant than ever now.”
The musical, Beguelin noted, is not just an indictment of the bigotry and prejudice of members of the PTA and the Indiana community, but also of the elitism — and naiveté — of the Broadway stars whose own assumptions about the situation blind them to the harsh realities of the Indiana town.
“It’s two different worlds coming together, and it asks that question, ‘Why are we afraid of the unknown?’” Beguelin said.
If there’s a theme that plays out most drastically throughout the performance, it’s the lack of dialogue across difference. This much is made clear in one powerful line spoken by the protagonist, Emma: “No one is talking about the hate.”
“The Prom,” according to Martin, is about “listening and educating yourself as to the root causes of these situations.”
“I believe what we also deal with in this show is looking inward and asking where your own prejudices come from,” he said.
These internal struggles are given depth through powerful solo performances, including by Emma, played by actress Caitlin Kinnunen, just before intermission.
“In a song you can really explore somebody’s inner thoughts in a way that you really can’t just through speaking,” composer Matthew Sklar told Global Citizen. “We use the songs and music to present production numbers that are entertaining, but that also have an emotional component, as well.”
Although the characters in the musical ultimately do bridge some of these divides — through song and dance, and, of course, listening — the same can’t be said, at least not yet, in the real world.
Human Rights Watch categorized 17 attacks by the Trump-Pence administration against LGBTQ communities in the United States in 2017 alone, including revoking protections for transgender students, removing sexual orientation and gender identity from the 2020 US census, and attempting to ban transgender soldiers from serving in the military.
The Trump administration has, as of yet, also neglected to acknowledge Pride Month, celebrated each year in June.
The producers of The Prom believe that by bringing this story to Broadway and sharing it through music and humor, the show’s message will have a real impact on audiences of all ages.”
“I think we are telling a very important story and sending a very important message, but in a way that’s really, truly entertaining,” Sklar said. “I’m excited to share that experience because I think that it’s a great way to get people involved and motivated to do something, and have a great time as well.”
Global Citizen campaigns on the Global Goals for Sustainable Development, and reduced inequalities is Goal 10. You can join us and take action here.