Why is everyone in Ohio doing The Prom?

Posted April 17, 2024 in Articles

Author: Ken Schneck

From Cleveland to Medina to Ashtabula, the musical is flourishing with audiences and actors alike. We set out to determine why.

By Ken Schneck (He/Him), Editor, The Buckeye Flame

Giovanni Conti sat in the front row of Cleveland’s Near West Theatre, leaning in towards the action on the stage.

It was two weeks before the show’s opening night, and the 19-year-old Seven Hills actor was not part of the scene that was being rehearsed. He could have been backstage relaxing, but he preferred to be right where he was sitting, taking in every moment.

“This show is just important,” Conti said.

Although he has acted in multiple shows previously, Conti said he’s never had a theater experience like this one: inclusive, accepting and affirming.

Such is life within The Prom, currently one of the most regionally produced musicals in the United States.

According to Theatrical Rights Worldwide (TRW) – the licensing company that approves productions of The Prom – the musical has been produced over 550 times across 46 states in the mere 18 months it has been available for licensing.

“It’s in the top 10,” said Catherine Macleod Daigle, director of amateur licensing at TRW. “And the number of productions are increasing.”

But why? What is it about The Prom that has inspired productions all across Ohio?

We tied our bowties tight and donned our most ornate corsages to find out.

From Broadway to Ohio

On paper, The Prom looks like a critical mixed bag.

The show made it to Broadway as so few shows do, but closed after less than a year and did not recoup its investment. Despite being nominated for a host of awards and claiming the prestigious Drama Desk award for “Bests Musical,” The Prom went home empty-handed at the 2019 Tony Awards. A 2020 Netflix film adaption created legions of new fans, but the movie nets a lackluster 54% on Rotten Tomatoes, with James Corden’s performance of a gay actor in the film garnering almost universal disdain, described as stereotypical, insulting and painful.

But on regional stages, the show has found a solid and ever-expanding sense of home, including here in Ohio.

In 2022, the Akron School for the Arts became one of the first two high schools in the country to debut The Prom, resulting in a prestigious invitation to perform at the 2023 Ohio State Thespian Festival. In 2024, the musical is being staged from Cleveland to Ashtabula to Medina, in settings both urban and rural, perhaps a surprising feat given the show’s content.

The story of The Prom is focused on four Broadway actors attempting to enhance their reputations by descending on a small midwestern town to help a lesbian who was banned from bringing her girlfriend to her prom.

“We tried very hard to create a show that uses humor to handle a serious topic,” The Prom’s lyricist and book co-author Chad Beguelin told The Buckeye Flame. “It’s hilariously funny at one moment, then tender and touching the next.”

Despite the modern plot, experts say the show harks back to musical theater shows of the past.

“It feels like an old-fashioned musical,” said Victoria Bussert, professor of theater at Baldwin Wallace University and resident director for musical theater for the Great Lakes Theater, Idaho Shakespeare Festival and Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival.

Whereas more modern musicals may showcase scores that are more dissonant, Bussert describes The Prom as being incredibly tuneful.

“It has a fantastic overture,” Bussert said. “You come out of there humming the tunes and cheering for the high school lesbian couple to get to have a prom.”

And it’s really gay

With much of the action of the musical taking place around the organizing of a prom, the show is ripe for high school and youth theater productions.

“The high school characters really serve as the beating heart of the show,” Beguelin said.

Ron Douglas agrees. The youth focus of The Prom is one of the reasons he chose the musical for Medina High School’s spring production.

“It’s a very relatable show for kids today, and in particular the kids that I have in our drama program this year … and most years, to be honest,” Douglas said.

The Prom at Cleveland’s Near West Theatre (Photo credit: Amber Patrick)

As theater has a storied past of being a safe haven for LGBTQ+ youth, a musical centered on these youth only ups the ante. In The Prom, the gay characters aren’t the best friends present for comic relief; they are the main characters.

This LGBTQ+ visibility in the show’s content has not come without pushback, profoundly ironic given the show’s plot:

  • A high school production of The Prom in Illinois was canceled last October due to “administrative concerns” that the “community may not be prepared to fully support the performance.” After community outcry, the show was reinstated, postponed and eventually played to large crowds this March.
  • A plan by school officials to cancel a 2022 production in New Jersey due to “inappropriate content” was quickly scrapped when faced with community backlash calling the proposed cancelation “infuriating and deeply homophobic.”
  • A city councilor in Virginia said the show represents “Anti-Christian” sentiment and called for both the cancelation of the local high school’s 2023 production as well as the resignation of the school’s superintendent. There too, the show did indeed go on and the superintendent retained her position.

Although isolated city councilors might object to the musical’s unabashedly gay characters, Douglas said it is that very content that helps create a difference in staging The Prom that can be felt all throughout the performance space.

“We have always talked about our drama program as being a place for everyone, a home away from home, a family and a safe place where we can practice our art and bring joy to the performers and the audience,” Douglas said. “With The Prom, it definitely is more ‘visible’ because we are talking specifically about these things as they relate to the show and the kids.”

A Backdrop of LGBTQ+ Drama

Although LGBTQ+ youth may be flourishing as characters in The Prom, the landscape for LGBTQ+ youth in Ohio is considerably more fraught.

A recent onslaught of Republican-sponsored legislation aims to restrict so many parts of their lived experience, including their control over their own identity. If House Bill 8 passes, all Ohio teachers and school staff – including school psychologists, social workers, counselors, and nurses – will be forced to out LGBTQ+ students to their families, even if there is suspected abuse at home. Indeed, the bill is projected to become law by the end of 2024.

‘This will lead to unconscionable cruelty’: 13 Quotes from the latest hearing on Ohio’s bill to forcibly out LGBTQ+ students

With such a backdrop, The Prom plays an important role, one it was always designed to do.

“It’s my hope that with LGBTQ+ rights currently under attack in this country, The Prom is serving not only as entertainment, but a strong reminder that we are all created equal,” said Beguelin.

Professor Bussert highlights that this message of equality is one that the genre of musical theater is uniquely positioned to deliver. She said that while many see musicals as being “flashy and fun,” the stories depicted on stage have a history of being vehicles for important dialogue.

“You can go back to shows like Hair and Falsettos, musicals that break ground for conversations that could not happen without that content,” Bussert said.

She said The Prom continues musicals’ tradition of tackling topics that might raise hackles if presented in another form.

The Prom normalizes inclusivity,” Bussert said. “When you see this lesbian couple normalized and just wanting to be able to go to the Prom, it changes hearts.”

A Curtain call of hope

Back at the Near West Theatre, Kellen Williams stands on his toes during rehearsal, poised for the upcoming scene. The 18-year-old self-described “big dancer” is excited about his role in The Prom, the Willoughby actor’s first show in this space.

Although he said he has loved learning all the choreography, Williams found even more joy in how being a part of The Prom has made him feel.

“I feel like I get to be fully myself,” he said. “This show has allowed me moments where I get to let myself shine through in a way I have never been able to do before. It’s amazing.”

Whereas other musicals might leave audiences entertained, those staging The Prom want audiences to leave entertained and so much more.

“We want this show to reach people and give them hope,” Douglas said. “If they are lost, The Prom can help them find themselves, whoever they are.”

Not that entertainment isn’t also the goal. Beguelin definitely wants audiences to “laugh their faces off.” But he, too, is hoping that everyone attending The Prom experiences something greater than they might be expecting.

“My greatest wish is that audiences leave with that warm glow that comes from a story that proves that love is simply love,” Beguelin said.

Original Article: http://

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