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Two stars of the new Broadway musical comedy talk about its healing properties
Prom has long been a rite of passage for American teens, a celebration of impending adulthood and, overwhelmingly, heterosexuality. That last part presents a problem for Emma in the new Broadway musical The Prom since she wants to bring her girlfriend. The PTA in her small Indiana town isn't having it, so prom is canceled, turning Emma into the high-school pariah. When the story makes national news, a group of out-of-work Broadway actors and their high-strung publicist take it upon themselves to rush to her aid with riotous results, not surprising given the show's pedigree (director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw won a Tony for The Book of Mormon, co-writer Bob Martin snagged a statuette for The Drowsy Chaperone, and songwriters Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin penned the tunes for Elf and The Wedding Singer).
The scrapped-prom setup is actually inspired a similar 2010 incident in Fulton, Mississippi, which instigated an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit. Unfortunately, it didn't have a fairy-tale ending -- the student was able to attend the prom with her girlfriend, but only a handful of classmates showed up while everyone else went to a competing private event organized by angry parents. The Prom ultimately presents a more hopeful journey that not only reflects how Americans' attitudes toward the LGBTQ community have changed over the past decade, but how people on both sides of the political divide can talk to each other if they try.
Broadway veteran Beth Leavel, who won a Tony for her turn as the tipsy title character in The Drowsy Chaperone, has been with the show since its inception, originating the role of self-involved star on the wane Dee Dee Allen in The Prom's 2016 world premiere at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre. "She's a narcissistic diva, but you have to love her flaws," she says. "It was important to us that she was not only really funny, but that you cared about what happens to her."
Dee Dee schleps to the Midwest because she hopes to revive her flagging career via good press. But when she learns it will take time and work to save Emma's prom, she has some soul-searching to do.
"Dee Dee is not listening," Leavel says. "She's shocked that a lesbian kid would be kicked out, but she has to discover that there are a lot of different ways to live -- not just East Coast, elitist Broadway diva. What I love is that everyone is worth listening to, it's not one-sided. The writers worked hard to make sure that all points of view were represented, and crafted a story about listening, love and tolerance."
Another character who has trouble listening is Mrs. Greene, the conservative PTA president played by Courtenay Collins in her Broadway debut. Some may see her as the story's uncompromising villain, but Collins has a more nuanced take. "My job as an actor is to see what this character is driven by, and this character is driven by love of her daughter and fear of the unknown," says Collins. "It's been fun to sink my teeth into this person."
Collins, a popular Atlanta-based cabaret performer and vocal coach, also appeared in the Alliance production of The Prom. She's excited to transfer with the show to New York where she lived in her youth as an acting student at Juilliard. (Smartly, she's held on to her Upper West Side apartment all these years.) To develop Mrs. Greene, Collins drew on her experiences growing up and, later, raising her children in Sandy Springs, a suburb just north of Atlanta.
"We all know this woman," Collins says. "In my neighborhood at election time you see Democrats living right next to Republicans and we all love, know and support each other. There's no animosity; there's great respect. You turn on the news and there's such hatred on either side and I can't stand that. To be telling this story during a time of such great polarization in our world is great."
In many ways, Dee Dee and Mrs. Greene represent the two Americas that people find themselves living in: one conservative, the other liberal. Dee Dee doesn't understand why anyone would have a problem with gay people while Mrs. Greene believes these outsiders have come to judge her community without knowing the full story. But, despite their discord, these women who are on the opposite sides of everything help each other evolve.
"We go in with all these intentions of changing them and healing them and, lo and behold, they heal Dee Dee," Leavel says. "She peels that onion back and realizes she has a heart and the capacity to love, and it took coming to Indiana to find that."
Similarly, The Prom has been peeling back the layers on its audience, which has been Collins' favorite part of working on the show. "Gay men and women come up to me and say, 'I just want you to know that I had the exact same conversation with my mom,'" Collins says. "That fuels me as an actress and it makes me so grateful. It crosses political divides and goes more into the personal, and that has been the most rewarding part of playing this character. I respect each of those stories and carry them with me on stage."
Despite its social relevance, The Prom aims to be a fun evening for everyone, just as all proms should be. Leavel recalls dancing with her girlfriends at prom while Collins says hers sparked a measles outbreak at school. Everyone's remembrances are different, but giving all kids an opportunity to make those prom memories is the point of the show.
"I hope audiences will have a fabulous, entertaining, amazing night," Leavel says. "Maybe they'll go and have a conversation with someone or see someone differently because of how they feel about Emma. Sometimes theatre is a great mirror for us to learn from."
Top image: Beth Leavel and Michael Potts in The Prom. Photos by Deen van Meer.