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‘The Prom’: How the Little Show That Could Found Its Way to the Tonys Dance

Does a Broadway musical still count as an underdog if it’s got über-producer Ryan Murphy in its corner?

It does if it’s “The Prom,” the labor of love from a team of Broadway veterans that’s carving out a place for itself as an original story on a street full of familiar titles and well-known brands. In what’s largely considered a three-horse race for the best musical Tony, “Tootsie” is the splashy, old-fashioned crowd-pleaser and “Hadestown” is the unconventional art-house hit. But for a lot of theater fans, “The Prom” is the sentimental favorite, winning over even the cold hearts of New York critics with its tale of an Indiana teen barred from bringing her girlfriend to the prom and the comically self-centered Broadway stars who swoop in to support her.

“I love the underdog quality of the show, because I always root for underdogs,” says Murphy, who announced in April that he’s producing a movie adaptation of “The Prom” as part of his megadeal with Netflix.

He was grabbed, he says, by the show’s optimism and sense of triumph. “So many LGBTQ stories, particularly stories set in the past, are rooted in tragedy, but this one isn’t,” he explains. “When you do something with Netflix you have to think of it globally, and in this case, it’s such a universal story that will play all over the world, and that’s really just about being accepted and being human.”

While the film gears up for production (with a release date still to be set), “The Prom” hits bookshelves this fall in a YA novelization cannily targeted at the youthful fans — and fans-to-be — most likely to respond to the tale of a teen outcast finding acceptance.

But the Broadway musical itself is not yet a smash success. In the weeks before the Tony nominations, weekly grosses hovered somewhere between $500,000 and $650,000 — relatively modest in the realm of Broadway hits. In the dark days of January and February, when Broadway’s tourist-driven sales drop across the board, lead producers Dori Berinstein, Bill Damaschke and Jack Lane raised additional capitalization funds to keep the show going. (The producers won’t cop to an exact amount, but they will say the overall capitalization at this point matches that of any other medium-scale musical, often around $10 million.)

Sure to give “The Prom” a boost are its seven Tony nominations — not to mention its upcoming performance on the Tony telecast, the closest thing to a national TV advertisement that most Broadway shows get. A win for best musical, the only award of the night that consistently moves the needle at the box office, would help even more.

Even without all that, “The Prom” is doing pretty well for a show sparked by an errant thought more than a decade ago.

The germ of the story came from Jack Viertel, the veteran Broadway executive who is artistic director of the long-running Encores! series. During rehearsals for the 2010 Encores! production of “Anyone Can Whistle,” Viertel read a Dan Savage column about a gay teen forbidden from bringing her girlfriend to her high school prom. 

“I was sitting there thinking, ‘This is an area Broadway can really help! We have so many famous people, and we have so many gay people!’” Viertel recalls. “And then I took a breath and said, ‘God, that’s a terrible idea. Can you imagine if Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin went down and tried to fix this? But it might make a funny idea for a musical.’”

Viertel took the concept to that “Anyone Can Whistle” director: Casey Nicholaw, who, in the years since, has become Broadway’s go-to musical-comedy guy, with four shows currently on the boards (“The Prom,” “The Book of Mormon,” “Aladdin” and “Mean Girls”). Nicholaw liked the idea instantly and brought it to book writer Bob Martin (“The Drowsy Chaperone”), composer Matthew Sklar and lyricist Chad Beguelin, the trio with whom he’d just collaborated on “Elf.” Together they presented the brewing concept to Berinstein and Damaschke, with whom Sklar and Beguelin had just worked on the musical “Half Time.”

Recalling all that now, everyone involved describes falling in love with an original story that had hope, heart and an important message, all wrapped in a musical comedy. But as the show developed and creatives began to tailor the roles of the Broadway celebrities to the talents of stage stalwarts who were well-liked in the industry but hardly box office draws (Beth Leavel, Brooks Ashmanskas, Christopher Sieber and Angie Schworer), it soon became clear just how challenging it could be to back an unknown title.

“How do you crystallize what the experience of the show is? How do you explain it? That’s been a challenge, from when we started to raise the money to when we tried to get a Broadway theater,” Damaschke says.

“The show’s greatest asset was that it was an original story that hadn’t been told before,” Berinstein adds, “and the most challenging part of it was that it was an original story that hadn’t been told before.”

Creatively, the biggest hurdle proved to be striking the right balance between theater-world snark and universal emotion. According to the collaborators, early versions leaned too hard on the self-involvement of the Broadway names and their petty industry concerns. 

“This is what’s taken us years to get right: the tone of the celebrities versus the tone of the town, and how to make them mesh,” says Nicholaw.

Throughout development, the collaborators worked to make the concerns of this small town in Indiana — and the accidental teen activist at its heart (played by Caitlin Kinnunen, nominated for a Tony alongside Leavel and Ashmanskas) — feel authentic. For that, lyricist and co-book writer Beguelin drew on his upbringing in Centralia, Ill., while Sklar endeavored to give the townspeople’s songs an entirely different sound from the musical-theater vocabulary of the stage stars, even going so far as to enlist two orchestrators.

The show developed for so long — premiering in Atlanta in 2016 before finally opening on Broadway last year — that there was a time when the creatives worried that the story had lost relevance in the era of marriage equality.

“But then the world changed dramatically,” Martin recalls, referring to the divisive political climate created by the election of Donald Trump.

When “The Prom” arrived on Broadway at last, it seemed to take audiences and critics by surprise — and bestowed the musical with the aura of a little show that could. Producers say that whatever challenges they’ve faced at the box office have all been worth it, thanks to moments like the one when the show performed as part of the nationally televised Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade: The parade’s first on-air, same-sex kiss stirred a minor controversy that prompted an outpouring of support.

In interviews, members of the show’s producing and creative teams recall encounters with audiences moved by the production, especially those for whom the storyline reflects a personal experience of coming out and struggling for acceptance. Nicholaw tears up when he thinks of it. 

“The Macy’s parade was one of the most momentous events for me in theater — to be able to affect people in that way and, even though there are people who were angry about it, know how much it helps so many people that are going through this,” he says.

The message of “The Prom” crosses the political aisle even among investors. “We ended up with quite a few people coming on to our team, investors and co-producers, who are conservatives,” Berinstein says. “To us it was clear that they got from our show what we were so hoping they’d get, about bringing these disparate worlds together. This isn’t just a show brought to you by the liberal Democrats of Broadway.” 

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