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How Broadway’s ‘The Prom’ Is Fostering LGBTQ Acceptance

Before seeing the Broadway musical “The Prom,” the father of one cast member was prejudiced about the LGBTQ community. After seeing the show, he now goes after homophobic trolls on the web.

“He has completely changed his mind,” says “The Prom” song and book writer Chad Beguelin. “He said, ‘Your show got to me.’ And that is rewarding.”

In the musical, a high school prom in the fictional town of Edgewater, Ind., is shut down by the PTA when a lesbian student named Emma (Caitlin Kinnunen) tries to take her girlfriend to the dance. Four Broadway actors hear the news and travel to the Midwest to help Emma fight for her rights. “The Prom” is nominated for seven Tonys, including musical, original score and book written for a musical.

Beguelin and songwriter Matthew Sklar talked to Variety about their writing process, the show’s theme of acceptance and their 25-year partnership.

Chad Beguelin Matthew Sklar

How did you meet?

Sklar: We’ve really grown up together. When we met, we were both students at New York University dreaming of writing for musical theater. The fact that we’re actually able to do it now, we don’t take for granted. Chad was answering phones, I was working as a rehearsal pianist for “Les Miserables” and we have really dedicated our lives to musical theater.

Beguelin: I think we also have been through so much for 25-plus years, we’ve had so many shows that almost hit Broadway, but didn’t. We’ve been through the good, the bad and the ugly. That’s how the trust really built up. There’s no arguing or animosity, we’re both very respectful of each other’s opinions.

How did you come up with the story for “The Prom”?

Beguelin: A producer named Jack Viertel came up with the idea. This was a beautiful present that Jack gave us. It was a great premise and we took on the writing responsibilities. So we had to create the characters, figure out what the story arch would be, how everybody would change and interact, and then of course, actually write the thing.

Did you draw from any personal experiences?

Beguelin: Absolutely. It’s funny, one of my teachers was named Tom Hawkins and the principal of the school is named Tom Hawkins [played by Michael Potts]. We’re so lazy, we didn’t even change his last name or try to hide it in any way. There’s also a scene where Brooks [Ashmanskas, who plays Barry Glickman] talks about what he’d wear to the prom. He talks about his silver tux and aqua blue bow tie and cumberband and those contacts to change the color of your eyes. That was exactly what I did for my prom.

The lead character, Emma, seems like a great role model for kids. What has the reaction been like from the audience?

Beguelin: We had a surprising amount of actors come to us and say that they are surprised how every night, not just one or two, but several kids, will come up and say, “Thank you, I feel like I’m finally being heard.” Or they will say, “I’m actually in the closet and I’m going to come out to my parents because of this.”

Sklar: On the other side of it, we’re hearing from parents, too. They’re getting to have a better understanding of their kids. Also, we did some talkbacks in Atlanta and there was an older gentleman who raised his hand in the back and said, “If I had known what the show was about, I probably wouldn’t have come, but I’m so glad I did, and I’m so glad those girls got together in the end.”

Do you have a favorite song from the show?

Sklar: I really love “Unruly Heart,” the song the kids sing that Emma starts in her bedroom. I just love how she basically is gonna solve the problem her way on her terms and in her own special way. That song has always been kind of the emotional centerpiece of the show. Musically, I love how it soars and I find that to be emotionally satisfying.

What musical genres influenced the show?

Sklar: I always try to make sure any song we write is always coming from the characters. There’s always a reason for the feel of the song. With Dee Dee [played by Beth Leavel], her big song has kind of a Latin, Argentinian, Eva Peron kind of feel. And then, Angie [Schworer’s] character, she’s been in Chicago forever so that leans into that Kander and Ebb kind of feel.

Do you think more kids will take same-sex dates to prom?

Beguelin: For me, when I was in high school, I would never have thought of bringing another guy to the prom. It was just unthinkable, and for years, nobody would even dare. But the world has changed so much since I was in high school and that makes me happy. The sad thing is that we continually get people emailing us articles about another gay couple banned or another lesbian couple banned, or guys weren’t allowed to wear a dress or girls weren’t allowed to wear tuxes and it seems like we have so much further to go.

What’s the message of the show?

Beguelin: Basically this show’s about acceptance and listening to one another and I think that this country is so divided right now and there’s so much hate out there. I just hope, like that man in Atlanta, we can change minds or at least open people up to different ways of thinking.

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