Slowly Kissing the Past Goodbye, One Broadway Musical at a Time

Isabelle McCalla and Caitlin Kinnunen Deen van Meer

Isabelle McCalla and Caitlin Kinnunen Deen van Meer

  • Kaeli Heffner

I am a musical theater snob. I also happen to identify as queer. This means a few things. First, I am really critical of musical theater, especially after spending two full years studying it in one of the most accredited programs in the country. Second, I am especially critical of queer representation in musical theater. That being said, I knew I needed to see The Prom, which is currently running at the Longacre Theatre. The show tells the story of a group of washed-up Broadway stars who travel to a small town in Indiana to help a teenage lesbian fight for the prom she deserves, despite a school policy that requires prom dates to be heterosexually matched. I knew this was a show I could identify with in some way, and that I would be entertained by the singing, dancing, and general cheesiness that I hate that I love so much.

But what I found was quite a mixed bag. I was thoroughly entertained the whole time and found myself laughing, smiling, and feeling inspired to take my place on a stage of this scale someday. While I loved the dancing, catchy songs, and performances by stars like Beth Leavel, Brooks Ashmanskas, Josh Lamon and Christopher Sieber, something about the show’s representation of its gay characters felt off. I could look past the general campiness of characters like Ashmanskas’ washed up Broadway star, Barry Glickman; although at first, the character appears to be an imitation of a gay male character I have seen poked fun at onstage many times, Ashmanskas’ performance is heartfelt and dynamic, and his Barry is carefully crafted as an individual. I could even look past the many lesbian jokes and found myself appreciating the humor in a plot that is based on a rather devastating homophobic situation. No, there was something else that struck me as a little bit off about this piece, and the only factor I can come up with is the fact that, overall, it felt just a little behind the times.

Now, I think it is important at this point to acknowledge a crucial fact: musical theater is inherently queer. Of course, queer and allied theater artists have been on an uphill battle towards realistic representations of queer characters onstage, but we have come a long way. Musicals like Fun Home employ queerness as central themes, but they do so in ways that are engaging, intelligent, and, well, of the times we live in. These characters are gay, but they’re not stereotypes, unless, of course, they are being used to comment on stereotyping.

I don’t think The Prom necessarily over-stereotypes in a way that lacks relevance and productivity. Nor do I think the show’s queer characters are unrealistic. Yet, as I was watching it, something about it felt like a huge step back in time. The central lesbian relationship between Emma (Caitlin Kinnunen) and Alyssa (Isabelle McCalla) is, overall, very heartfelt and truthful. Both sing and act skillfully, and their journey as a couple is beautiful. Not only that, but Alyssa’s journey to accepting herself and freeing herself from the harsh grip of her incredibly strict mother (played by Courtenay Collins) is very well written and acted. Yet, despite all that both girls go through, both respectively and as a couple, the show’s creators save Alyssa and Emma’s one onstage kiss for the end of the show; this seems so strange to me, and for several reasons.

While the kiss moment is iconic, triumphant, and sweet, it feels unrealistic, because Emma and Alyssa have been together for over a year. The single kiss’s relevance extends far beyond the scope of the show, with its victorious landmark appearance on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in 2018. But, in the context of the show, the fact that it is the only one just seems cheesy, and like a spectacle; in other words, for me, the fact that the couple only shares one onstage kiss implies that they are meant to be seen as different. Having them kiss just this one time seems to undermine the seriousness of the relationship, while also suggesting that the couple’s validity is derived only from public approval and celebration: that is, they only kiss when there are people around to see it and show approval, and the only way these characters earn the right to kiss in this story is when they have accomplished changing everyone’s minds. Shouldn’t we be past this stage of dipping our toes into the pool of naturalistic queer representation onstage, and of making a spectacle out of going public with a queer relationship?

On the same token, I am speaking as a young lady who grew up in New York state-a relatively tolerant place. While lesbian couples are just couples to me, especially after having been a contributing member of several, I am not ignorant to the fact that much of the world is still far behind; perhaps this is exactly the point The Prom is attempting to make. In the small town in Indiana, where it takes place, the people are clearly far behind the times. Alyssa’s struggle with her mother, the PTA president who is even more terrified of her teenage daughter’s gayness than of negative reactions to actually having an inclusive prom at the high school, is heartbreaking. Yet, as has become more and more evident with the election of our current excuse for a president, there are still plenty of people whose hearts remain cold and unfazed when a mother openly considers turning her back not only on an oppressed member of her community but on her own daughter. If there are people who lack empathy in this sense, how could these people possibly be comfortable with seeing two women kiss onstage?

Perhaps there are still many, many people who need to be eased into the idea of gayness on the stage and screen, just as the students and parents in The Prom do. This is a very odd fact to me, considering the lack of oppression I have met in regards to my queerness. But maybe the show’s reference to older methods and themes is meant to remind New York theater audiences that so many queer individuals, particularly teenagers, are still met with bullies and unsupportive families and communities, and are forced to either hide their identities or to speak up and risk everything.

This show very much follows in the tradition of the coming-out play, and while this seems like old news to me, I am an openly bisexual New York University theater student, so perhaps my environment is just ahead of the time and has taken me with it. Maybe Emma and Alyssa’s one single kiss is representative of the fact that in some communities, even a kiss is a big deal, and that for so many young queer people all over the world, a kiss at a prom could still be considered a faraway dream.