It might be a bit much to say that Beth Leavel’s roster of Broadway credits – The Drowsy Chaperone, Elf, Young Frankenstein, among many others – has been leading inexorably to the show for which she’s again been Tony nominated, but neither could anyone doubt that the The Prom is anything but a big, fluffy corsage gifted at just the right moment, perfectly chosen. In a part literally written for her, Leavel plays Broadway diva Dee Dee Allen, a showstealer from way back.
By now, you probably know the story. A gang of Broadway veterans, looking for a little good press after a big flop, invade smalltown USA to speak out for a high school girl who has been banned from taking her girlfriend to the high school prom. Cultures clash, lessons are learned, and The Prom has been embraced by audiences and critics alike.
The Prom has become this season’s little show that could, sharing the Tony air with edgier fare like Hadestown, Oklahoma!, What the Constitution Means To Me and Gary: A Sequel To Titus Andronicus. And while The Prom might seem an innocent among more stylistically knowing productions, it bears remembering just how courageous this little musical about high school girls in love really is. When a performance from the musical aired during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade last November, including the girls’ kiss, Twitter trolls did their trolling. But to no avail. The show goes on.
The Prom, directed by Casey Nicholaw, with book by Bob Martin & Chad Beguelin, music by Matthew Sklar and lyrics by Chad Beguelin, original concept by Jack Viertel, is playing at the Longacre Theatre. The cast includes Brooks Ashmanskas, Beth Leavel, Christopher Sieber, Caitlin Kinnunen, Isabelle McCalla, Michael Potts, Angie Schworer, Courtenay Collins and Josh Lamon.
The Prom‘s Tony nominations include Best Musical; Best Direction; Best Book; Best Original Score; Caitlin Kinnunen, Leading Actress/musical; Beth Leavel (Leading Actress/musical); Brooks Ashmanskas, (Leading Actor/musical).
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Deadline: Is “rollercoaster” the right word to describe getting to this point with The Prom?
Beth Leavel: I’ve been trying to think of the right word to explain everything, and it’s impossible. I’m going to have to make one up, and I’ll get back to you when I think up some fabulous word. Like supercalifragilistic but better.
Deadline: Because of the subject matter, audiences might assume The Prom had been written very recently, but it has a history.
Leavel: Well, me, myself and I have been associated with it for seven years, and I think that the creative started with an idea that Jack Viertel pitched to Casey Nicholaw based on a real event that it happened with a girl and a prom, and that must have been, oh gosh, eight or nine years ago.
This was around the time I was doing Elf for the second time on Broadway. I ran into Matt [Sklar] and Chad [Beguelin], who were the writers and I said, what are we going to do next? And he hinted that they were writing a role for me and I’m like, oh that’s fantastic. You know, blah, blah we’ll see if that happens, and lo and behold about three years later, Casey said could you come do a table read for, what I believe was then just called the Untitled Casey Nicholaw project. In that room was Brooks Ashmanskas, Chris Sieber, Angie Schworer and I, and we read what was the very beginning of what now is The Prom. So that was seven years ago.
Then, after the marriage equality law passed, there was a moment that the creator’s told me that they wondered, Oh my gosh, is it timely anymore? And then lo and behold, look what happened two years ago and now it’s more timely than ever. So, it takes a long time to give birth to a Broadway musical, but I guess in the scheme of things, seven years is not that long.
Deadline: You were in The Drowsy Chaperone 13 years ago, and that seems like yesterday to me.
Leavel: Somebody told me it was 13 years ago, and I went No, it wasn’t. Thirteen years ago! And by the way, this is my 13th Broadway show, there are 13 people making their Broadway debuts in this show, and this is some of our producer’s 13th show. So, I figured we are just surrounded by the number 13.
Deadline: So that table read for what became The Prom, were all the parts written for those specific actors, as Dee Dee was for you?
Leavel: Yes, they were. Four people, can you imagine? That never happens.
Deadline: So that leads right to the next question. What did the creators see in you guys that would become these characters?
Leavel: We all know each other really well, so there’s a shorthand with everything. Casey and Bob and Matt and Chad know my comedy. When I first read Dee Dee seven years ago, she was even worse than she is now, and I thought, “Great, I’m a narcissistic self-centered, diva bitch, thank you so much.” But what I love about Dee Dee and what’s been really explored in the seven years is that yes, she is all of the above – narcissistic, diva, self-centered – but now she has a discovery, and I can’t stand to use this word, but it’s true, she has a journey. She actually has an arc, where she comes to realize something about herself and her heart. So, that’s what I love about it, but you know, funny is funny, and Brooks and Chris and Angie and I do funny.
Deadline:: Have you been surprised or taken aback by how warmly received the show has been?
Leavel: I don’t think, I’ve ever, ever, never been in a show or a piece of theatre that has affected an audience in such a way. Now each audience member may say it affected him or her in a certain way, but we feel it on stage during those last 15 minutes of our show. I hear people crying, I feel them leaning in. We had no idea that it was going to do that. I mean, we all love this show, or we wouldn’t have stuck with it for seven years.
Deadline: Were you surprised that it’s found an audience beyond the Broadway community that it has so much fun poking at?
Leavel: I knew it would, but the other part of me was going, “Oh I hope, I hope.” You know a truthful, good, well-crafted piece of theatre will reach out and affect everyone. Men, women, gays, straight, Republican, Democrat, whatever, and that’s what this has done. Some of my relatives have come up from North Carolina and feel the same way about The Prom as the person I did an Off Broadway show with 16 years ago. That is excellent, and that just doesn’t happen. It’s so wonderful and special, and it’s a privilege for us to be there and to tell this story and send this message out and have people laugh.
Deadline: Have there been any surprising reactions in the opposite direction? I would imagine people coming to see it know what they’re getting into.
Leavel: I don’t know about that. Some people do, some people just go “Oh, let’s go see this show.” But if there has been a negative reaction, I haven’t heard about it, or I don’t seek it out.
Deadline: The show really came into national prominence last Thanksgiving, during that wonderful little moment during the Macy’s Parade …
Leavel: Wasn’t that great?
Deadline: What was going through your mind that day?
Leavel: Well, let me tell you what I was thinking that day. A) It was four o’clock in the morning when I got up, and B), It was five degrees when I got outside. I’m in front of Macy’s, and I’m in a little teeny jumpsuit. So, that was the predominant thought of the cast – are we going to die? No? Okay great, we’ll just do it.
We knew they would be kissing but it just felt like oh, that’s the beautiful ending to their story, the scene. I didn’t think it was going to be any big deal, and yes there was a flare up of emotion and some people having [negative] opinions, but guess what? It disappeared, and now all we hear is, Oh, that Macy’s Day kiss! I just think, good for us, good for them, good for Macy’s. Good for our creative team to say, yeah, this is our story, these women are in love, isn’t it beautiful?
Deadline: You and Caitlin Kinnunen have been Tony-nominated for best leading actress in a musical. Do you talk about it with each other?
Leavel: Oh, absolutely. You know people ask, are you competitive, and it’s just the exact opposite. I care so much for her and vice versa, and I am so proud of her and could not be happier. She comes into my dressing room every night, and we just have a how are you doing, what do you need, how are you feeling? We just take care of each other because it’s a really fabulous yet stressful, exhausting time. So, it’s nice to have someone, including Brooks, going through the same situation. We get together and just have like little group therapy and tell each other we’re fabulous, and we’re going to survive and how much we love each other. It’s great and I feel for her, she deserves it.
Deadline: Has there been an audience reaction that really stands out or caught you off guard?
Leavel: I got a very long letter from a fan that said the show saved her life. She went into glorious detail about why, which I don’t want to share, but it was so astonishing and so moving. I’ve gotten several of those, particularly from the young LGBTQ community, that told me how seeing themselves reflected and mirrored on a stage, in such a loving, powerful way, has changed their life. And then other people just say it’s the funniest thing they’ve ever seen.
Deadline: The actress who plays the mother, the villain of the piece…
Leavel: Courtenay Collins.
Deadline: Courtenay Collins. I wonder if she gets a different reaction?
Leavel: I’ll have to ask her! She’s never said anything, and her character also has an arc of self-discovery, so she’s been written to be a real human being and not just the bad guy, but I’m going to ask her about that tonight. Now I’m curious.
Deadline: If you could throw yourself five years into the future, how might you look back on this show?
Leavel: Let’s put it this way, during Drowsy Chaperone, I was asked that same kind of question, and I said Drowsy Chaperone is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Now, I would say that The Prom is the most outstanding moment of my career and the one that I am most proud of. Talk to me in five years, and hopefully, I’ll go, oh, my gosh I have something else to celebrate with you. But right now, this just feels like the pinnacle of everything I’ve worked up to in my worker-bee mentality. I just like to work, and here is this beautiful gift that has been given to me.
I mean, how often in an artist’s life do they get a piece of theatre written specifically for their comedy, their gifts, their money notes, and then get to create that in a room full of people that you consider your family and your tribe, and who you would follow to the ends of the earth to be in the room with. That’s just a win, a win all over the place.