The following mini-essay was published in the program for Out Front Theatre Company’s 2023 production of the musical The Prom (directed by Caty Bergmark; October 26th — November 11th, 2023, Atlanta, GA; book by Bob Martin, book & lyrics by Chad Beguelin, music by Matthew Sklar).
This production of The Prom is something of a homecoming: it marks the first professional production of the musical to play in Atlanta since its world premiere at the Alliance Theatre in August 2016. According to producer Dori Berinstein, Atlanta proved to be an ideal home for the musical because of its “diverse audience”: “We wanted to be in an environment where [the story] might be challenging for some people.” Emphasizing the universality of the story for Atlanta audiences, Susan V. Booth, then the producing Artistic Director of the Alliance, wrote that The Prom is “in its way, the story of all of our proms… I simply can’t think of a more primal and evocative moment than that verge-of-adulthood ritual of wanting to dance with someone you love.”
By the time the show opened on Broadway in November 2018, the story resonated differently for many audiences. It had been two years since Donald Trump had been elected president, and The Prom’s skewering of both red-state homophobia and blue-state liberal cluelessness felt both more pointed and more urgent. It was no longer just a universal story — it was a universal story that celebrated inclusivity in a fraught political landscape.
In the five years since opening on Broadway, The Prom has, unfortunately, only become more relevant. Conservative politicians across the country are lobbying for legislation to censor LGBTQIA+ representation and identification in schools. Censorship in schools is spiking in frequency, especially in theatre, with schools in Florida and Indiana canceling productions due to concerns over queer subject matter.
The Prom speaks directly to this censorship — the inherent cruelty of adults smothering even the tamest embodiments of queerness with “think of the children” rhetoric. Director Caty Bergmark has emphasized the need to give queer youth the space to grow into themselves, saying, “When we create an environment where we celebrate and love these kids for who they are, we all get to share in their joys and possibilities.”
Like the best musical comedies, The Prom runs almost exclusively on joy and hope. At their best, musicals can translate that hope into meaningful change for the audience. Beth Leavel, The Prom’s original Dee Dee Allen, spoke directly about her experiences working on The Prom in a July 2023 speech. “I have been told that The Prom changed lives,” she said. “I know The Prom changed lives. I know that The Prom probably saved lives.”
–Elliott Folds, dramaturg