The Prom might be the funniest show to premiere on Broadway this season, but it also takes the longest to describe. On one hand, it’s a satire about selfish theater-stars who travel to small-town America in search of a cause that’ll make them look good. On the other, it’s an earnest story about a girl stuck in a small town whose school cancels the prom instead of letting her take her girlfriend. The two collide and then, like jazz hands, explode outward. The New Yorkers get a lesson in how to put other people before themselves and the small-town girl eventually gets to dance with the girl she likes (no spoilers, but c’mon, this a musical comedy, you know it won’t be too sad). The results are both hilarious and moving, if remarkably hard to pull off — especially in terms of the music which has to be both winking and earnest, self-referential and heartfelt. Vulture has a first listen to The Prom’s Broadway cast recording, which will give you a sense of just how much this show juggles at once.
“When we had the entire story kind of mapped out we realized that the score really needed to live in two worlds,” Matthew Sklar, who wrote The Prom’s music, said of his and lyricist Chad Beguelin’s approach to the score (Beguelin also wrote the book with Bob Martin). “You have the Broadway people with their sensibility and their sound, and then the kids, we really needed them to sound like kids.”
To that end, the songs written for the Broadway stars often quote specific kinds of show tunes. Brooks Ashmanskas, playing the flamboyant Barry Glickman, goes full, old-fashioned showbiz, with a second-act number, “Barry Is Going to the Prom,” that started out with a She Loves Me feeling, according Sklar, but turned into a Peter Allen song. According to Sklar, the instructions to the orchestrator read, “picture him with a hat with fruit in it on his head.” Beth Leavel’s Dee Dee Allen, like Leavel herself, is known for her belt, and gets brassy, belt-filled numbers like the Evita-referencing “It’s Not About Me,” which includes a joke about how she was told she’s too old to play Eva Peron. In the second act, she sings a solo, “The Lady’s Improving,” from the fictional show that made Dee Dee famous called Swallow the Moon that’s meant to be the one great song from a flop musical of the ‘70s or ‘80s. Swallow the Moon’s plot is purposefully obscure, but The Prom does hint that it involves a circus, somehow.
Barry and Dee Dee’s friends also get their own musical vernacular. As the washed-up Trent Oliver who’s currently on a non-equity tour of Godspell, Christopher Sieber lives in a world that’s Stephen Schwartz–adjacent, and also full of Biblical lessons in the case of “Love Thy Neighbor.” Angie Schworer, who plays a character built around her own persona and name, goes full Chicago in “Zazz,” which incorporates life lessons about confidence by way of Fosse choreography. (Originally, the character was going to be an always-vaguely-green understudy for Elphaba in Wicked who never went on because she was pitchy, until the writers realized nobody would want to hear a song that’s pitchy.)
As much as the show’s Broadway stars might want to steal the spotlight for themselves, The Prom finds its emotional center in the story of Emma (Caitlin Kinnunen) and her closeted girlfriend Alyssa (Isabelle McCalla). Midway through the first act, Emma gets a soaring solo in “Dance With You,” where she articulates how she simply wants to dance with Alyssa, not start a riot or become a symbol. Beguelin wrote the lyrics after getting back from a trip to Paris and, “I was jet-laggy and wrote them all down at once and emailed them to Matt and said ‘maybe this is an idea.’” The directness of the idea worked, and Sklar developed a melody that matched the clarity of the lyric. “It’s really about simplifying the language and the musical vocabulary for the kids so it really sounds natural coming from them,” Sklar said. The song remained close to its original conception as the musical developed, though while the show was out of town in Atlanta, director Casey Nicholaw suggested that it should end with a crescendo, in order to “have Emma really soar at the end.”
Emma has to navigate that emotional trajectory within the chaos of high school, which the writers rendered in the show’s big group numbers, including “You Happened” and “Tonight Belongs to You.” There, The Prom employs both a Motown-esque energy and contemporary-sounding synth tracks. Some of the show’s more cutting emotions, however, were drawn from real high-school experience. Though he didn’t realize it at the time, Emma’s introductory song, “Just Breathe,” mirrors “what I did when I was in high school and I was getting picked on and bullied,” Beguelin said. “It’s sort of like, those were terrible times, but hey, we got this song out of it.”
You can listen to The Prom’s soundtrack below. It’ll be available to purchase and stream December 14, with a physical release set for January 11.