If you write a musical with a character that’s a Broadway star, you better be able to provide evidence of her stardom. In Broadway’s The Prom, a clique of out-of-touch theater celebrities descend on a small town to stand up for a high-school lesbian (and mostly get some publicity for themselves). Among them: the brilliant, deluded, cheetah-print-clad Dee Dee Allen, a diva who, in her own words, is “known for her belt.” In the second act, Dee Dee (played by Beth Leavel) gets her showstopping solo, singing “The Lady’s Improving.” It’s supposedly a solo from the show that made her famous, called Swallow the Moon, but its lyrics also fit around her attempt to win back the school principal (played by Michael Potts) that she has disappointed. Plus, composer Matthew Sklar and lyricist Chad Beguelin custom designed it to fit around Leavel’s own voice. “It was a gift,” Leavel said. “Who doesn’t love a song that’s written for you?”
The song’s premise came out of the needs of the plot, in which Dee Dee is looking to redeem herself after revealing that she’d come to this small town for publicity and not out of the goodness of her heart. “We wanted it to be a song about someone trying to be better, someone that knew they had flaws,” Beguelin said. “So the idea of her singing a song about someone improving or trying to be better came up.” In the song, Dee Dee’s character, Delores, is trying to convince someone not to fire her — specifically from the circus, in a joke that Beguelin added in a development lab before the show came to Broadway that provides all the information you get about Swallow the Moon (though it’s somehow just enough). “If you ever come to my dressing room, outside on the wall people have given their interpretations to what the poster for Swallow the Moon would be,” Leavel said, “and a lot of it involves a circus act.”
Sklar and Beguelin wrote many of The Prom’s songs as genre parodies, including a Chicago-esque riff on Bob Fosse and a faux-Godspell number. For “The Lady’s Improving,” they decided to reference mid- to late-’70s musical theater. “We did the math, When would Dee Dee be, I don’t know, 20 or 21?” Sklar said. “And we went with the premise that the composer of Swallow the Moon, whoever that was, listened to the Company cast album on repeat.” To that end, the orchestrations by Larry Hochman also include the Rocksichord, a synthesizer sound popular at the time (you can also hear it in Documentary Now!’s “Co-op”).
The key ingredient, of course, is Leavel’s own instrument. “I was a rehearsal pianist for her for the 42nd Street revival,” Sklar said. “So I know that her money note is an amazing C natural.” You can hear her first hit the note when Dee Dee sings “there’s no reason to fret” — and according to Sklar, “you can see why it made her a star.” The show is Leavel’s 13th starring role on Broadway (“lucky 13,” she calls it) and her favorite, “because she’s mine.” She’s not sure if she’ll appear in Ryan Murphy’s planned Netflix adaptation — “I’m just doing my eight shows a week,” Leavel said, “but isn’t that great?” — but one of her favorite parts of the job is the moment that comes at the end of her solo. “I love it when they start screaming at the end,” Leavel said. “It just makes me want to hold that note as long as I possibly can to have that shared experience of music-comedy joy with an audience. You lean in and, it’s like, ‘Here you go, thank you.’”