Pioneer Theatre goes to ‘The Prom,’ the Utah premiere of a musical about LGBTQ teens

‘A fun evening at the theater’ is also a timely story about queer identity among high schoolers.

(Stephanie Dunn | Pioneer Theatre Company) Celeste Rose, left, plays Emma, a high-school student who causes a stir in her Indiana town when she wants to take her closeted girlfriend, Alyssa (Mia Cherise Hall, right) to the senior prom, in Pioneer Theatre Company's production of "The Prom," to be performed May 12-27, 2023.

When Pioneer Theatre Company presents the Utah premiere of the high school-based musical “The Prom” this month, there will be no “don’t say gay” rule in effect.

Karen Azenberg, PTC’s artistic director and the director/choreographer of this season-ending production, joked that the “g-word and l-word” — “gay” and “lesbian” — are said “about 400 times over the course of the evening.”

“The Prom” — which runs May 12-27 at the Pioneer Memorial Theatre on the University of Utah campus — has been on Azenberg’s list of musicals to add to PTC’s repertoire, she said. When the rights became available, after its 2018 Broadway premiere and a movie adaptation starring Meryl Streep, James Corden and Nicole Kidman that debuted on Netflix in December 2020, she grabbed them.

“It’s a fun evening in the theater,” Azenberg said. “It has singing, dancing, comedy: All the things everybody says they want in a musical. [’The Prom,’] to me, checks every box.”

She acknowledges that the musical’s storyline — a lesbian teen wants to take her girlfriend to the senior prom, but runs up against the protests of her conservative Indiana community — remains controversial, more than a decade after the real-life events that inspired it.

“I would not want to be shying away from it because there are differing opinions right now in this community about how open we want to be about discussing gay and trans people,” she said, “who are on a journey that is maybe less than what has been perceived as traditional.”

(Stephanie Dunn | Pioneer Theatre Company) Josh Adamson, Anne Tolpegin, Branch Woodman and Wendy Waring, from left, rehearse their roles as fading Broadway performers who jump into the controversy of a lesbian Indiana teen trying to attend her high school's prom, in Pioneer Theatre Company's production of "The Prom," to be performed May 12-27, 2023.

A timely tale

Playwright Bob Martin, who wrote the book for “The Prom,” told Time magazine in 2020 that the musical “was inspired by several incidents.” The main event, though, happened in 2010 at an agricultural high school in Fulton, Mississippi, that would not allow senior Constance McMillen and her girlfriend to attend the prom as a couple, or let McMillen wear a tuxedo.

The school board eventually allowed McMillen to attend prom, but only seven students attended. Parents organized a separate prom for the rest of the students — an event that is duplicated in the musical’s plotline.

The American Civil Liberties Union represented McMillen in a lawsuit against the school district, and McMillen received $35,000 in a settlement. The school also made changes to its anti-discrimination policy.

This prom season, The Washington Post reported, a nonbinary student at a Nashville Christian school was barred from prom because they wore a suit instead of a gown. Residents of Nashville have rallied to raise money to throw the student and their friends their own prom.

In the musical, high-schooler Emma Nolan wants to attend prom at her Indiana high school with her — for the moment, unnamed — girlfriend. News of the PTA’s refusal to let Emma attend reaches a group of fading Broadway actors, who descend on the town to show support for Emma and, more importantly, drum up publicity for themselves. Amid the media frenzy, the audience learns that Emma’s girlfriend is Alyssa, the overachieving but closeted daughter of the PTA president who opposes Emma’s attendance at the prom.

The production at PTC arrives just in time for prom season in Utah schools. It’s also hitting as arguments over LGBTQ identity are roiling public schools in Utah and nationwide.

In early April, a high school in Utah County had all pride flags removed from the premises, prompting students to petition and protest. The Logan City School District is in the process of implementing its policy regarding teachers displaying personal items — including pride flags.

In Florida last year, Gov. Ron DeSantis enacted the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law, which “bars instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through the third grade.” In April, Florida’s Board of Education expanded the law to cover all grade levels.

Legislatures in at least 16 states have considered similar bills, with three states — Alabama, Arkansas and Kentucky — enacting them. A similar bill was introduced in the Utah Legislature this year, but was watered down before it ultimately failed to pass.

“The Prom” itself came under fire in late April, when a city council member in Lynchburg, Virginia, demanded that high schools there cancel performances of the musical, labeling it “anti-Christian.” The school board there said the production would go on as scheduled.

Azenberg said PTC has faced backlash before over plays it staged that feature LGBTQ characters and themes. “It’s been an issue for me since I got here,” she said.

In 2014, PTC produced Ira Levin’s 1978 play “Deathtrap,” a murder mystery that — spoiler alert! — includes a plot twist that hinges on two male characters kissing. A PTC patron wrote a scathing letter protesting the play’s “brazen homosexual content.” PTC refunded the patron’s subscriber money, but also posted the letter, anonymously, on the company’s Facebook page.

Azenberg said she would be lying if she said the company didn’t consider possible backlash against content when planning out PTC’s seasons. But, she said, “in theater, where do you start drawing the line? It’s a slippery slope.”

Joshua Black, PTC’s director of marketing and communications, said the Utah premiere of “The Prom” shares a common thread with the other shows the company has staged this season.

“There is a timelessness to good art,” he said. “Seeing the way that art can bring communities together, and humanize these issues that are hot-button issues, can go such a long way.”

(Stephanie Dunn | Pioneer Theatre Company) Karen Azenberg, artistic director of Pioneer Theatre Company, is seen here in rehearsal, directing and choreographing PTC's production of "The Prom," to be performed May 12-27, 2023.

Clothes and characters

Creating the costumes for “The Prom” is Patrick Holt, who, as drag queen Tempest DuJour, was a contestant on season 7 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

Holt said, via email, that he and Azenberg have worked together in musicals across the country for years — and when she asked him to design the costumes for “The Prom,” he said yes.

“When I design a contemporary play, I think about each character and their lives,” Holt said. “I try to imagine the contents of their closets and drawers, and why they make the personal choices they do on a daily basis. … Colors, texture, and the fit of clothes tell the audience a lot about a character before they even speak a word.”

Contemporary costuming is the most difficult to design, Holt said, because “everyone is an expert on modern clothing.”

Because “The Prom” is set in rural Indiana, Holt said, it was important that the costumes not be too trendy. “Most of these characters are just like people we know and the kids on our block,” Holt said. “What’s most important here is the emotional journey that they all experience.”

When it comes to drag, Holt said, it’s “all about character and entertaining.”

“My experience as a drag performer is a constant exercise in character creation and development,” Holt said. “There’s also a joy in the performance of drag that is very similar to a lot of musical theater. It’s an understanding of how and what the audience responds to onstage.”

“The Prom,” Holt said, is a “joyful and happy celebration.”

“In today’s politically charged climate, it’s important to remember that everyone has a story, and that everyone is valuable,” he said. “You don’t have to agree with the positions of these characters to empathize with the need to be heard and respected.”

Pioneer Theatre Company’s production of the Utah premiere of “The Prom” will run May 12-27 at Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East, Salt Lake City. Tickets and information are available at pioneertheatre.org.