I’m…not really going to introduce myself, but hi! I’m Tay. I run this blog and am co-hosting this event, which has been incredibly affirming, and I just want to take this space to thank everyone who has supported this event by writing, by sharing and by quelling my fears that I wasn’t doing enough to support everyone’s work while I’m taking a social media break. You can usually find me on Twitter and I’m a writer and scholar who’s taking some time to figure out what I’m doing with my life. Now, let’s talk about musicals!
Right before I saw The Prom on Broadway, I had an anxiety stomachache…not because I was anxious, but because I was so excited and filled with anticipation I was making myself viscerally sick. As I got my Playbill, my show-themed t-shirt that I’m wearing as I write this little post and a drink, as I then settled into my seat in the back of the center orchestra, my entire body was alive with nerves. My hands were shaking and my heart was pounding as I waited out the ten minutes before the red and gold curtain would rise and the show would begin.
I knew this was the first time I would see a vital part of myself on a Broadway stage in a way I had never seen it before: I’ve never seen two girls kiss on stage in a contemporary musical before, not like this.
Sure, I saw Head Over Heels, which was queer in more ways than I can count last Fall and had non-binary and lesbian rep supplemented by same-sex ensemble pairs during dance numbers.
But that was different.
That show, an extravagant, female pop-driven retelling of a Renaissance play felt like an escape from reality, not a reflection of it. When the two female characters kissed, I felt like I was being represented and it was incredible to share the moment from the audience with my best friend, but I didn’t feel seen. Not in the way that the kiss at the end of The Prom made me feel.
And yes, I saw Fun Home, but I couldn’t see myself in the nostalgia of a middle-aged cartoonist looking back on her college-aged escapades with a girl while also singing about her dead dad. In a way, that felt too personal and voyeuristic to relate to in any concrete way for my own life.
So…this felt different. This felt like being seen and validated in a way that felt long overdue, but also so incredibly powerful in THIS moment in my life.
And I knew it would, because I had watched the Tony’s performance live…and then approximately ten or twelve more times before I saw the show the Wednesday afternoon after the awards show. And then I listened to the soundtrack all the way through, because I needed more.
What makes The Prom so special for me is that it validates a part of myself that I have hated about myself for a decade and rarely discuss publicly outside of private conversations with my closest friends: I like girls. Like…a lot.
The internalized homophobia I experience in regards to myself comes from a lack of media and culture in which I could personally see myself. The lesbian and sapphic characters I had growing up were few and far between. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school in my early twenties a year or two ago that I started finding all of these incredibly beautifully written and well-told stories about girls loving over girls that I could relate to. Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand. Girl Made of Stars and Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World by Ashley Herring Blake.
But I love musical theater. Musical theater is probably one of the main, if not the most primary, form of culture through which I filter my emotions, experience and reality because I love the feeling of sitting in a theater and watching a story unfold before my eyes in this intimate, chaotic, gorgeous way.
But where are all of the cute queer girl characters in musical theater?
And then, enter The Prom. I knew the basic storyline. I knew how cute the two main actresses were. But I also knew I would be seeing it in June and so it went on the back burner…until the Tony Awards.
I don’t think I have the words to describe how much it meant to me to see two girls kiss to energetic, fun music on prime-time network television. My heart was literally racing in the seconds leading up to it the first time I watched it. It was like I was watching a part of myself I’ve kept buried for so long come out and be okay and not something I had to hate about myself. Media like this matters. It shows me and other queer people—and especially queer kids and teens—that we have opportunities to be happy and have a happy ending and that our public presence can be valued. It gives us an image to hold onto when we doubt ourselves and an ideal to strive towards so that the world can be a more inclusive place.
While I usually skip over and drift the songs sung by the adults, every single teen number in this musical is a bop. I love the anxious anthem that is “Just Breathe.” My heart turns to actual goo every time I listen to “You Happened,” which is perhaps the cutest musical number I’ve ever heard and the purest declaration of young love. My heart turns to goo too during “Dance with You.” Just feelings. All over the floor. I love “Tonight Belongs to Us,” which is a major bop. The first time I listened to “Unruly Heart,” I put it on loop and listened to it for almost an hour. And “It’s Time to Dance” is another one of those bops that I will never ever get tired of.
Seeing these numbers performed live only amplified my love for this musical and the ache in my heart for more sweet, innocent, awkward depictions of queer teen love that aren’t tragedy porn, fetishizations of young queerness or oversexualized because the creator is projecting their adult feelings onto a younger character. The Prom averts that in the best way.
My heart swelled at the first moment that Alyssa and Emma hold hands, a little hesitant, looking over their shoulders to make no one sees them. Every touch and hug between Alyssa and Emma was riddled with teenage love, hesitation and the weight of falling in love, truly, for the first time (mostly because Isabella and Caitlin are incredible actors).
Emma’s anxiety and feelings of loneliness turning into strength and community is one of the most compelling character arcs I’ve seen in a musical, and something I saw so much of myself in. I could watch the moment Alyssa and Emma come out in their dress and tux and over and over again. It is utterly triumphant and was the moment where I silently whispered to myself, “I’m okay. I could maybe do that one day. My life can have a happy ending.”
Granted, despite my immense love for it, The Prom does have its issues. In the first two minutes of the show, a character reads a suicide joke out of a bad theater review. Another character slut-shames other teenage girls to inspire confidence in Emma. Indiana is ridiculed and stereotypes into a caricature, a move that always causes compounded damage to the people who live in these areas and are already marginalized. The character development in the adult Broadway stars is minimal compared to the transformations Emma and Alyssa go through to reach their kiss…and yet their story still felt secondary. Finally, it was unnecessary for Emma to be called a dyke, a “little lesbian” and a “butchy duck” among other names throughout a show that also capitalizes on her quiet strength, courage and wit to stand up for herself and who she loves.
Overall, though, The Prom has a special place in my heart as one of those musicals that came to me at the right time, when I needed it most. When I needed to see that people like me could be beautiful and brave and funny and nerdy and smart and STILL get the girl at the end.
The Prom might not quite have been the lesbian Dear Evan Hansen I so desperately hoped it could be, the kind of story where a young, awkward, courageous queer girl could carry an entire musical on her shoulders and have it be meaningful to a much broader audience while singing about love, acceptance and a better world where everyone is able to be on the dance floor. I wish we lived in a world where queer girls were valued enough by everyone to have their own stories the way that straight white teen boys do, but we don’t. The Prom shows that we’re not there yet because five adults need to have their own arcs and dance numbers to complete Emma’s story.
But, it’s a step in the right direction. And it’s time for all of us to put on our dancing shoes and keep walking forward, step by step, and continuing to tell queer stories and live our truth. This show made me realize that maybe, just maybe, I could actually fall in love with a girl and it could be okay, that these feelings I have are real and that I don’t have to keep internalizing them. That’s pride.