‘The Prom’ Director Casey Nicholaw: Thanksgiving Kisses, Broadway Babies And A Date With Netflix – Tony Watch

Greg Evans

Last Thanksgiving, Broadway’s The Prom had just recently opened at the Longacre Theatre when it took part in the annual Macy’s parade. Performing the musical’s big finale number “Time To Dance,” the show essentially introduced itself to a nationwide audience that holiday with a big, sweet kiss that, in its own way, made history: The musical about two high school girls battling a bigoted school board for permission to attend the prom together, became the Thanksgiving parade’s first performance to feature a same-sex kiss.

I wrote in Deadline the following day that The Prom and its two young actresses, Caitlin Kinnunen and Isabelle McCalla, had upstaged Santa Claus himself. I also spoke director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw then, and he seemed both overwhelmed by the good wishes that began pouring in after The Kiss, and maybe a little disturbed by some hate email reported by a few cast members. But despite some online trolling and those depressingly expected hate emails, The Kiss seemed to herald good vibes for the happy, crowd-pleasing show.

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And while the production is playing to houses at about 80% of capacity, weekly grosses tend to run a little over half of potential. Decent numbers, but not mega-hit territory.

Now with spring here and Tony nominations looming, The Prom has received a kiss of an entirely different sort: Ryan Murphy has announced plans to produce an adaptation of the musical for Netflix. “The Prom is one of the most uplifting, heartfelt and special musicals I have ever seen on Broadway,” Murphy said when he announced the project earlier this month. “It’s truly an original that celebrates the underdog and says in a loving spectacular way that LGBTQ rights are human rights. I feel a special connection to it because it’s set in Indiana, and that’s where I grew up, too.”

Though details on the project are scarce, Murphy said in his Instagram announcement that he’ll be bringing the Broadway staging’s producers and creative team – including Nicholaw – to the Netflix “movie event” (or, as Murphy wrote, MOVIE EVENT). “It has a musical score that will leave you singing for days, a hilarious and moving book and some of the most showstopping direction, choreography and performances I’ve ever seen on Broadway,” wrote Murphy.

Nicholaw – whose previous credits include The Drowsy Chaperone, Elf, Something Rotten! and an impressive current four productions on Broadway (besides The Prom, that directing and choreographing roster includes Mean Girls, Aladdin and The Book of Mormon, the latter as co-director and choreographer) – tells Deadline (after the following interview was conducted) that Murphy’s announcement is “a dream come true.”

“We were all thrilled when we found out Ryan wanted to do The Prom as a film,” Nicholaw said. “It is a project that has been so close to our hearts since we started creating it almost 7 years ago. The fact that it will been seen and we’ll be able to get the message of the show out to a much larger audience is a dream come true.”

In this interview, Nicholaw discusses The Prom, his hopes for staging Dreamgirls in New York, and Some Like It Hot, The Kiss and much more.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Deadline: The last time we spoke was the day after Thanksgiving. Were there any aftershocks of the parade?

Casey Nicholaw: There was some hate mail going to some of the cast members, but it sort of died down a little bit. Mostly it was just a really thrilling thing. People can be so divided about that kind of thing, but there was so much love and outpouring, and the show continues to amaze me whenever I go to see it. A lot of times, I won’t sit through intermission because I’ll be going to see the cast, but whenever I do sit at intermission, I’m bombarded by people – and bombarded by teens, which is really awesome – saying how much the show means to them. One girl came up to me and said, I just want you to know what this means to me. She was shaking a little bit. She was looking over her shoulder. She was like, “I’m going to come out to my dad this weekend, and this has been…this is my favorite show. This has been so helpful to me.” I’m like, oh my God, that’s amazing. You just want to burst into tears in front of their eyes. It’s so nice that theater can make a difference and can be entertaining at the same time, which I love. We’re not hitting anyone over the head with a heavy message. We’re treating it with heart, and with humor and with truth, hopefully.

How are you doing box office-wise? The Prom seems to be doing well, though not To Kill a Mockingbird well…

Yeah. It’s not a blockbuster, but of course it’s very hard to do something that is completely original, without a brand name. It took us a long time just to decide what the name was going to be, quite honestly, because it’s a hard show to explain and it’s a hard one to totally capture. But we’re hoping that coming into the spring, hopefully there will be some Tony attention and it will get more on the radar with some people.

So how does an original show compete against the name brand shows? And I don’t mean “name brand” in any disparaging way, because so much of what we’ve seen on Broadway this season that comes from films has been really good stuff. So how does a show like The Prom contend with Bryan Cranston or Atticus Finch?

I think you just have to really hope that word of mouth is doing it, which it is. The word of mouth is great for our show. Of course, as with anything, when you’ve got a show that isn’t known, there isn’t the confidence budget-wise to just go spend a ton of money on advertising.

So I feel like we’re doing great. We’re not big, numbers-wise, but we’re really happy with the product and we’re really hoping that momentum will pick up this spring and be able to carry us and gain momentum, and then become a show everyone wants to keep seeing. I’ve seen that happen before. It happened with Drowsy Chaperone, it’s happened with other shows I’ve done before that weren’t Mean Girls, or Book of Mormon which had South Park attached to it, you know? Those are two great quality shows…[the known names are] not the reason they succeeded, but it certainly helps to get people there.

I’m wondering also, with Be More Chill on Broadway, does it help to have two shows with such strong youth appeal, or does it divide the audience?

I think it’s a good thing, but I will say, there’s a lot of product. It’s not just Mean Girls versus Prom. There’s a lot of product that’s geared toward that age right now. So I think that is what sort of splits things up a little bit, especially for something that’s not tried and true. And also, while adults absolutely love The Prom, it maybe doesn’t sound like it’s going to be an adult show until they hear from a friend, “Oh my gosh, you’ve got to see this. Even my husband loved it.” That’s always a great thing to hear…

The Prom really is sort of 50/50 in terms of its adult and teen characters. And you have Broadway veterans [Beth Leavel, Brooks Ashmanskas, Christopher Sieber, Michael Potts, Angie Schworer] – that has to appeal to adults and the theater crowd, right?

Absolutely, and it does. I mean, there’s so many laughs in the show and it’s also so heartfelt, but it’s sort of like I never really thought about it this much until just now, but it’s really like 50/50 across the boards in that show: 50/50 as far as adults versus kids, 50/50 as far as one view versus the other view, 50/50 in a lot of ways, so I think there ends up being something that everyone relates to, and also something that might change people’s minds or get them thinking about, oh, I never really thought that kids are going through that, or I never thought that gay people are going through that, or I never thought that maybe I’m being harsh or maybe I’m not being accepting.

You said you still sometimes catch the show. At this point in its life, what is our responsibility? What do you do?

Well, I just sort of basically keep going back and checking on it. I’ve got an associate and she’s there a few times a week and you just check on it. Especially right now, you want to make sure it stays fresh. I think the trick of having a show that opened in the fall instead of the spring is to make sure that now when everyone’s coming to see it, the voters and nominators and that kind of thing, that it is as fresh as it was in fall. Everyone’s got that energy on a spring show opening now, so you want to be sure that people don’t forget that you. I mean, it really is one of those shows that’s so dear to all of our hearts and means so much to all of us in a way that not every show always does.

Run down what shows you currently have on Broadway, shows your connected with.

Book of Mormon, Aladdin, Mean Girls and Prom.

Sometimes that must feel like half of Broadway. Or at least a block of it.

Sometimes I feel that terror, when I’m getting emails for all four shows and I’m like, oh my God, how am I going to keep up, but it’s really awesome. It’s like a dream come true and it’s something I never take for granted.

We touched on the idea of brand name show before, the movie to stage productions that seems to be a common theme on Broadway this season. Network, To Kill a Mockingbird, Tootsie, Beetlejuice. You’ve done Aladdin and Mean Girls, among others. It’s easy to mock the trend, and the Broadway community can be a bit snobby about these things, but the truth is, we’ve seen some really good shows this year that started as movies. Have people like you figured out how to do these things better?

I don’t know. I mean, I think it’s tricky. The key is making sure the production is theatrical, making sure you’re not being a slave to the movie, but maybe some people want to see that movie onstage and don’t notice a difference. That’s where I don’t think it works as well, from my own experience.

From doing Spamalot and doing Mean Girls and doing Elf, it is trickier sometimes because you kind of can’t start totally from scratch or you can’t throw something completely out and do something totally different, like you could do with an original show. So it’s easier because you have source material, but also harder.

In Pretty Woman, for example, there was no way they could not do the big Julia Roberts dress reveal, right? Panic in the theater otherwise.

I think sometimes you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Some people will say, thank God, they put that in, and then other people will slam you and say, They just put that in because it was in the movie. With Mean Girls, we changed a lot from the movie, expanded it. Keep the spirit of the film but do what feels right onstage. You can’t do something just because it was in a movie if it doesn’t land onstage. I remember Eric Idle when we did Spamalot, he was not precious with things. I loved that Eric said, You know, if you’re entertaining people and they’re engaged, they’re not going to think, Oh my God, where is the bridge of death? They’re not going to notice it’s gone until they get home. Now I sort of live by that.

Where there any such decisions that you really struggled over?

There was a tricky one in Mean Girls – we had to put the bus in, and it was the biggest bear of all. We kept avoiding how we were going to do the bus.

You’re talking about the moment in the film when the mean girl Regina gets hit by a bus. [Ed. note: The stage musical recreates the darkly comic moment with the help of some very clever projections.]

We were like, we have to do it. Anything else would have seemed lame, like if she fell into the pit or something else, you know?

You’re Wikipedia page says you’re still working on bringing Animal House to the stage.

Really? Good Lord. That’s been off the table for four or five years now. No, I’m working on Some Like it Hot, a new version with Marc Shaiman, and Scott Wittman and Matthew Lopez as the writing team. We just finished a draft of the first act, so we’ve still got a ways to go, but it’s really been fun to work on. The music’s fantastic, and Matthew is such a great writer as well.

And then, I’m really hoping that Dreamgirls that I did in London will come in soon. That’s one of the other ones on my radar, in my pocket or whatever.

Time frame?

Not sure yet. I think it depends on theaters, and producers, schedules, my schedule, all that stuff.

So we’re looking at next season?

Oh, I hope not much longer. That’s what I’m hoping for, but it’s not up to me.

Back to this season: Let’s talk about some of the specific Prom cast members in terms of Tonys. Who are you kind of rooting for? I’m asking you to split up your babies.

Oh, I can’t. There’s so many of them in that show, and I want all of them to get recognized. I really do.

But I just think that if nothing else, it’s so great for Brooks and for Beth to just get recognized for their comedic skills, and Chris Sieber and Angie getting to play this role that’s based on her. And Michael Potts, to me, is one of the unsung heroes of the show because he’s playing the straight man and that takes a lot of chops.

And then there’s Caitlin and Izzy who are so fantastic as the two girls, and so it’s a hard. I would think it’s going to be a hard one for anyone sitting in a room to pick.

That will be a tough day if people are left out or have hurt feelings, because I’ll be Papa with all of them. I’ll be around that night, you know?

 

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