In Broadway’s “The Prom,” Beth Leavel is afforded the opportunity to zing her public persona — or, rather, one that is assigned to most actresses fortunate enough to have established careers in theater — while delivering a poignant message about America’s political climate.
True to form, the Tony Award winner is a standout in the new musical, now playing at New York’s Longacre Theatre. She plays Dee Dee Allen, a vainglorious actress whose career has been inching toward irrelevance. Faced with an uncertain future after another Broadway flop, Dee Dee joins three other down-on-their-luck performers (played by Brooks Ashmanskas, Angie Schworer and Christopher Sieber) to rally on behalf of a lesbian teen, Emma (Caitlin Kinnunen), who has been barred from taking her closeted girlfriend, Alyssa (Isabelle McCalla), to her Indiana high school prom.
Dee Dee’s Midwest visit, however, is not so much a selfless act of beneficence as it is an effort to recast her prima donna image in a positive light.
Leavel gets the chance to go all-out diva in two showstopping numbers, “It’s Not About Me” and “The Lady’s Improving,” played for maximum comedic effect. With the rest of the show’s exaggerated characters, Dee Dee helps make “The Prom” a song-and-dance-filled study in clashing cultures — gay versus straight, big city versus small town, liberal versus conservative.
And while her talents have been showcased in musicals like “The Drowsy Chaperone” and “Bandstand,” the North Carolina native told HuffPost she considers her current role “the easiest hard work I’ve ever done,” primarily because she and her castmates feel “huge ownership to the show and its story.”
The musical’s creative team, including composers Chad Beguelin and Matthew Sklar and book co-writer Bob Martin, were inspired by a number of real-life cases in which LGBTQ teens were forbidden to attend dances and other school functions with same-sex dates. Concerns over how “The Prom” would resonate — given marriage equality and other social advances — dwindled just months after its September 2016 Atlanta premiere when Donald Trump, who has worked to roll back LGBTQ rights, won the presidency.
“It’s interesting to be in a show that has such a relevant heartbeat,” she told HuffPost. “For a while, they were thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, this isn’t an issue. We wouldn’t be going to Indiana’ — and then the world changed. It’s still changing, [and] I’m so glad we can be a mirror to people who don’t see themselves on stage.”
As Leavel pointed out, director Casey Nicholaw was adamant that “The Prom” not feel lecture-y and made an effort to portray the show’s New York and Indiana settings as “two worlds that each have value and should each respect how they can learn from each other.”
Even so, the musical courted controversy early in its New York run. Weeks after its Nov. 15 opening, the musical got its first national exposure, thanks to a live performance at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. After an energetic rendition of “It’s Time to Dance,” Emma and Alyssa shared a kiss, just as they do in the show.
The nationally televised moment is thought to be the first same-sex kiss to be shown at the annual event and, not surprisingly, drew a fair share of backlash online. Leavel, however, wasn’t fazed by the smooch commotion.
“It made us stand up even taller with what the message of our story is,” she said. More important, she quipped, “it was 5 degrees outside that day. Ask anyone in the show what their takeaway was, and they’ll be like, ‘Well, we lived. It was 5 degrees outside.’”
“The Prom” coincides with another milestone in Leavel’s life. Shortly after rehearsals for the show began last year, she and fellow actor Adam Heller got engaged.
“Life sometimes goes, ‘Hey, guess what. Here’s your next chapter,’” she said. Though they have been together for more than nine years, she didn’t anticipate planning to tie the knot at 63. “I also didn’t expect ‘The Prom’ to be coming my way, but it feels right and as it should be. And I’m grateful.”
At a time when Broadway is increasingly dominated by jukebox musicals and screen-to-stage adaptations, Leavel said she hopes the message of “The Prom” resounds well beyond the confines of the Longacre Theatre each night.
“If we can help someone feel loved, relevant and accepted, I’m happy to do that,” she said.