For all its glittery surface of puffy gowns and rented tuxes, the central dilemma of prom has always been who is taking whom. The perennial question has provided endless fuel for teen movies, and it’s also at the center of “The Prom,” a Broadway tour performing at the Kennedy Center through January 16.
The musical is more than the typical prom fare of juvenile aspirations of a night to remember forever. Through a mix of satire and sentiment, the show portrays what happens when people on the right and the left politicize prom dates. Four New York actors, all in need of an image boost, crusade into small-town Indiana, where the conservative PTA has canceled prom rather than allow high school senior Emma Nolan to bring her girlfriend. Two acts and 17 songs later, everyone has grown up a little. Kaden Kearney makes their national tour debut as Emma.
“I saw ‘The Prom’ on Broadway when I was still in school [at UC Irvine], and loved it,” recalls Kearney. “I really felt connected to the role of Emma. I knew I wanted to be part of this story.”
The musical was written by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin — the duo behind Broadway’s “The Wedding Singer” and “Elf the Musical” — alongside “The Drowsy Chaperone” creator Bob Martin, and closed on Broadway in August 2019 after 309 performances. It received six Tony nominations and won the 2019 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical.
While Kearney unsuccessfully tried out for Ryan Murphy’s megawatt Netflix adaptation in 2020, they got a second chance when the tour’s audition notice posted online in July 2021. The first round of auditions involved sending recordings to the tour’s producers.
“My agents and I didn’t hear anything for a while,” Kearney remembers. “And I thought, ‘Oh well,’ because a lot of auditions, you don’t hear back.”
Fortunately, the silence didn’t last. After getting a preliminary in-person audition, Kearney earned a final callback in early August.
“We had a couple of producers in the room, and [director and choreographer] Casey Nicholaw,” Kearney shares. “The main song was ‘Dance With You,’ [which Emma sings to soothe her spotlight-adverse girlfriend Alyssa] but we also prepared ‘Unruly Heart’ [Emma’s acoustic cri de cœur about loving who she loves despite the prejudices she faces]. They weren’t going to have me sing ‘Unruly Heart,’ but then Casey turned and said, ‘Why don’t you sing it for fun?’ And I was like ‘Yes, please!’ I thought, even if this call back is the last time I get to do this role, I really want to do it. It just brought me so much joy.”
A few days later, Kearney got the role. During rehearsals, Kearny discussed ways the team could support a non-binary actor like themself.
“I always love to give folks who might not have ever met someone who uses they/them pronouns a chance to ask questions so we can all learn and grow together. It was a wonderful conversation.”
Kearney also explored the relationship between their and Emma’s gender expression and identity.
“We’re not trying to make Emma non-binary. She’s exactly where she’s at in her journey,” Kearney shares. “What I think is beautiful about Emma’s journey, and the way the writers have set it up is one day she could identify as non-binary, or not. She feels uncomfortable in a dress, she wants to wear a tux. That layer might be more present with me in the role. And that’s beautiful. It is there for the people that it’s meaningful for. I think a lot of young non-binary people will relate to Emma’s story.”
Discussing the show’s themes further, Kearney says “I think everyone has the experience of feeling unseen. Everyone can relate to the feeling of being the underdog. They may not relate to this specific experience but I think those are universal feelings. And there’s so much joy in the show. It’s about serious things, discrimination and equal rights, but I think everyone who comes to see the show has a chance to access their own joy and resilience.”
Resilience is also Kearney’s byword for the tour so far. They see it in the way the cast and crew work to keep each other safe while entertaining audiences across the country. They see it in the routines and rituals needed to stay grounded while traveling to a new city every other week. They especially see it in learning the ins and outs of cooking in a hotel room.
Kearney jokingly notes, “The biggest thing about hotel cooking is not even the cooking. It’s trying to do dishes in a bathroom sink.”