Why The Prom Is the Pete Buttigieg of Broadway and How It Could Win the Tony
The heartwarming musical about an Indiana lesbian is this year's Tony Awards underdog.
The Broadway musical The Prom and presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg are both totally gay, but is that all they have in common? Story of the Week will explore how The Prom is emerging as this year's dark horse at the Tony Awards — just as Buttigieg assumes the same role in Democratic Party politics.
What is The Prom?
The Prom is the new musical by Bob Martin (book), Chad Beguelin (book and lyrics), and Matthew Sklar (music) about a bunch of Broadway sublebrities who descend on a small town in Indiana to protest on behalf of Emma, a teenage lesbian who wants to take her girlfriend to the prom but is being thwarted by a group of parents. While the Broadway crew initially sees this "activism" as a cheap opportunity for publicity, they become increasingly invested in Emma and her town as they discover that the things we all want (love, acceptance, community) transcend cultural barriers. The show opened last November to warm reviews and has managed to run for nearly 200 performances since then.
Financially, The Prom runs in the middle of the pack: not a blockbuster like Hamilton, but not an insta-flop like Gettin' the Band Back Together. Grossing between $500,000 and $600,000 weekly (sometimes less in the thin weeks of winter), The Prom has survived for nearly seven months on modest box office. Should The Prom pull off an upset and clinch the Tony Award for Best Musical, those numbers are certain to rise.
I predicted last week that the major competition for this year's Best Musical Tony will be between Hadestown and Tootsie. I still think that is true, although the response to that article and the positive buzz I've heard around Broadway has led me to reevaluate The Prom's chances. Indeed, it looked like an auspicious omen when Chasten Buttigieg (the high school theater teacher married to Pete Buttigieg) attended a performance of The Prom Wednesday evening, just a day after the show was nominated for a lucky seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
Who is Pete Buttigieg?
Just like The Prom, Pete Buttigieg's story mostly takes place in Indiana: He's the mayor of South Bend, and he's making major waves in the race for the Democratic Party nomination for president. When he announced his exploratory committee in January, he was polling nationally at 0 percent. In just three months, that number has risen to a consistent 7 or 8 percent, a huge achievement for a relative newcomer to national politics.
On Inauguration Day 2021, Buttigieg will be 39 years old, making him, should he win the election, the youngest-ever American president. While a Buttigieg presidency wouldn't look like anything we've previously seen in the White House, Mayor Pete has emphasized the need for Americans to emerge from the trenches of the culture war — kind of like a certain Broadway musical.
What do the Tonys have to do with presidential politics?
On the surface, very little: American theatergoers overwhelmingly skew liberal and Broadway theaters are some of the only places in our country where Hillary Clinton unconditionally receives a standing ovation. This is a subject The Prom pokes fun at, including in a joke about the despised Electoral College (the abolition of which has become a plank in the Buttigieg campaign). There are no shows on Broadway that represent a Trumpian worldview. It's safe to say that Broadway is not a comprehensive barometer of national politics.
However, it's easy to see parallels between the contenders for the top Tony Award and the candidates for the Democratic nomination for president: Uncompromising in its vision, Hadestown seems to promise nothing less than a musical revolution. Its antique Marxist depiction of industrial hell is so hot, viewers can practically feel the Bern. Conversely, Tootsie offers a comforting nostalgia trip for those who love both the 1982 Dustin Hoffman movie and the kind of old-fashioned musical comedy unconcerned with the ways in which it is perceived as "problematic." Strategically, Tootsie seems to be "Biden" its time until a quiet majority of Tony voters ushers it to victory.
But for those theater fans that don't fit neatly into either category, The Prom has emerged as an enticing alternative: a fresh face from Indiana bearing the encouraging message that what divides us is not nearly as significant as what brings us together. In our cynical age, its sunny sincerity can feel almost embarrassingly naive — until you find yourself charmed by its spell.
How could The Prom win?
Americans love an underdog story. Our movies, television, and even political history are riddled with them. As America's foremost theatrical storytellers, the Broadway community is not immune to our national underdog fetish — if anything it's even more sensitive to it. That might explain the love the community has shown to both the musical itself and its unlikely Tony shot: It is an underdog story running an underdog campaign for Best Musical — and that might just be its key to victory.
Such upsets have precedent: In 2015, another scrappy musical about lesbians (Fun Home) bested that year's name-brand musical, An American in Paris. The strange little musical A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder won in 2014 over Aladdin and Beautiful (both of which are still running). The year before, Kinky Boots beat Matilda. Perhaps most famously of all, Avenue Q beat Wicked in 2004 by actually campaigning like its puppets were running for office.
I attended the Tony Awards' "Meet the Nominees" press junket on Wednesday, and it's hard to overstate the amount of goodwill the Broadway community has for The Prom. Even artists nominated in categories against The Prom seem to be rooting for it.
This is all significant when one considers that the 831 Tony voters are all members of that community: They include representatives of the Broadway League (producers), Actors' Equity (actors), the Dramatists Guild (playwrights), SDC (directors and choreographers), and the American Theatre Wing (pillars of the community from all disciplines), to name a few of the constituencies.
While no one will be commissioning any polls of the Tony voters between now and June 9, I wouldn't be surprised if support for The Prom isn't much higher than I initially estimated. That makes The Prom the Pete Buttigieg of this Tony season: a longshot that might just pull the whole thing off.