Attending a high school prom is a rite of passage, and missing out on it is never forgotten. As we mark the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a special performance of the acclaimed Broadway musical comedy The Prom, about just such a small-town drama, brought together actors, UN diplomats, and celebrity activists to underline a serious message that resonates around the world: LGBTI equality should be the norm, but regrettably still isn’t.
In the show, Emma, played by Caitlin Kinnunen, faces bullying, isolation from the community, and even threats of violence all because she wants to bring her girlfriend to her school’s prom. Her girlfriend Alyssa, played by Isabelle Mccalla, also faces pressure from her mother to conform to social stereotypes and deny her sexuality. A group of actors from liberal New York City, seeking to reanimate their careers through a slapstick social justice campaign, descend on the small Indiana town to champion Emma’s cause – whether she likes it or not.
Yes, this is a hilarious musical set in a small, American mid-western town about – on-the-face of it – a small-scale drama of a single school dance. Yet the show manages to tackle much bigger, universal issues: discrimination, ostracization, family separation, and, ultimately, inner strength.
At a recent post-show, on-stage discussion, moderated by the UN Foundation’s Rajesh Mirchandani, cast members Kinnunen and Brooks Ashmanskas, who plays an aging, has-been actor harboring his own prom demons, joined designer and UNAIDS Goodwill Ambassador Kenneth Cole, UN Human Rights Officer Fabrice Houdart, and the show’s writers to explore how the struggles portrayed on stage are echoed in real life.
In the show, for example, lead character Emma is estranged from her parents and lives with her more accepting grandmother. Houdart, with the UN Human Rights Office, praised The Prom for driving home the fact that LGBTI youth around the world tend to initially encounter discrimination from within their own families.
Kinnunen also revealed that she and other cast members have received hundreds of messages via social media from LGBTI youth who can identify with the show. She summed up the nature of the messages: “Thank you for sharing this story because it continues to happen and seeing ourselves on stage we feel represented, and we feel validated, and we feel seen.”
As co-writer Chad Beguelin summed up in the post-show discussion, “[The] Prom can almost be a placeholder for any sort of celebration, or any sort of coming of age rite that I think every culture has. … It’s sort of a moment of time that exists in all cultures.”
Diplomats and other representatives from the UN LGBTI Core Group – an alliance of countries, non-governmental organizations, and the UN Human Rights Office working together at the UN to elevate and advance LGBTI human rights globally – seated in the audience forThe Prom performance and post-show panel was a testament to this universality. Following the discussion, Norway’s UN Mission tweeted, “Thank you to the whole team behind @ThePromMusical for bringing the important message of love and tolerance regardless of background and sexual orientation to the stage and for moving people’s hearts.”
Beyond raising awareness and empathy, the panelists also spotlighted opportunities for action. This included the need for building bridges within families and communities, as well as concerted action from advocates, the business community, consumers, and others.
Fashion brand Kenneth Cole, as part of a partnership with The Prom and the UN Foundation, designed t-shirts for the show with the slogan ‘Today is Not a Dress Rehearsal.’ Proceeds will benefit UN Free & Equal, a viral global public information initiative of the UN Human Rights Office supporting the fair treatment and equal rights of LGBTI people everywhere.
“We have all have our platforms,” Cole said, “we all have resources within our reach that we can access. And I do believe we should put ourselves metaphorically in each other’s, in other people’s shoes.”
Ultimately in The Prom, Emma finds her inner “zazz” (courage) and offers it to others. The universality of her struggle, and of how she gets through it, may also be a reason why the show has struck such a chord with audiences, critics, and on social media.
Ultimately the show leaves some questions unanswered, a nod to the reality that, 70 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was created, its work for a world where everyone is free and equal remains unfinished yet no less vital.
For more information on UN Free & Equal visit https://www.unfe.org/.
For more information on Broadway’s The Prom visit: https://theprommusical.com/.