A lyric in the production number “It’s Time to Dance” in smash musical The Prom, now on tour, inspires its queer stars Kaden Kearney and Kalyn West with its message of joy and hope for an inclusive future even amid challenging times.
“My favorite lyric in this show is at the end when we're singing, ‘Build a prom for everyone … how the world could one day be, it might come true if we take a chance, until that day comes time to cue the drums, it’s time to see,’” Kearney tells The Advocate.
“It’s acknowledging that we’re not there yet, the day hasn’t arrived … when we have reached equality and equity. But until the day comes, we can dance, we can claim our joy, we can stand in the center of who we are, and celebrate who we are, and acknowledge that we have work to do,” Kearney says.
In the tour of The Prom (finishing its run in Buffalo, N.Y., October 2), Kearney plays Emma, a lesbian teen whose desire to dance with her girlfriend Alyssa (West) at their high school prom receives homophobic backlash from the PTA. The conservative parents cancel the event rather than allow two queer girls to attend arm in arm. That’s when a group of Broadway stars in need of a publicity makeover take up Emma’s plight and head to her Indiana town with her as their cause célèbre.
The tour of The Prom, which finished a run at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles this month, arrived at a more divisive inflection point for queer people (especially youth) than when the film dropped on Netflix in the fall of 2020 (there are currently more 300 anti-LGBTQ+ bills proposed throughout the United States).
“I just want to dance with you,” Emma and Alyssa harmonize in their romantic, plaintive first number together. It’s the simplest of desires muted by fear and homophobia led by Alyssa’s mother, Mrs. Greene (Ashanti J’Aria on tour), who protects her overachieving daughter to the point of stifling her.
When The Prom arrived on Broadway in 2018, it was acclaimed for its laughs, big heart, and energetic choreography. It also made history for featuring the first same-sex kiss at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade that year when the original Broadway cast performed “It’s Time to Dance.” For Kearney and West — who’s been with the show since before it landed on Broadway, first playing the teen character Shelby, then understudying Alyssa — the show’s celebration of queer identity strikes a deep chord.
Kaden Kearney as Emma in the national tour of The Prom
“My queer journey has really only come to the surface in the last year or so for me, which is really strange and rather ironic because I spent so much of my younger years completely surrounded by and inundated with queer culture,” says West, who kick-started their career as a dancer. “I was such a passionate ally, but I never thought to turn the mirror on myself, even though I knew it was there. I had never actually given myself space to think about it and really walk through it and own it.”
Now in their early 30s, West adds, “But the theater community has been a safe haven in terms of feeling like I have space to explore and let myself be seen. I’ve been tremendously grateful for that.”
“Then hindsight, I wish I had been able to know myself earlier so that I could have accessed those support groups in a different way,” West says.
The space The Prom has created has become a haven for some fans, and Jo Ellen Pellman and Ariana DeBose, who played Emma and Alyssa respectively in the movie, launched the Unruly Hearts Initiative (named for the show’s celebratory, ultra-queer 11 o’clock number) in 2020 to help provide resources for queer youth.
While Kearney came out as queer when they were 17 and as nonbinary in their mid-to-late 20s, The Prom, a rare musical that features a queer girl love story, and especially the number “Unruly Heart” proved pivotal for them.
“I was really excited about another queer story that centered specifically queer women and was happy and was joyous and was a comedy,” Kearney says of first hearing about The Prom. Eventually, they bought a ticket to the Broadway show, which starred Caitlyn Kinnunen as Emma and Isabelle McCalla as Alyssa, and sat alone in the mezzanine, they say.
Kalyn West and Kearney (center) with the touring company of The Prom
“I remember just bawling. During ‘Unruly Heart’ I bawled. At that point, I had been out for like 10 years, I didn’t expect to feel so [much],” they say. “As a queer person, I think that was the first time I’d ever seen that many queer characters [in the ‘Unruly Heart’ number] … just on a stage full of young queer people singing about how they want to own themselves. … We never see that. I was so moved.”
While West was with The Prom practically from its inception, Kearney knew from the moment they saw the Broadway production that they wanted to be a part of it. At an audition for Emma along the way to the tour, they were thrilled to walk in her shoes for a few hours, they say.
“This is the stuff I want to do as an actor. I want to tell these stories,” Kearney says.
In line with Kearney’s favorite line from “It’s Time to Dance” that speaks to progress and not perfection in terms of acceptance of LGBTQ+ people, West regards Alyssa’s big moment toward the end of the show, when Mrs. Greene can no longer deny that her daughter is queer and promises to have a talk about it, as an authentic moment that many audience members likely relate to.
“The beauty of the Greenes is that that’s what happens. It’s one of my favorite things about this show, that it ends with a realistic denouement of there’s hope. There’s not a clean, putting a nice little bow solution. It ends with ‘We’ll talk, we’ll have a conversation,’” West says.
“They’ve just opened the door, and there’s still so much work to be done to heal that relationship, to learn and to see each other and hear each other. That’s realism,” West adds. “It’s not as simple as saying, ‘Love and accept everybody, love thy neighbor.’ That’s great. [But] we need to be willing to do the hard thing now and have the conversation and get uncomfortable.”