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Meet the Tony Nominees: Casey Nicholaw, Director of ‘The Prom’

Category Broadway

|by Matthew Wexler |


Nicholaw on his cast: “They work harder than any group that I've ever worked with.”

Casey Nicholaw was performing on Broadway before many of the cast members of his latest hit, The Prom, were even born. The Tony Award-winning director-choreographer made his Broadway debut in 1992’s Crazy For You, but it would take more than a decade before he moved to the other side of the curtain, choreographing and/or directing hits such as Spamalot, The Book of Mormon, Aladdin, Mean Girls and more. This season, Nicholaw has earned another Tony Award nomination for Best Director – marking seven nominations for the heartfelt musical about a group of publicity-seeking Broadway actors who intercept a teen’s small-town battle to take her girlfriend to prom.

Casey Nicholaw is Tony-nominated for directing ‘The Prom’ (Photos: Joan Marcus; Deen van Meer)

Casey Nicholaw is Tony-nominated for directing ‘The Prom’ (Photos: Joan Marcus; Deen van Meer)

The new musical, featuring a book by Bob Martin and music and lyrics by Chad Beguelin and Matthew Sklar, comes on the heels of other Gen Z musicals, including Dear Evan Hansen and Be More Chill. Producers are gravitating toward the phenomenon and trying to capitalize on the next generation of enthusiastic theatergoers.

“I think that a lot of it has to do with new voices and people wanting to tell (these) stories,” says Nicholaw. “What's interesting to me is that never goes away with people, the sort of ‘being young and feeling like you don't fit in’ carries on with you until you're older, and that’s a lot of that of why everybody relates to The Prom, not just the kids. I'm just happy because new audiences are coming to Broadway. That's the best part.”

The Prom opened last November, and since that time has gained national attention for its positive message about love and acceptance. Appearances on Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and Good Morning America are reaching theater fans far beyond The Prom’s home at the Longacre Theatre. “You can be entertained, and you can get a message out,” reflects Nicholaw, “and I think that's awesome.”

In many ways, The Prom is a family show for the 21st century, but Nicholaw never thinks of the result when working on a project. “The Prom came completely from an original idea and from things that were in the headlines,” he reflects. “We got two generations together that came from completely different worlds. Characters that wouldn't know how to see eye to eye or had even met before. One of the most special things in The Prom is watching the relationship between Barry (a middle-aged Broadway actor played by Brooks Ashmanskas) and Emma (an Indiana teenager played by Caitlin Kinnunen), which is not what you would expect from the beginning of the show.”

The rigorous production is filled with signature Nicholaw choreography that goes from big to bigger. Casting an ensemble that could play teenagers while still maintaining the demands of an eight-show week is something that the seasoned director has learned since he first staged The Book of Mormon in 2011.

“It’s hard. At 19 or 20 years old, sometimes they’re equipped and sometimes they’re not. Training is different now, but you can’t learn about comedy and longevity until you’re actually doing it. People get out of high school and want to be a star, but they don't necessarily have the craft,” says Nicholaw of the real-life demands of being a Broadway performer. “You have to have people with youthful energy but who also have the craft, the comic timing and the vocal chops. It's a lot to ask. I became a different person between 19 and 23, and again between 27 and 30. So to get somebody that's actually that age and have them carry a show is really tough.”

The life of a Broadway dancer (especially a Nicholaw dancer) is comparable to a professional athlete. What audiences see on stage for two-and-a-half hours only scratches the surface. “The ensemble is so dedicated; they’re real pros. I feel like that’s something that’s gotten better with this generation,” says Nicholaw. “They're much more diligent about their bodies and the energy they give on stage. That's fun for me to see and to watch.”

While the big numbers sparkle with Broadway flair, The Prom also tackles the difficulty LGBTQ teens face when coming out to family, friends and their community, as portrayed by Emma and her girlfriend Alyssa (Isabelle McCalla). Nicholaw says his two actresses do a lot of the heavy lifting with their well-crafted performances, but that the creative team also learned a few things during the production’s 2016 Atlanta run. “The thing that we wanted to do was make the Midwest feel more like a play and have Broadway feel like musical comedy as opposed to having the whole show in a musical comedy vibe,” says Nicholaw.

Critics are raving, calling The Prom “a feast to watch.” Nicholaw takes it in stride, focusing on the joy of the creative process with the next generation of theater artists. “What I'm encouraged by is that they work harder than any group that I've ever worked with, and that is incredible,” says Nicholaw of his inter-generational cast. “It's fulfilling because they seem rewarded by the process. I want to be around that energy.”

The Prom is playing at The Longacre Theatre. Find more Tony-nominated shows here!

Matthew Wexler is an NYC-based culture and lifestyle writer. Read more of his work at
wexlerwrites.com.

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