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The PROM: Musical redemption for a lesbian hero

Posted on July 8, 2024 by Sonoma Sun

In March of 2010, according to countless news reports, an 18-year-old lesbian high school senior at Itawamba Agricultural High School, named Constance McMillen, asked for permission to take her girlfriend to the prom. McMillen said she intended to wear a tuxedo.

The answer McMillen got from the Itawamba County School District, in Itawamba County Mississippi, reverberated across the state, all over the nation and around the world, finally coming to rest on a Broadway stage in 2018, on a Hollywood sound stage three years later, and on the Rotary Stage at the Sonoma Community Center as a Sonoma Arts Live production starting July 12.

That’s because the school district not only told McMillen she couldn’t bring a same-sex prom date or wear a tux, they also warned that if she and her girlfriend came separately but then slow danced together, they could be thrown out.

Rather than meekly acquiescing to the school district’s refusal, McMillen called the American Civil Liberties Union, and the ACLU promptly threatened to sue the school district, whereupon the school cancelled the prom. The inevitable lawsuit ended up in federal court which ruled McMillen’s First Amendment rights were violated. The ruling did not, however, require the school district to stage the canceled prom. 

But the district ultimately decided to allow McMillen and her girlfriend to attend the prom, held at a local country club, where, in the end, only seven people showed up. That’s because school parents had secretly planned a separate “decoy” prom that most of the students attended. More fodder for a fast evolving story worthy of being dramatized and set to music.

McMillen was inundated with social media attention – Lance Bass, Ellen DeGeneres and Green Day, among others, whipped up support and Ellen gave her a donated $30,000 check on air. Her ACLU lawsuit also struck gold. The school agreed to create a policy protecting students from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, they paid McMillen $35,000 in damages, and had to pay her attorney’s fees and expenses totaling nearly $82,000. Subsequently, McMillen was named one of Glamour magazine’s 2010 Women of the Year and dubbed her “the accidental activist.”

Best of all, perhaps, McMillen’s story was reworked into a Broadway musical – “The Prom”– that inevitably became a Netflix movie with a remarkable cast, including Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman, Ariana DeBose, Jo Ellen Pellman, Keegan-Michael Key, Tracey Ullman and more.

The story was shifted to Indiana and stitched into the plot of a failed Broadway show, but somehow it all works, and the film version got great reviews. The SAL production runs for 11 performances July 12-28.

Jonathen Blue, familiar to SAL audiences for his acting and choreography skills, is directing for the first time on the Rotary Stage, and is excited to bring this show to life as Director and Choreographer. Music Direction is by Dr. Christina Howell.

SAL Artistic Director Jaime Love, who is also the 2023 Sonoma Trasure Artist, says, “We have a great crew working on this show, with lots of actors making their debut on the SAL stage.” says Artistic Director Jaime Love.

Hannah Passanisi (Guys and Dolls) stars as shy student Emma Nolan, in love with warm-hearted Alyssa Greene, played by SAL newcomer Pilar Gonzales. Julia Holsworth (Mermans Apprentice) plays Alyssa’s straitlaced PTA President mom, Mrs. Greene. The Broadway crusaders are Dani Beem (Sunset Boulevard) as Broadway diva Dee Dee Allen; Tim Setzer (Sunset Boulevard) as self-indulgent, over-the-top Barry Glickman; and Chelsea Smith (Guys and Dolls) as Broadway dancer Angie Dickinson. Principal Hawkins is played by Phillip Percy Williams (Aint Misbehavin‘). New to SAL’s stage are Jeremy Berrick as pretentious, pompous Trent Oliver, and Bright Eastman as agent Sheldon Saperstein. The high school students of Edgewater, Indiana, are played by Emma Sutherland, Austin Aquino Harrison, Aidan Pryor, Phi Tran, Cecelia Brenner, Lydia Louviere, Addie Lowe, and Reina Gibbs. Caitlin Gurtner, Tika Moon, Ari Nicole, Isabelle Mc Loone, and Lindsay John (a SAL Board member) make up the Ensemble, playing a number of roles.

Opening night (July 12) will feature a reception at 6:45 p.m. and guests are encouraged to wear their finest prom attire and enjoy Prom-themed munchies, cocktails and mocktails included in their ticket for the show. Prizes for the best-dressed Kings and Queens of the Prom will be awarded two tickets to an upcoming SAL show of their choice.

The Prom runs Thursday-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. on the Rotary Stage, Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center, 276 East Napa Street. For more information, go to sonomaartslive.org.




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