'The Prom' composer Matthew Sklar

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday June 21, 2022
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Courtney Balan, Patrick Wetzel, Bud Weber and Emily Borromeo in the national tour of 'The Prom.'
Courtney Balan, Patrick Wetzel, Bud Weber and Emily Borromeo in the national tour of 'The Prom.'

"When I was 6 years old, in 1979, my parents took me to see Sarah Jessica Parker in 'Annie.' That was my first Broadway show, and I was hooked," recalled Matthew Sklar, composer of the "The Prom," the snazzy, uplifting queer musical that opens June 22 at the Golden Gate Theatre, in a recent interview with the Bay Area Reporter.

Delayed by an epic string of sick days, "The Prom" arrives in San Francisco more than a year after it was originally scheduled and having already been adapted for a telemovie by Ryan Murphy for Netflix. It's about a self-absorbed troupe of Broadway stars who descend on a midwestern town to protest the local high schools refusal to allow same-sex couples at their prom.

Don't shy away from the Golden Gate if you were left flat by the small-screen version. There's a tarter, funnier more satirical vision on display in the original stage conception of the work by Sklar and his collaborators, queer lyricist Chad Beguilin and Broadway's over-the-top most gay director, Casey Nicholaw ("The Book of Mormon," "Aladdin," "Mean Girls").

In what some readers may regard as a shocking twist, Sklar himself —a man who says "by the time I was a teenager, my life revolved around high school theater"— is not gay.

A Westfield, New Jersey native, Sklar says his family was always remarkably open-minded. His father, a pediatric dentist, had worked his way through dental school by working as a keyboardist. And Sklar, supplementing his school musical fix by participating in annual community theater productions, had queer adults in his life from a young age.

"One of the reasons I really connected with 'The Prom' when the concept was first presented to me," Sklar says, "Is that I had a gay friend in high school who really wasn't accepted at home. His parents were a nightmare."

Role models

While participating in a pre-college program at Julliard during his teen years, Sklar had the opportunity to play some of his own compositions for one of his early idols.

"Marvin Hamlisch was the first person I'd ever heard of who had started in the pit and moved on to be a Broadway composer," said Sklar. "And he told me he thought I had the goods to make a career in music."

At 17, while a freshman at New York University, Sklar got work as a rehearsal pianist, first at the Paper Mill Playhouse (a New Jersey launching pad for many soon-to-hit-Broadway musicals) and then on the Strand itself, substituting on keyboards for shows including "Les Miserables."

'The Prom' lyricist Chad Beguilin and composer Matthew Sklar  

"In 1994, when I was in 22, I got my first full-time job as a pit musician, playing keyboards for 'Titanic,'" he recalled. With music and lyrics by Maury Yeston, the show won the Tony for Best Musical, but remains forever overshadowed by the blockbuster movie, which coincidentally opened the same year.

"Titanic"'s music director was another idol of Sklar's, Jeanine Tesori, another pit-to-score success story, whose landmark work includes partnering with Tony Kushner on "Caroline, or Change" and setting Alison Bechdel's story to music in the Pulitzer-winning "Fun Home."

Sklar worked with Tesori again as associate conductor on "Caroline..." and arranging the dance numbers in her "Shrek," meanwhile taking on his own first major stage scores.

The prom-posal
Along with queer lyricist Chad Beguilin, Sklar scored a Tony nomination for the songs for "The Wedding Singer" (2006), after which the duo hit big on Broadway with another film adaptation, "Elf"(2010), which has gone on to huge success in touring and regional productions.

Shortly after seeing an early workshop of "Elf," Jack Viertel, a longtime executive with the Jujamcyn Theaters, read a New York Times article about the ACLU taking on the case of a lesbian teen in Minneapolis who was told by school officials that she couldn't bring her girlfriend the prom.

The national touring company of 'The Prom' photo: Deen Van Meer  

Viertel, incensed, at first thought that members of the Broadway community should go protest. Then he thought about the many ways taking such action might backfire. And then he thought that such a backfire might make for a Broadway musical that was very funny. Viertel was working with Nicholaw on other projects at the time and quickly encouraged him to team up with Sklar and Beguilin.

"It was eight years from that first idea to Broadway," said Sklar. "Originally we set out to make it primarily a comedy about these New York actors who were so out-of-touch with mainstream America. But along the way, we found a heart."

Inspiring audiences
"We wrote 'The Prom' in the Obama era," mused Sklar, "And sometimes it feels like everything has just gone downhill since."

Broadway previews began in late October 2016, and by opening night three weeks later, Trump had been elected president. The show ran through the following August, hampered no doubt by the state of shock that descended upon New York theater audiences, not to mention the facts that it was not based on a familiar film or dramatic property, featured no instantly recognizable stars, and has perhaps the blandest title of any Broadway musical in years.

On the other hand, "The Prom" was nominated for five Tony awards —including nods for Sklar's score and Best Musical (Both awards went to "Hadestown," now playing at the Orpheum)— and indeed won the Drama Desk award for Outstanding Musical.

But the show had unqualified success in its impact on audience members, particularly fans in their teens and twenties.

"Our stage door was incredible," recalls Sklar, "After every performance. We had plenty of traditional New York theatergoers, but the kids were repeaters, coming multiple times. Brooks [Ashmankas, who played the show's narcissistic Barry Glickman] told me that a kid came up to him and told him that the show had really helped him and that he was going to come out to his parents.

"When we did our out of town tryout in Atlanta, we had audience talk-backs after the performances. I was definitely nervous because the show felt very New Yorky to me. One night, a guy wearing a trucker hat stood up and said, in his southern accent, 'If I had known what the show was about, I wouldn't have come. But I am glad that I came. And I'm glad those girls got to go to their prom together.'"

"Next year," says Sklar, "I hope that some high school theater group in Florida will do the show. I may be naïve in thinking this, but maybe this show can change hearts."

'The Prom,' through July 17. Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St. $56-$226. (888) 746-1749. www.broadwaysf.com

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