The Prom had its world premiere at The Alliance Theatre inAtlanta, Georgia, in 2016, before its hit run on Broadway. The show centers on some big Broadway stars on a mission to change the world, as they work to make it possible for a girl to bring her girlfriend to … The Prom, of course. Critics and audiences alike have loved the show and its compassionate message of inclusion. Variety raved, “It’s so full of happiness that you think your heart is about to burst” while The Hollywood Reporter called it “comic gold!”
The joyous Broadway musical comedy, The Prom, will make its Tennessee Performing Arts Center (TPAC) debut in Jackson Hall, when the National Tour of the show visits Nashville on February 22 - 27, 2022.
In advance of the show’s Nashville run, one of the leads, Patrick Wetzel, who plays the role of “Barry” in the show, sat down with me to talk about his own history with The Prom and how it brought him back to the stage for the first time in eight years, and much more. We still live in a country where, for far too many LGBTQ+ youth, the idea of taking an authentic date to the prom is a dream deferred. This show thus has an important message that needs to be seen and heard—and internalized—by audiences across the country.
James Grady: If somebody asked you, as a cast member, to describe The Prom, how would you describe it?
Patrick Wetzel: You know, it's funny. I think if you asked every different principal in the show, you'd get different answers. But my character, Barry, has an objective in the show, and it changes about halfway through. He realizes he's there to learn something and not necessarily to teach, and so I think it's really about growing! It's also about friendship, it's about loyalty, and it's about teaching and learning. And, so importantly, it's about inclusivity and acceptance!
James Grady: When did you first become aware of, or involved in, The Prom?
Patrick Wetzel: That's very interesting! I was an actor for most of my adult career, and then about eight years ago, I needed to take a break. I shifted gears and moved into the management side of things. So I was a stage manager on a very early incarnation of The Prom, a workshop before it came to Broadway. We did that workshop for a month.
From there, my journey with The Prom has been sort of varied. When Ryan Murphy saw the Broadway musical, he decided to make the movie for Netflix. Casey Nicholaw, who was the original director and choreographer of the Broadway musical, went out to work on the choreography for the movie. I was a part of his choreography team working with him on the movie. I worked with James Corden and Meryl [Streep] and Nicole [Kidman] and the rest of the cast to assist Casey with the choreography.
Then I heard that the national tour of The Prom was going out. I had been thinking ... it had been eight years and in the middle of the pandemic Broadway theater was shut down for 18 months. During that time, I thought, "Well, gosh, I don't think I'm done performing yet." So I put the word out that I wanted to go back onto the stage! Then this opportunity presented itself!
Now I find myself, eight years later, back on the stage—and with a show that I initially had worked on as a stage manager when it was still being workshopped! So ... life is funny. You never really know where things are going to lead you, but my journey with The Prom, in particular, has been so strangely varied!
James Grady: Has performing in The Prom revitalized your love of acting? I know you said you felt the need to step back eight years ago.
Patrick Wetzel: It has completely revitalized my love of being on the stage, James. I love this role. I love this part. I love that this is where I have ended up working on the show. It's a beautiful part, and I love playing Barry. It's so incredibly satisfying to get to play him eight times a week, and I'm loving it!
I don't know why, but eight years ago, I began to feel anxious about auditioning. When I first moved to New York City, I was fearless in an audition setting. I was not scared of performing or auditioning in front of everyone, anyone. I loved getting in the room to audition. But as I got older, something started to shift, and my anxiety... I would get the phone call from my agent, I would see that they were calling, and that would send me into a tailspin. And I was scared to to get into the room and audition. I was turning down more auditions than I was going in for, and that's no way to be an actor!
So I knew that I needed to make some sort of shift eight years ago and at the very least take a break.
James Grady: Was it a difficult mental shift to come back to the stage?
Patrick Wetzel: A few years ago, though, I started thinking, "Gosh, I have this itch that I need to scratch to get back on the stage." But I didn't say anything for a couple years because my decision to stop performing had been so definitive! I felt surely this feeling of wanting to be back on the stage was just fleeting, that it would go away.
It was kind of like coming out. You think, "No, I'm not gay. I'm not gay. It'll go away. It'll pass." But that that voice insists. This was sort of similar to coming out. It got louder and louder, until I finally had to acknowledge, "I think I want to be on the stage again." So I finally "came out" and told the people that needed to know, and it felt like such a relief. I'm realizing the parallels now between that and coming out of the closet.
As soon as I said it, I felt free. I felt excited to audition again. And I'm so excited to be back on the stage. For whatever reason I needed to take that break and step away for a moment. And it gave me clarity on where my true passion is. And my original passion for theater and performing and musical comedy--I still just love it so much. It's in me, it's in the center of my being. I have to be a part of it. I love it. I love, love, love, love it!
James Grady: What are some roles you would love to play in the future?
Patrick Wetzel: Off the top of my head, Harold Hill in The Music Man! It's a part I've never played. I've seen the show many, many times, and I love it so much. I just love that part! Harold Hill and how he's this con man who finally comes clean. He gives himself permission to be his true authentic self, and in his own way, comes out of the closet to be honest with himself about his life. I love the music. I love the story. And that's a dream role for me!
James Grady: It occurred to me that, when the show was written, a lot of us thought we were getting near the end of this era, near the end of this fight. And now we find ourselves, years later, finding it so very timely, unfortunately.
Patrick Wetzel: There are places where the story needs to be told, as we journey around to different cities. This message does need to be heard by some parts of the country more than others. Living in New York City, being gay is very accepted, but a lot of the places we are traveling things aren't so clear. But I think the message will be heard loud and clear!
Things are evolving and changing all the time! I moved to New York City in 1989. And thinking about where things were there, then, and where we are now. I mean, we've come so far, and we're evolving. The trans community is, in the LGBTQ community, at the forefront, forging ahead and blazing the trails for our community as a whole. We're continuing to push forward and forge ahead and normalize our community.
Courtney Balan, Patrick Wetzel, Bud Weber and Emily Borromeo in The National Tour of THE PROM.Photo by Deen van Meer
Bringing it back to The Prom and speaking of normalizing things--there's nothing more normal than wanting to go to a high school dance and dance with the person that you love. And that's really all this story is, in the end. It's about a teenager, who wants to go to a dance with her girlfriend. There's nothing more normal than that. That's no different than any other person of any other gender or identity. They just want to dance with their loved one. It's fascinating telling the story.
James Grady: What's the reception been like from audiences around the country?
Patrick Wetzel: Well, it has been surprisingly good! There's a couple of politically charged moments in the show. It's not with a heavy hand, but they are there those moments! So we didn't know how this was going to be. The show played very well in New York. But we had wondered what it would be like when took the show to cities in the Midwest or the South.
What it has shown me is that The Prom is just a really well-constructed and well-written and very funny musical comedy. So it's played very well! It has surprised us all. We sort of walk into every new city that we play, holding our breath a little bit, thinking, "Well, how is it gonna play here?" But we have learned to trust that the material is really good. It's really funny. They did such a beautiful job writing the show. That wins audiences over.
The Prom will knock you over the head with the comedy because it's so funny, but then it will surprise you and catch you off guard with its emotional moments and messages. So I always tell people, come to our show ready to laugh but bring a tissue!
James Grady: What has been the response from the older crowd, people who didn’t grow up with a concern for things like this necessarily?
Patrick Wetzel: Well, it's interesting because I was just talking with a person who saw the show in St. Louis after the show. We were chatting, and she's an older person, late 60s, early 70s, and her response was, "I didn't realize how important this story was to tell people. It's a really good message."
Again, it is not with a heavy hand. They're just telling this story about a young girl who wants to go to a dance. And it's as simple as that. But surprisingly, people do need to see that it's important that we let our young people be who they are. They're going to shape our country and our world.
James Grady: What would you say to your LGBT audience who may be thinking of coming to see your show?
Patrick Wetzel: Yeah, well, you know what's interesting, James? We see so many young kids with their parents coming, and we get so many notes and letters from young LGBTQ community members who say, "I was scared to tell my parents that I was gay. I was scared to come out to my parents, and you have helped me. Now I have the courage!" I mean heartbreaking letters from kids all around. And we say, "Come and be accepted. Come and don't be scared. Come ready to laugh. But bravely enter our theater and be ready to let your freak flag fly.
For more information, please visit www.theprommusical.com or find the show on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. The Prom will run nightly at TPAC’s Jackson Hall from February 22-27, 2022. Tickets for the TPAC shows can be purchased at TPAC.org or by calling 615-782-4040.
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