TV & Movies

Meet The High Schooler Who Helped Inspire Netflix's The Prom

The film follows a teenage girl who wants to take her girlfriend to the school dance.

by Jessica Lachenal

The story at the heart of Netflix's The Prom might be a familiar one to many queer people. In a small, midwestern town, a high school prom is cancelled when a young student wants to take her girlfriend as her date — a controversy, in the school PTA's eyes. It's certainly a resonant story, but it's also a relevant one, as it's something that's nearly directly lifted from real life. And while The Prom is based on a stage musical, that stage musical is also based on some news that made headlines in 2010.

The Prom began life as a musical in Atlanta in 2016, originally written by Jack Viertel, Bob Martin, and Chad Beguelin, with music from Matthew Sklar. As it continued its run, it garnered the attention of Playbill, which wrote up the production. It's in that chat between Playbill and the show's lead, Caitlin Kinnunen, that we come to learn that the show draws from some very real life headlines. Kinnunen said, "It’s loosely based on a lot of [those kind of stories], actually," referring to the real life controversy that occurred in 2010 when a Mississippi high school made headlines for cancelling a county's prom after learning that then-18-year-old Constance McMillen wanted to take her girlfriend to prom, per CNN's report at the time.

Eventually, The Prom found its way to Broadway, premiering for the 2018-2019 season, and along the way, it enjoyed a very strong critical reception, earning itself multiple Tony award nominations. And Ryan Murphy's take on The Prom is closely based on this Broadway run. It still features Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman) on a quest to take her romantic partner, Alyssa (Ariana DeBose), to prom, against the wishes of the highly-conservative PTA leader, Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington. But there's a whole other half to the story, as some soon-to-be-washed-up Broadway stars catch wind of Emma's plight and journey out to Indiana to (ostensibly) help her in her quest for a prom... and lavish in the media attention their deeds would bring in, of course.

Again, it's a story that still feels relevant to today, despite making its premiere over four years ago now. As The Prom's Broadway director, Casey Nicholaw told Vanity Fair ahead of the show's Broadway debut in 2018: "It’s one of those weird things. At one point it’s super topical and then two years later it wasn’t as topical. And we thought, 'Yikes, has our time passed?' Then all of a sudden now it’s more topical than it ever was."