It happens in Hollywood all the time: A pair of studios open duelling movies about asteroids headed toward Earth, or the life of Truman Capote.
But the world of musical theatre is not immune to cases of creative coincidence – and Broadway currently has one of the strangest ones in its history on its hands.
Three new musicals about queer teenagers fighting to be included in their high-school proms all have their eyes on the Great White Way right now – two written or co-written by Canadians.
The Prom, with a script by The Drowsy Chaperone’s Bob Martin, will win the race to musical theatre’s mecca later this month, officially opening on West 48th Street on Nov. 15.
But an all-Canadian creation called Prom Queen: The Musical and a British hit called Everybody’s Talking About Jamie are hot on its heels.
“It’s very interesting, isn’t it?” says Martin, the Tony-winning Canadian who has been working with songwriters Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin on The Prom since 2010. “It’s one of those zeitgeist things.”
Musicals are a slow-moving art form that can take a decade to develop – but these queer-prom shows all had their first professional productions within a span of six months.
The Prom, which focuses on a group of washed-up Broadway veterans who rush to the aid of a girl who wants to bring her same-sex partner to her grad dance (and attempt to revive their careers in the process), had its out-of-town tryout in Atlanta in September, 2016.
Two months later, Prom Queen, based on the true story of Ontario teen Marc Hall’s successful court battle to bring his boyfriend to prom in 2002, had its world premiere some 1,600 kilometres north at the not-for-profit Segal Centre in Montreal.
Then in February, 2017, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie – inspired by a 2011 BBC documentary called Jamie: Drag Queen at 16, about a small-town teen fighting to wear a dress to his graduation dance – had its world premiere across the ocean in Sheffield, England.
With songs by first-time musical-theatre writers Dan Gillespie Sells (front man for English rock band the Feeling) and Tom McRae, Jamie is the first to find clear commercial success.
It quickly transferred to London’s West End, where it continues to run – and is now beginning an international rollout this month with a filmed performance being shown in cinemas across Canada and the United States.
But while it may seem a step behind the other two on its journey, the all-Canadian Prom Queen musical was first to be born in the minds of its creators.
Producer Mary Young Leckie and writer Kent Staines initially told the story of Hall’s successful battle against the Durham Catholic District School Board for a 2004 TV movie, also called Prom Queen – and the pair had plans for a musical version even back then.
“It just seemed a natural fit: A story that ultimately ends up at a dance, youth-related, fresh and politically relevant,” Staines says.
After writing up a short outline, however, Leckie and Staines took almost a decade to find the right songwriters for their project. The up-and-coming duo of Colleen Dauncey and Akiva Romer-Segal finally won the gig with The Louder We Get – a stirring teen anthem about standing up to injustice that has racked up close to 10,000 views on YouTube in a video filmed during a workshop of the show at Oakville’s Sheridan College in 2014.
By that time, however, The Prom’s development was well under way.
In 2010, a high school in Mississippi made international headlines after it cancelled its prom rather than let a female student attend with her girlfriend – and, around that time, producer Jack Viertel approached Martin, Sklar, Beguelin and director Casey Nicholaw (The Book of Mormon, The Drowsy Chaperone), who were then all working together on Elf: The Musical, with the idea for The Prom.
Martin immediately relished the thought of wrapping a story about a fight for same-sex rights in a satire of celebrity activism – and getting to write roles for favourite Broadway performers such as Beth Leavel and Christopher Sieber to make fun of themselves in. “Making something which is uncomfortable politically more palatable with some broad comic shell on it – that was really appealing to me,” he says.
While he only learned of the existence of potential competitors in the last two years, Martin says his original worry about The Prom, which has always been set in the present day, was that the issue at the core of the show was going to get dated.
“We began writing the show in the Obama administration and it started to seem like the show would have no relevance,” recalls Martin, who splits his time between Bowmanville, Ont., and New York. “And then all hell broke loose.”
Martin, of course, means the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016 – but also that of the religious conservative Mike Pence as vice-president.
As governor of Indiana in 2015, Pence signed into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a controversial bill many feared would make it legal for businesses to deny service to gays and lesbians.
This inspired Martin and his collaborators to move The Prom’s storyline to Indiana – though they never mention Pence in the show, nor Trump either, despite the existence of a song called Love Thy Neighbour Trumps Them All. “That was written long before anybody could conceive of a Trump presidency," Martin says.
With The Prom in the Broadway spotlight first, it’s now up to the producers of the other musicals to highlight how they are different. This type of song-and-dance synchronicity has happened before – and it hasn’t always ended well for lesser-known creators.
In the 1990s, for instance, Canadian composer Leslie Arden’s The House of Martin Guerre, based on a true story of a 16th-century French imposter, seemed Broadway-bound – until Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, the creators behind Les Misérables, unveiled their own Martin Guerre musical.
Jamie producer Nica Burns says that the heart of her show is “really about the unconditional love of a mother for this son who is just a bit different.” But nevertheless, she will take her time before trying Broadway on for size.
First up for the teenage drag queen Jamie will be to star in a “proper movie” of the musical – to be shot in 2019 – and the show will also undergo rewriting for American audiences before it crosses the ocean to North America. “We won’t come likely before 2020,” Burns says.
Meanwhile, in promoting their Prom Queen, Leckie and Staines are now focusing more on Hall’s battle against the Catholic Church – a struggle that recently repeated itself in a way when the London District Catholic School Board briefly pulled money from a production of the show starring high-school students at the Grand Theatre in London, Ont., a move that made headlines around the theatre world. “We had no idea the Catholic Church and the school board were going to hand us publicity, but we sure got a lot,” Leckie says.
Prom Queen will be undergoing one major change, however, because of The Prom.
In November of last year, the Canadian musical was part of the National Alliance for Musical Theatre festival in New York – which was also the commercial launch pad for the Canadian hit Come from Away – where Staines says he and Leckie were “swamped” with interest by commercial producers unworried by a potential prom-off.
But they all had one condition to signing on: a new title.
Leckie and Staines will announce that title later this fall – as well as details of a major new production to be directed by Broadway’s Lonny Price.
One important fan of the show Leckie and Staines will name now: Andrew Lloyd Webber, who came to a workshop of it at the Other Palace, an incubator he runs in London, last summer. He took the creative team out for a breakfast the next morning that Leckie calls a “pinch-me moment.”
Hey, if there’s room for the Jets and the Sharks to face off at a high-school dance in West Side Story and for Danny and Cha Cha to win the hand jive at another in Grease, then there very well may be enough room on Broadway for The Prom, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie and a Canadian musical that will soon be formerly known as Prom Queen if Lloyd Webber is a fan.