Intermission Talk

Why I Can’t Take ‘Lenny’

To My High School ‘Prom’


by Tony Vellela


Who’s your date for high school’s biggest social event, The Prom?

In the hot new musical of the same name, featuring music by Matthew Sklar, book by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin, and lyrics by Beguelin, at the Longacre,  you’d be sure to have a great time if you plan to attend “The Prom” with the love of your life.

That was fifteen-year-old Emma’s plan, at least.  Her plan, brilliantly portrayed by Caitlin Kinnunen, was to invite her secret love, classmate Alyssa, [played with welcome  modesty by Isabelle McCalla].   This simple idea for the story line of a musical, conceived by Jack Viertel, was based on a true-life event.  But simple ideas have a way of becoming complex problems.

Enter: Broadway!  Here, a pair of ‘seasoned’ performers,  now conclude that their Big Break may never come.  Barry Glickman [Brooks Ashmansksas] and Dee Dee Allen [Beth Leavel] believe they have discovered the secret to keeping a flagging career from declining any further. The best method of keeping their names and faces at the public’s top of mind is to associate themselves with a sympathetic cause.  A quick survey of the world of popular culture reveals that all the ‘best’ ones  have been snapped up:  Parkinson’s disease = Michael Fox; animal welfare = Betty White; etc. etc. etc.

Enter: a random Twitter search, read by Dee Dee and Barry’s agent.  It tells the human interest tale of a teen-age lesbian, who plans to ask her true love to be her date, despite the opposition of nearly everyone in her small home town,  Edgewater, Indiana.  Parents, teachers, students and nearly everyone else decide that the best remedy for this vexing problem is to cancel the prom.   The agent points out that this is a great ’cause’ for them to champion.  Dee Dee and Barry are joined by Angie, [portrayed by Angie Schworer], whose current role in another touring company of ‘A Chorus Line’ still has her in the back of the line, after twenty years.

And when the save-the-world group hits Indiana, they cause more than anyone’s fair share of melodrama, which Emma did not request. Their hidden agenda was to associate themselves with this unreported story.   Dee Dee is fleeing the Big Apple following a rotten review covering her open and shut participation in “Eleanor – the Musical.”  Brooks hasn’t been seen on stage in years.  His fan base was based on when he appeared in a three-episode arc in the story line of a police procedural, and a showy role in an ill-conceived sitcom called “Talk to the Hand.”   Showing up wearing ‘We’re All Lesbians’ T-shirts does even less to endear them with the aggrieved students.

Imagine everyone’s surprise when they learn that the out-front, lead-the-charge opposition to this worldwide cause is none other than the mother of  Emma’s girlfriend, referred to only as Mrs. Greene.  Plus – the principal’s secret passion is to savor every new cast album release of Broadway musicals.  And as an extra bonus – he turns out to be Dee Dee’s greatest fan.  Having now been  exposed as a musicals geek, he pulls some strings and arranges for a prom to be held not on school grounds.

This two-act entertainment manages to keep all its balls in the air, due in large part to two basic elements that outshine their usual contribution to how successful any new, standard-format musical will be: the choreography and the score.  This show’s tunes benefit from the collective experience of the music and vocal arrangements by Matthew Sklar, the direction by Casey Nicholaw, and the collaboration among Glen Kelly [musical arrangements], the music coordination work of Howard Jones, music direction of Meg Zervoulis,and John Clancy’s musical direction contribution, as well as the overall choreography by Casey Nicholaw.  His fiercely energetic dance moves are reminiscent of the exuberant explosion of the teen-age boys in “Newsies.”

Even the casting choices deserve credit, taking two examples from among many:  Nicholaw knows just what to do with dancer Angie Schworer.  Her height of nearly six feet gives a great boost to many numbers.  She is reminiscent of the great character actress Charlotte Greenwood, who was known among the Hollywood Golden Years regulars for her ability to do more than eye-high kicks.  If you’re not familiar with her, look at her long legs skills in “Oklahoma!” And above all others, the choice of Caitlin Kinnunen for the pivotal lead role as Emma, creates the best possible balance within the story.  She believes in her right to do this.  There is no mawkishness in her portrayal, which would have undercut the basic truth that Emma must project at all times, a sincerity that allows an audience to stay with her, through all the obstacles she confronts.  This is an A+ performance, in vocals and in dance, which Kinnunen   tackles with ease.   Giving Emma this groundedness sets up just the right balance between the over-the-top reactionary behavior of the town and school population, and her belief in what she knows is the best expression of her real self.  The touching  ballad “Dance With You” more than earns its ability to deliver a real emotional punch.

It’s not a punch but a jolt that still has the power to bring someone to their feet.  It’s a visceral jolt that hits you as you hear one of Lenny Bruce’s original monologues.  It comes not from hate or bigotry, but from the deeply ingrained lessons we learn as a child about the correct, proper response we’re conditioned to have when certain situations, in this case the use of certain words, enter the conversation.

In “I’m Not a Comedian . . . I’m Lenny Bruce,” playwright and actor Ronnie Marmo shares some of the monologues that landed Bruce in jail dozens of times.  Peering out over the audience, he would shade his eyes, asking something like “Are there any niggers here tonight?  What about kikes?  Any wops?   Or spics?”  And even though this one-man work starts with Marmo as Bruce, sitting naked on a toilet, it is still the sound of those words, rather than the sight of a naked man, standing up and slowly dressing, that gets the bigger response.

The setting for this endeavor, the new Cutting Room site, equipped to host cabaret, plays, concerts and film presentations, is in itself the ideal location for a work that manages to pull together so many of the types of self-expression that Bruce tried to legitimize.  “I’m Not a Comedian . . . ” fits perfectly in the nightclub, cabaret mold, including table service of drinks.

Lenny Bruce, during the identity-seeking fifties and early sixties, dared his audience to challenge themselves and their beliefs.  It’s reminiscent of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s gentle assault on the religious and traditional mores of their era, especially in the Pulitzer Prize winning song ‘You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” in “South Pacific,” which challenges the rigid forbidden mix of couples from different heritages and cultures.  Many of his eventual followers might be surprised to hear that Bruce was on the same page as R & H.

Bruce was a libertarian of the highest order, whose best times came during his marriage to his wife Holly, who never felt that she was promoting anything evil or negative, let alone sinful.   She embodied many of the same qualities he saw in his mother Sally Marr, herself a purveyor of comic routines that might still be offensive in today’s ‘better’ venues.

There are a few good reasons to let yourself go, and enjoy the opportunity of seeing and hearing this piece of American culture.  He often proclaimed that all he ever wanted to do was to find the answers to life’s big questions.  To do that, he observed, requires the use of language.  And when one judge sentences him to not perform, he responds painfully “Please don’t take away my words.  They’re all that I have left.”  This plaintive beg for mercy echoes Arthur Miller’s character John in “The Crucible,” to ‘please leave me my name.’

The style of this work may or may not appeal to you.  But it would be wise to set aside your own prejudice against one-man shows, stand-up performances or bio-based material.  You may believe that you ‘know’ Lenny Bruce.  But these days, we can’t avoid the assaults from government sources on the very means we have to communicate truths. We are seeing and hearing this societal mission to denigrate language, to twist phrases and redefine words.  It all represents even more of a challenge now than it did in Bruce’s time.  We should have listened.

After Play

When anything gets extended four times, it deserves to have attention paid to it.  Specifically, the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene production of “Fiddler On the Roof,” which has been running at the Museum of Jewish Heritage will continue its sold-out run there until December 30.  After a brief respite, the show will take up residence at the Off Broadway Stage 42 on February 21, again directed by Joel Grey . . . just as prejudice and bigotry were Lenny Bruce’s main targets, “The Baby Monitor,” by David Stallings examines the prejudice against same sex couples adopting children.  It performs from November 29 through December 16 at the Theatre at 14th Street Y [344 East 14th Street at 1st Avenue.  It will perform in repertory with “The Rebel Playhouse’s production of The Fantastical Dangerous Journey of Q.”  For more information, visit . . . the provocative monologue about one woman’s unapologetic take on sexuality that drew so much attention in London recently in “Fleabag,” will – yes, since you asked – will move to Off Broadway at the end of February at the SoHo Playhouse.  As more details are announced, you can learn about them here.

On Book

The lyrics in “The Prom,” by Chad Beguelin are only the latest examples of his noteworthy scribblings.  To take in a more comprehensive overview of his writing talent, check out the librettos by this four-time Tony Award nominee, for “Aladdin,” and for “The Wedding Singer.” . . . his partner in rhyme, Bob Martin, crafted the clever book for “The Drowsy Chaperone,” and all of these are worth the time to gather, if you are an admirer of clever musical theatre writing. . .  a very different type of material, but exactly the same type of prejudice faced Philip Rose’s memoir “You Can’t Do That on Broadway.”  He chronicles all the obstacles he faced, trying so hard to finally get a production mounted, of Lorraine Hansberry’s iconic work “A Raisin in the Sun.”  If the tale of someone knocking down walls for the sake of bringing great, new work to the American stage interests you, what he endured will mesmerize you.


TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre, ‘Character Studies.’  His play ‘Admissions’ received three New York City productions, directed by Austin Pendleton.  He has written nine other plays and musicals, including “Mister,” for Anthony Rapp.  He has written feature articles about the performing arts for Parade, Dramatics, the Christian Science Monitor and Rolling Stone, among many other publications.  He has taught theatre courses at HB Studio, the 92nd Street Y and the Columbia University Teachers’ College.


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Books recommended or referenced in Intermission Talk, are available at, or through Manhattan’s Tony Award winning Drama Bookshop, 250 west 40th street, NYC 10018, or at 212 944 – 0595, or at













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