by Lila Katch
On Thursday, January 14th of this year, I sat down with Isabelle McCalla. Aside from her work playing Princess Jasmine in one of Disney’s many Broadway productions of Aladdin, McCalla is probably best known for her performance as Alyssa Greene, the love interest in Broadway’s hit show The Prom, recently made into a Netflix movie. The Prom itself tells the story of a lesbian couple, Emma and Alyssa, in conservative Indiana fighting for their right to attend the prom together. The musical is one of only a handful on Broadway to so openly and proudly define itself by its queer characters, and the movie adaptation seems to be following the trend started by Love Simon of Hollywood normalizing gay life in America.
Suffice it to say, The Prom has had a huge impact, and it was an honor to sit down with someone who played one of the leading roles in such a production, not only to discuss the progress we’ve made, but the changes that still need to come. (This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity).
Katch: So, how would you describe your experience being in The Prom?
McCalla: I had a grand time, truly. It was an incredibly collaborative environment. The writers wanted to have our input as much as their own, and so rehearsals felt like a space where it wasn’t any one ego, it was about trying to create a better story. And it was also my first time in an original Broadway cast, so that was new and exciting.
On top of that, personally, to be part of such a queer-centric show, it was both a huge honor and burden. I mean that in the best way. I wanted to make sure that the representation felt authentic and not stereotypical. For me, it was important that both of the characters of Emma and Alyssa represented different experiences as lesbians and that they both felt very true. Being gay is not active, that’s not something you can act, it’s just a part of you.
Katch: And I know you are part of a political group organizing for better representation on Broadway. Can you tell me more about that?
McCalla: Yes, I’m an ambassador for this organization called Broadway for Racial Justice, and we are specifically seeking to create more equal representation on Broadway that is not just cosmetic. So that’s not just on the actors, that’s behind the scenes too. The most recent fundraising initiative we did was we raised money to create a space for casting directors to come up the ranks. The world of casting directors I believe is pretty much 99% white, and there’s no training program to be a casting director, so you have to get an unpaid internship, but who can get an unpaid internship but predominantly white people with generational wealth. So we created a space where they can get training from NYC casting directors, and get the skills to exit that training program so they don’t have to join as an intern, but as an assistant right away.
Katch: What issues do you see specifically on Broadway in terms of representation?
McCalla: We really need to address tokenism. I think a lot of BIPOC people, as one myself, often feel like we may be hired specifically because we are not white, and it helps their brand. This is not the case all across the board, but there’s an oversight of just putting people of color on stage and automatically giving themselves a pat on the back. Really a lot of times, when BIPOC people are represented on stage, it’s about trauma, and it’s very rare that you can have BIPOC actors and stories that are about joy and with them thriving in it.
There just needs to be more investment in story lines that are not so white-centric. It’s not an easy problem to fix when your tickets are $145 plus, which ties into the other problem of accessibility. Who can afford those tickets? Predominantly wealthy white families. So even when there are stories put up, like The Color Purple, about black people, it’s rare that that many black people get to see it.
Katch: How do you think we address that underlying issue of good representation on Broadway, or lack thereof?
McCalla: I think the key is having BIPOC leadership. That you have black directors telling black stories, having black producers producing black stories, and if you can’t have that at least give money to those in the communities who understand those stories.
Katch: I think in the last five years there’s been an influx of gay movies, such as Love Simon and Call Me By Your Name, which sort of work to normalize gay stories by making them like any another movie. How does it make you feel to see this?
McCalla: I’m all for it, as long as it is authentic and not mocking the characters at all. The more we can normalize stories about gay people that aren’t about them being gay, the better. There’s a lot of trauma porn out there, and one thing I love about The Prom is that it ended very happily for these two young girls. Not many people get to see themselves represented that way.
[Caitlin Kinnunen, the actress for Emma] and I, to this day, still get letters from teenage girls all across the country who see themselves represented in our show for the first time, and who feel like things aren’t going to be the worst for them. They see this story where two girls get to thrive, and they think maybe they have a chance.
Katch: What impact do you think The Prom has had?
McCalla: I feel really, honestly humbled about it, because I didn’t know the reach the show would have. The day it really hit home for myself was the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, when people saw two girls kissing for the first time on NBC. It wasn’t oversexualized, it wasn’t a big deal, it was just how our show ended. And Macy’s didn’t make a fuss, NBC didn’t make a fuss, Twitter made a fuss, but, for every negative comment that was had there were fifty thousands more that were so supportive. We were part of the Thanksgiving conversation.
I identify as bisexual, but it took a very long time for me to publicly come out. For a long time I had internalized this idea that I couldn't be in the gay community because I hadn’t been oppressed or slandered.
But I was on a podcast called Thank You For Coming Out, and I was able to have this conversation with this wonderful trans host where they kind of gave me the validation I needed to own myself. A lot of our fanbase listened to that podcast and a lot of the bisexual portion of that fanbase stepped forward and wrote to me and told me how much they understood what I went through and how I felt. It was funny because in a way I felt like I learned from the fans. Now I can proudly say that I am bisexual without any sort of fear.
Katch: How do you think The Prom would have affected you, if you had gotten to see it in your high school years?
McCalla: I would have wept like a baby, and then I probably also would have realized I was bisexual a lot earlier on, frankly. I think seeing the show would have really helped alleviate this pressure in my head that I had to be perfect, kind of like Alyssa Greene, and that sad idea that perfect is straight. Man I would have been so much chiller I think if I saw it.
Katch: Do you think any meaningful change has been made, and if not, what is left to do?
McCalla: The one good thing I’m happy about is that there’s a lot of conversations about it. About what stories we want to tell, and from what perspective do we want to have them told? I don’t know if I'll ever see the change that I want in my lifetime, but I hope that we can continue to move forward and restructure, especially top down, how we tell stories about minorities. I think in terms of difference, conversations are happening out loud, in the open, we’re not shying away from it.