Calling “The Prom” a “gay teen romantic farce,” as Vanity Fair did a few months ago, is like calling New York a big city — true, but demanding a fuller description.
The Atlanta-born musical, which opened on Broadway to positive reviews in November, is making a lasting impression on audiences that goes beyond its peppy songs, energetic choreography, eye-popping costuming and satire of show business. It has something more to say, according to Courtenay Collins of Sandy Springs, who has a performing role in the production and is hearing nightly from those who are moved by it.
“It’s a story with a heart,” says Collins, who was cast for the show’s local premiere at the Alliance Theatre in August 2016 and has moved on with it to Broadway. She is the only Atlantan to appear in either version.
“It delights me that it’s being embraced in New York,” she says. “We had a hint of that in Atlanta. But people are coming to see it two, three, four times. It’s a joyous thing.”
Back home, Collins is part of a well-known Sandy Springs family. Mother Jan is a founder of many artistic and charitable programs, including the city’s mascot turtle sculptures and the new City Springs Theatre Company, which is focused on musicals. Brother Chip is a former member of the City Council and last year chaired the Sandy Springs Perimeter Chamber of Commerce. Courtenay attended the arts program at Riverwood International Charter School — where her son, Spencer Vise, is now a student — and also studied at the University of Georgia and The Juilliard School.
In “The Prom,” Collins plays Mrs. Greene, a conservative woman in a conservative Indiana town whose lesbian daughter, Alyssa, hasn’t come out. Alyssa is outed when she and her girlfriend, Emma, are denied an opportunity to participate in the high school dance. When some Broadway opportunists parachute in to take up the girls’ cause, chaos ensues and the laughs start rolling.
But the tension between Alyssa and her mother is as real as can be, and that’s one of many things Collins values about “The Prom,” which has an open-ended run at the Longacre Theatre. Its cast recording was released just before Christmas.
We caught Collins on a recent day off to ask about “The Prom” and its place in her career.
Q: Has the show’s reception on Broadway surprised you?
A: This business is crazy and fickle. You can’t count on things in the arts as far as what will be a hit. But I’m not surprised. The story blew me away at the first table reading in 2016 at the Alliance. It had all the elements of something special — it was vibrant, current and exciting. Its success validates what I always thought.
Q: You’ve had a lengthy career in theater that includes a touring production of “The Phantom of the Opera.” But “The Prom” represents your Broadway debut. Was it worth the wait?
A: I pinch myself every day. The walk to the theater from my apartment is a dream come true. We just did nine shows in five days. People leap to their feet, they laugh, they cry. When we come out for the curtain call, you can hear the roar of the crowd. To witness 1,000 people every night reacting that way is incredible. Making my debut on this end of my career means so much more to me. I’m at an age where I really appreciate things and take nothing for granted. I’m grateful for every show, and it will never get old to me.
Q: You have a son who is still in high school He and your husband, Michael Eckardt, are back in Atlanta. How does the family make your stint on Broadway work?
A: They’re holding down the fort. And my mom [Jan Collins] is still in Sandy Springs. Everyone was here in New York for Christmas. We’re making it work. It’s not easy, but they’ve been very supportive. On opening night, I said the only thing I wanted was for Spencer and my husband to come to the show and understand why I had “abandoned” them. It was a magical night, with a last-minute snowstorm, an audience that was crazy and fabulous, and a bash afterward at the Copacabana. [Spencer] looked at me and said he was so proud of me.
Q: Talk about how you have approached the role of Mrs. Greene and her struggle with her daughter’s sexual identity.
A: People sometimes say, “How does it feel to play the bad guy?” But I don’t see it that way. She is a mom who wants the best for her kid but doesn’t have the perspective of what’s coming. All families and communities have people from different ends of the spectrum. Living in Atlanta and being an actress, I took my kids to shows at an early age and we’ve discussed this all along. They have many gay “uncles” and “aunts.”
Q: Has the role evolved from the one you first played in Atlanta?
A: In Atlanta, the role was very stereotypical and it was a smaller role. At a lab in New York last winter, the writers created more scenes with her daughter. You see how much she loves her daughter and is so protective of her. There are these nuggets of compassion woven into her. I love the arc of the character. The writers didn’t want her story tied up in a neat little package. They wanted some of the tension between her and her daughter. So many parents and kids will say, “Your dialogue reminds me so much of what we’ve experienced.” Gay men and women will say that their mother said the same things. The writers were so precise in getting it right.
Q: What was your first introduction to musical theater?
A: At age 16, I saw “A Chorus Line” at the Fox in Atlanta. I didn’t know musical theater was a thing you could do. That lit a flame in me, and from then on it was, “How do I sign up?” It’s in me. I’m also a voice coach, and the kids come in younger and younger now. They’re seeing “Beauty and the Beast” at age 2. When the kids have it in them, their parents will call me and say, “I have a 4-year-old daughter who sings Broadway musicals all the time. What do I do?”
Q: What will you remember most about “The Prom”? What has endeared the show to you?
A: With this show, you get on this train and it never stops. Maybe it slows down some, but it never stops until the end. When it finally does, you’ve been on this incredible ride. It kind of takes your legs out from underneath you. It stays with you. You leave the theater and you’re not talking about where you’re going for dinner. You want to keep talking about it.
Q: Any prediction on how long it will run?
A: May it run forever!