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Caitlin Kinnunen: She Plays the Out Gay Teen Broadway's Been Waiting For

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The new musical The Prom opens in previews on October 23.

Cast membersof The Prom have an ongoing group text message. "Well, it happened again," they frequently write, with a link to the latest news story.

The upcoming production, opening November 15 at the Longacre Theatre, is something of an anomaly this season, as it's not based on a book, film, famous pop diva, or television show. Instead, its premise -- a high school student is banned from taking her girlfriend to the big dance -- was lifted straight from the headlines.

"It's sad," says Caitlin Kinnunen, who portrays Emma, the show's prohibited prom-goer. "Every few months there's another article saying that in some small town in the middle of America, an LGBTQ student has been denied access to go to their school dance. It's just, well, crap."

Such weighty subject matter doesn't necessarily scream "Broadway musical," let alone "jazz-hands-filled comedy." And yet, The Prom high-kicks into New York under the direction of Tony winner Casey Nicholaw (Mean Girls), who'll fill the material with fizzy choreographed numbers and old-school flash -- a recipe Kinnunen thinks is ideal for relaying the show's massive heart and message.

"It's the perfect way to deliver this punch," she says via FaceTime from Vermont, where she's finishing a run of Fun Home, another overtly queer musical that became a Broadway smash. "We're not beating people over the head. We're gonna open our doors and talk about this. We're gonna laugh and cry, and you'll leave with your mind changed."

The actress admits she feels a little anxious about the prospect of playing one of theater's few modern queer characters. Though she's had principal roles on Broadway before, most recently in The Bridges of Madison County and Spring Awakening before that, The Prom marks her most high-profile -- and most important -- gig to date. "I feel so many emotions -- honored, excited, terrified," she says. "But I also have a huge responsibility and don't want to let anyone down."

Emma is not exceedingly special or extraordinary, as so many queer Broadway characters are required to be. In fact, she's a very typical high school teenager, which Kinnunen predicts will usher in a new era of similarly everyday out characters, remarkable for being unremarkable. "Emma's deepest desire," she says, "is to get people to believe she is a person: 'I don't have to be this crazy thing you're making me out to be. I just want to go to prom with my girlfriend.' "

Kinnunen has already been with the production for nearly four years, through workshops, readings, and an out-of-town run in Atlanta, so she's acutely aware of the impact it has on audiences. "I've had so many young adults come up to me and say, 'You are telling my story, and it's amazing to be able to watch that,' " she says. "As heartbreaking as it is, it's really special to be able to connect with people and have them be able to see themselves onstage -- because they never do."

The 2016 presidential election has only made The Prom's hot-button central themes feel more powerful and poignant. "There were times when we wondered, Can we even still tell this story? This isn't something that started once Trump was elected, but now these issues are at the forefront of everyone's minds. You see stories like these all the time."

Ultimately, what Kinnunen wants is to bridge the gap, to spark a conversation where there may have been silence. "We had one talkback when we did the show in Atlanta, and there was a man who said, 'I came into this not supporting gay people, and I am leaving with my mind changed,' " she recalls. "Comedy is a gentle way to open the door and have a discussion with people who wouldn't normally want to have it. We have these progressive youths coming in with their parents who maybe aren't so open-minded, but they'll leave and the kid will be able to say, 'See, Mom and Dad? This is normal.' I think people will leave feeling enlightened and ... what's the word I'm looking for?"

She pauses, and then it dawns on her. "Hopeful."

Photography by Marc J. Franklin

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