BWW Interview: How THE PROM's Casey Nicholaw Made a Musical with a Message
Ever since Casey Nicholaw stepped off of the Beacon Theatre stage on June 12, 2011, his career has gone into hyperdrive. The director/choreographer, who won a Tony Award that year for his work on The Book of Mormon, went on to helm Mean Girls, Aladdin, Something Rotten! and Tuck Everlasting- three of which are still enjoying long Broadway runs.
This season, he lent his talents to The Prom, a musical about Broadway folk helping to make change and spread acceptance in a small Indiana town. Below, he chats with BroadwayWorld about why this show was so important to him, and how he hopes that even more people will learn that it's about so much more than just a dance.
Congratulations on all of the success that The Prom is having this season. It's the kind of show that I could go back time and time again and just come out feeling uplifted. I'm sure you hear that from people all the time...
Well, that's the whole point so I love to hear it. Some people say, 'I'm sure you're tired of hearing this...' but how could you get tired of hearing that? I mean, you're making people happy and you're moving people. That's the whole reason we're doing this.
Do you go back to the show often to check in?
Yeah, I've been out of town a bit, but when I go back when I'm in town, I go like once a week or every other week.
What's that like, going back and seeing them do their thing?
It's good! I'm a bit of a perfectionist, so I'm always giving them pointers. They've been saying, 'We're getting a little bit far from that.' Honestly, this cast keeps things in the best, best shape. They really do. There's such a temptation to get bigger with things, but they really keep it in check because they know that the most important thing is to be truthful and then let the situation and the comedy happen. They're all masters at comedy so we're in great hands.
They know what they're doing over there.
They do, they do. But it's nice to come in and give reminders too because it feels like they're still working too, which is great.
When you go back to any of your shows, does it make you feel proud to see what you've done?
It depends from time to time when I go and also what shape things are in that night. [Laughs] Because, you know, theatre does fluctuate. It's live and people get used to doing something for a few months and sometimes you have to remind them to get back to stuff. But, you know, sometimes I watch it and I'm in audience mode and I just love it all and I'm so proud of everything, but sometimes I go back and I'm in scientist mode or principal mode. It's a different thing where I'm watching and going, 'Ok, the map of this needs to change and I need to get that back to what it was." But that's natural for any show. Absolutely any show. But The Prom is still new so that hasn't happened yet! Hopefully, it will be around a long time.
I hope so too. It's absolutely a musical with a message and I think it's so cool that so many people have seen it already but also that so many more people will get to see it with this Netflix adaption.
It's thrilling. And the fact that Ryan Murphy wants to do it is great, it's absolutely great.
And you're on the producing team for that, correct?
Yeah. I might be involved some other way too. I would be happy to be there. But it will be great and I'm just so happy that he feels such a connection to it that he wanted to take it and expand it.
And then I just saw yesterday or two days ago that it's being adapted into a Young Adult novel?
Oh, I didn't even know that! That's so cool.
Yeah, things are happening at The Prom.
Well, that's really great. That's exciting. You know, as long as the message gets out there more and we were able to be a launching pad for it with just our concept of the show. I mean, it was seven years ago that we started creating it. We said, 'This would be a cool idea to take these two worlds and mix them together and have things go awry and then have them be happy. It's been a really cool experience and ride.
It seems like this has been such a passion project for you and the rest of the creators. It must be great to see it all come together...
It's incredible. We're beyond proud of the show. It started as an idea. We didn't take it from a movie or take it from any other source material. We just took it from an issue that meant something to us and then also gave it our twist. We went through so many different iterations of trying to figure out what it was and figure out the tone of it. And figuring out how you'd be invested in both sides of it - in the Broadway side and also the Emma side. And how to make it not feel like we were taking it too lightly and then also how we were deepening the people from the Broadway part of it. It did take us a long time because it was a tricky thing to negotiate. So, the fact that we actually succeeded in it was great.
You know, we did a lab of it about four or five years ago and the tone of it was all wrong. We felt it and we felt it in the audience response. It was more on the Broadway side of things and more in the musical comedy box and we realized after Atlanta that we really needed to get it more in the play box and have the musical comedy invade this town, as opposed to that being the tone of the whole show.
I know that you started your career on stage. Was that a scary decision for you to make- switching gears to directing and choreographing?
No, it felt like a natural decision. I've always been bossy. I've always looked at things in that way. I really wanted to choreograph and I had choreographed and directed before I began a dancer on Broadway, but it was like non-equity places. But I knew it something I liked to do and I had a version for. I would say my biggest passion is telling stories through dance. It's always what got me excited and what still does get me excited. You know, working with dancers and being physical and figuring out how we can tell the story and not make it just dancers steps. That we can move from one place to the next and have it be totally integral to the story as opposed to, 'here's the dance break!'
Was there a moment in your career when that decision clicked into place?
Oh, yeah. It was while I was a performer and I was doing Seussical at the time, which was a really fun musical to do, but I just realized I wanted to do more. I basically just decided I was going to go be creative and I rented studio space in between shows on Wednesdays and Saturdays and was like "I'm gonna do something creative!" and I had no idea what. The first few days I was just sitting there eating my lunch and going "Ok, what am I doing here?" And then I ended up getting twenty-five dancers friends together and I arranged three numbers with help from a dance arranger and then basically invited every writer, director, and producer I'd ever worked with and then I got work from them. Then I sort of launched into this and knowing that this is what I wanted to do. Then I got the call from Mike Nichols about Spamalot and choreographing that. And the rest is where I am now!
So we're in the height of spring season right now. I always really like this time of year because I enjoy seeing the community come out and support each other at opening nights and all the different luncheons and things. Is this an exciting time of year for you too?
It absolutely is. It's crazy. You don't have a free moment. You're always doing costume changes in the middle of your day. But it's very exciting and it feels like you're able to celebrate all of it. And where you've come from and the people you've worked with. It's really very exciting.
Is there any other work from this season other than The Prom that you've seen and you really admire?
You know, I actually haven't seen very much yet. I've been spending a lot of time in LA. We bought a house here about four years ago and I've been out here most of the year actually, since The Prom opened. So, I've been going back and forth and sort of splitting my time two weeks here and two weeks there. So I haven't actually gotten to see very much. You know what? For me, it's kind of fun to see the shows after Tony season. I feel like I get to be a little bit more alone watching it. As opposed to, everyone like knowing what people are thinking and stuff like that. I think it's a little bit more fun to me to do it more anonymously.
I totally get that.
It makes me feel like a kid, as opposed to a professional, if I go later or when there's not as much hubbub around something. It makes me happy to be watching theatre.
Over the past like four or five years, you've had hit after hit. It hasn't stopped for you. Do you ever take a minute to sit back and think like, "Wow, holy crap, look at at all this amazing stuff I've gotten to do!" Do you ever have 'pinch-me' moments like that?
Oh, all the time. I think I have them sort of more often than not. I've never taken it for granted and I'm so grateful about it. I feel like moments of it every time I go see a show of mine. And it happens in so many different ways. It usually doesn't happen in the ways you think it's going to. Like, all of the sudden I'll go see a show and look at a performer and know where they started and where they are now and that makes me feel so proud. It makes me well up because I know the journey they've taken and how much they've grown. We did The Prom in Atlanta like three years and some of those kids are now in Mean Girls and they've grown and they're now moving on to do West Side Story. Just watching someone go from a twenty year-old to a twenty-four year-old and also how much they've grown in that time.
That to me is really exciting and makes me so proud. And, you know, the kids are also very vocal about what the creative team has done for them and that's always rewarding to hear.
Nicholaw is also represented on Broadway as director/choreographer of Mean Girls (Tony nominations for Best Direction & Choreography), Disney's Aladdin (Tony, Drama Desk & Outer Critics Circle nominations for Best Choreography) and co-director/choreographer of The Book of Mormon (Tony, Drama Desk & Outer Critics Circle awards for co-director and nominations in the same categories for Choreography; Olivier winner for Best Choreography). Represented on the West End as director/choreographer of Dreamgirls, The Book of Mormon and Aladdin. Other Broadway credits as director/choreographer: Tuck Everlasting, Something Rotten! (Tony nominee, Best Director), Elf, The Drowsy Chaperone (Tony, Drama Desk & Outer Critics Circle nominations), Monty Python's Spamalot (Tony, Drama Desk & Outer Critics Circle nominations, Best Choreography). Additional NY credits: for City Center Encores!, acclaimed productions of The Most Happy Fella, Anyone Can Whistle and Follies (direction/choreography).