When Caitlin Kinnunen accepted the role of Emma Nolan in the smash hit musical The Prom, she took on a dream role—and became Broadway’s newest leading lady. An original story and score, based on an amalgamation of real-life stories of LGBTQ youth, The Prom follows four once-famous Broadway stars as they travel to a conservative Indiana town to help Emma—a lesbian student who made it into the news after not being allowed to attend her high school prom with her girlfriend—in an attempt to garner some positive press. The musical is at once hilarious and heartfelt, and is racking in favorable reviews and accolades.
We chatted with Kinnunen about her starring role as Emma, being nominated for Tony awards, and television guru Ryan Murphy adapting the musical for Netflix.
Your character Emma is the first lesbian lead on Broadway. How does it feel to play such a groundbreaking role?
CAITLIN KINNUNEN: It’s amazing! I feel so incredibly honored and privileged and just excited to be playing her every night. I think she is so honest and real and to be able to do that on stage and have young LGBTQ people come and see the show, and see themselves represented on stage in such a way that hasn’t happened before, is truly just amazing. I am so glad that this show is bringing a voice to that group.
It also happens to be your first lead role on stage. What has that experience been like?
CK: It is so much harder than people tell you it’s going to be, but in the same breath, it is also so much fun, and just amazing, truly. There are no other words.
How grueling is it to be up on stage for two and a half hours, and to be dancing and singing?
CK: It’s really hard. Especially for this role. I’m shockingly a relatively introverted person. I don’t like talking to people, I don’t like big crowds, I don’t like making myself the center of attention. I’m really not everything people think an actor is. So to do the show eight times a week, and then do all of this press on top of it, and have to be this voice for the show is truly hard work for me. And I love to do it. I truly would not be doing anything else—this is my dream role, and job, and life—but it takes a lot out of me. Especially since I’m portraying a character that is so real, and there are people who come up to me and tell me their life stories, and how they relate to the character, it takes a lot mentally and physically. All of it is a lot, but I love it so much that it makes all of that hard work worth it.
The story of The Prom is based on real-life stories. What has been the biggest challenge in bringing these stories to life?
CK: I don’t think there is a challenge. I think it’s just time. I think these stories should have been told ages ago, and the fact that we are starting to tell them now is wonderful. We need to keep telling them, so the fact that we get to be a part of a show that is taking a step in the right direction is great. We’re doing a show that people didn’t necessarily think would be successful, and we have seven Tony nominations—one of which is Best Musical. These stories are valid, they need to be told, so keep telling them.
The show just received, as you mentioned, a number of Tony nominations, including your nomination for Lead Actress in a Musical. What was your reaction when you heard the news?
CK: I cried! I was so shocked. I honestly did not believe that was going to happen. When they said my name, I was like, “What?!” and started sobbing. And then I called my mom.
How does it feel for The Prom to receive that kind of recognition?
CK: It feels good. It feels like we’re finally being recognized for doing the right thing. I think people are afraid to produce pieces on Broadway that are risky. And The Prom was risky. We’re not based on anything—we’re a completely original musical, without Hollywood celebrities. But I think it’s just, again, a step in the right direction. If your show has heart, you can do this.
It was also recently announced that Ryan Murphy will adapt the musical into a movie for Netflix. What would you like to see in the film version?
CK: I have complete faith in Ryan Murphy. I think he’s going to do an incredible job. The one thing that I hope translates is just the heart of the show. I hope it comes across just as honestly and vulnerably as the stage musical does. And I’m sure it will!
What message do you want people to take away from this show?
CK: Acceptance. I want people to feel accepted, I want them to be able to accept others. And I want people to be able to listen more carefully than the people around them.