It’s the mega-musical of Montreal English theatre this fall and the Segal Centre for Performing Arts‘ big bet in original works for their 2016-17 artistic season. PROM QUEEN: THE MUSICAL makes its World Premiere on Thursday, October 27th, 2016, and in the eagerness to immerse ourselves in the excitement of this all-new Canadian creation, we decided to speak with none other than the dynamic songwriting duo of Colleen Dauncey (Music) and Akiva Romer-Segal (Lyrics) on their latest musical endeavour. Read the full interview with Montreal Theatre Hub’s Camila Fitzgibbon below.
Original, homegrown works of the musical theatre genre are few and far between, so it’s without the slightest pretense that we claim our utmost anticipation towards the next major production to take main stage at the Segal – one of Montreal’s flagship English theatre companies – this season.
Prom Queen: The Musical is based on the life of Marc Hall (played by Alessandro Constantini), the gay Ontario teenager who in 2002 took his Catholic School Board to court when they refused to let him attend prom with his then-boyfriend. The controversial case made international headlines, sparking a media frenzy and a legal storm that left a notable mark in Canadian civil rights history. Hall’s courageous and empowering story inspired documentaries such as Prom Fight: The Marc Hall Story, the 2004 CTV movie Prom Queen: The Marc Hall Story, and is now being brought live to the stage by Kent Staines (who provides the book for the musical adaptation as well as the teleplay for the aforementioned television film) and producer Mary Young Leckie in association with the Segal Centre.
It was three years ago when up-and-coming composer-lyricist team of Colleen Dauncey and Akiva Romer-Segal were first approached to pen the new project. “We had just finished working on a show called Bremen Rock City, a kids’ rock musical that had become a hit at the Toronto Fringe, when we were contacted by the artistic director of Acting Up Stage Company,” recounts Romer-Segal. One of the nation’s major producers of contemporary musicals, Acting Up Stage had referred the songwriters to Staines and Leckie, who, now in five to six years of workshopping the musical, were then interviewing prospective creative collaborators to bring onboard.
“We had a coffee date with Kent and Mary and came up with three songs or so to convince them – and ourselves – that this project was the right fit for us. In writing those songs, we felt like our music matched the material – and fortunately it seems that they also thought so as well,” recaps the young lyricist.
Their motives for responding with a resounding ‘yes’ after being offered the ambitious undertaking: “we really believed in the message of this show,” reveals Dauncey. “We have many friends in the LGBT community and know of so many people who don’t necessarily assimilate into what society says is normal and acceptable. We really side with stories about outcasts and strongly stand by the message that being unique is not a reason to be ashamed.”
Prom Queen tackles weighty, relevant topics that range from religious freedom to sexual identity, “but it’s all told in a very positive light,” she explains. “Our music is very upbeat – which made it a good fit for a youthful story about high school teenagers.” (Below is a taste of “Inside Out”, a glam, flashy 90’s-inspired dance number).
It’s not all laughter and games, however. “One of the challenges musically has been finding those honest moments in and around all the fun and fanfare that’s happening because, at the root of the story, we have real people with serious conflicts. Sure, we had a blast writing the big song that happens at the prom, but also we have these other moments in the story that we have to address and musicalize in a way that seems genuine,” shares Dauncey.
“As an example, one of the songs that we wrote early on and that we sent to Mary and Kent to pitch ourselves for the project is called “Mother Mary”, which marks the character of Marc’s mother when she goes to church to pray. We wanted to take both musically and lyrically the idea of the Catholic hymn without trying to copy one. However, we ‘d never actually written a hymn before…” elaborates the composer.
“Here we have this mother figure who is struggling with her faith,” adds Romer-Segal. “The things she has been taught her whole life are right, but she still loves her gay son. The challenge for us, then, was to use that imagery and feeling of a hymn while taking into consideration that this was coming out of a modern-day mother.
“As a Jew and an atheist writing a catholic hymn, how do you adapt those lyrics and make it feel real?” he muses. “Luckily, our producer Mary is catholic and she just turned to us one day and said ‘I could have heard that song in church’. She seemed to think it was an authentic thing, so I guess we were somewhat able to rise to the occasion there.”
Dauncey completes: “It was a challenge, but a fun one for sure, and I definitely think it helped move our songwriting to another level.” Prom Queen will still feature Colleen and Akiva’s signature contemporary flavour, but expect to be moved by more than just catchy late 20th/early 21st century pop tunes.
On Marc Hall’s involvement with the songwriting aspect of the show: “He was available to us as a resource, but never imposed himself on the process,” remarks Romer-Segal. “What was so wonderful about him was his openness and willingness to provide material. I could literally send him a Facebook message at 2 a.m. and ask the most random question such as ‘how did your parents meet?’ and right away he would get back to me.”
In addition to the transparency, “Marc was also aware that what we were creating here was a musical where the timeline would be shifted a little for theatrical purposes and where there would be certain characters that would represent an amalgamation of a few real people. Thankfully he really supported that and understood that it’s not about doing an exact recreation of every fact and moment of his life, but that it’s about creating a compelling musical theatre experience for audiences to be inspired by his story.”
While the powerhouse pair has been partnered up for over eight years and are no strangers to composition for the stage (in addition to Bremen Rock City, together they wrote the scores to The Subway Songs and Scenes From The Bathhouse), Prom Queen has imposed some unique creative process challenges and learning curves.
“A lot of the time you’ll have five or more years to write a full musical, but we’re doing this production on a much shorter timeline,” discloses Romer-Segal. “We’ve been rewriting and switching songs around and we literally just wrote a new finale for the show.” (Note that this interview was given on Friday, October 21st). “We wrote this last song in two days, it was taught to the cast in one, and it’ll be performed one week from today in previews. That’s how quick on your feet and adaptable you have to be.”
Apart from evolving in the way that they work together and support one another under high-pressure circumstances, they claim to also have developed a greater element of trust. “When you’re working on a large-scale production like this, it can’t just be the two of you working alone in a room. You have to bring it to the director, the musical director, the choreographer, the producers, the designers, the band – everyone. It becomes so much more than just about the music you’re writing together; it has to be a true collaborative effort with the entire team.”
On how their involvement with the project has impacted them on a personal level: “Even on my worst days when I’m super stressed, it’s hard to watch the show and not be inspired by its message,” observes Romer-Segal. “Prom Queen is about people struggling to find their place in a rapidly changing world, and every time I see it I find myself relating to a different character. Being a part of this has helped me see the humanity in others a little bit more and to realize that everyone has their own version of Marc’s story going on – whether we’re aware of it or not. I really try to keep that empathy in mind when I meet someone these days.”
Prom Queen: The Musical directed by Marcia Kash makes its World Premiere at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts (5170 Chemin de la Côte-Sainte-Catherine, Montréal, QC H3W 1M7) from October 27th to November 20th, 2016. Tickets are $51 – 65 and can be purchased online or by calling the Box Office at 514-739-7944.
Running time: Two hours plus a 20-minute intermission