Underbelly Untapped Award-winner Prom Kween is a high-energy comedy musical about Matthew Crisson, the first non-binary person to win a prom queen title in a US high school. Features Editor James T. Harding met writer and actor Rebecca Humphries, winner of two Musical Comedy Awards, best known at the Fringe for her 2014 hit Dizzy Rascals.
It was the most ratchet thing you've ever seen in your life
Prom Kween was inspired by another Fringe musical, How To Win Against History, which won a Bobby Award last year. Rebecca explains, ‘Last year at the Fringe I saw a lot of musicals. A lot of it was vague, sexist.’ But How To Win Against History ‘was so fantastic. That was the only one I thought, Yes, this is actually what musical theatre is all about.’
Rebecca feels strongly that an audience ‘deserves better than just having musical numbers thrown at them.’ She wanted ‘to find a story that's actually worth writing about. On Facebook I found this story about Matthew – who had won prom queen about a month before. There's so many high-school genre musicals and movies that I love. (I’m thirty years old and I still love watching films about high school.)’ But ‘none of them have a centralised queer character. None of them are representing the LGBTQI community.’
‘Prom Kween isn't an LGBTQI musical, in the same way I don't think How To Win Against History is: it’s a great musical about a human being. I'm this straight white girl, which a lot of these high-school movies are about, and it's like, how many problems can you actually have, you know? I didn't have that many, but I did know what it felt like to be different and to feel like nobody really understood me. That's what Prom Kween is about.’
The connection with How To Win Against History goes further than mere inspiration. Its producer, Áine Flanagan, was involved in Prom Kween from the off. ‘She and I got hooked up after the Fringe because I was such a fan of her work. We went, Shall we just apply for the VAULT Festival and see what happens? And then we've got a deadline and we have to write it. Go on then. I regretted it almost instantly.’
‘I underestimated how difficult it would be to write, direct and act in something. It's a very big ask and now I understand why people usually only have one job.’
‘We didn't get any funding. It looked like it cost five quid, which it did; it was the most ratchet thing you've ever seen in your life, but that sort-of became its charm. Someone tweeted, It looks like it was made in someone's basement, in the best possible way. And it does, and will continue to do.’
One of the most charming and memorable things about the show is that Matthew is played by four different cast members – two men, and two women. ‘Truthfully, it was a big happy accident.’ In the initial script, Matthew was played by one actor in the usual way. But one of Rebecca’s friends in the cast had to pull out for financial reasons. ‘So I had a breakdown. How could we get this on? It was two days before we started rehearsing. I went to the script… I thought, we're all going to play Matthew! I figured out [the logistics] and the more I thought about it, it doesn't make any sense for a non-binary character to be played by a guy or a girl. It should be at least two of us that alternate.’
Rebecca is particularly pleased with the song Feel the Fear. ‘I feel like that song says something now about what it is to have different facets of you, whether that's as a non-binary person or as a straight person who doesn't really know who they are at the moment. Gender doesn't have to be serious, it can be fun. Regardless of their orientation, people watch a show, see someone put a hat on, and just accept – Oh, they're that character now. That goes back to the lo-fi aspect of the show.’
The scratch run at VAULT Festival was clearly a success. ‘On the first night Underbelly came running up to us and said, we want to give you the Untapped Award.’ And here we are at the Fringe a few months later.
Based in London, Rebecca works as an actor and writer in theatre and television. She prefers theatre ‘and I always have, because I enjoy the collaboration of it in a way that television doesn't have – unless you're a star. There are some amazing people out there, women like Phoebe Waller-Bridge. But as an actor who just plays a role, you don't have that control.’
If BBC Three came crawling and begged Rebecca to do a Waller-Bridge and adapt her show for them, what would she say? ‘I don't feel Prom Kween would work on telly. We've got four people playing Matthew, running around being daft, sudden dance breaks for no apparent reason.’ She’d have to write an original pilot.
‘I'm interested in theatre that is made for theatre. I don't like watching stuff on stage which is transparently someone's pilot – this is the sitcom you wish you were making, so why am I watching it on stage?
‘It's not necessarily something I look down on,’ but people who aim to use theatre as a stepping stone to television are being ‘slightly insulting to people who really want to make theatre. It's using theatre as something which is easy, but if theatre it's good it's not easy. It shouldn't be easy. It should be interesting, challenging and fun. It's a form in its own right.
‘I get passionate about this sort of thing because I love it. Theatre is the best. I love the Fringe so much.’
You can hear Rebecca and fellow cast member Sam Swan being passionate about theatre on their podcast, Theatre Legends: https://soundcloud.com/theatrelegends
Prom Kween is playing at the Underbelly. Listings information: http://broadwaybaby.com/shows/prom-kween/719745