“I just want to dance with you,” the character Emma Nolan sings to her girlfriend, Alyssa Greene, in a romantic number in The Prom. It’s a simple love song in a scene that feels as though it were plucked from the heyday of the American musical film. Except, rather than featuring a white heterosexual couple, it centers an interracial teen queer girl couple. What makes the scene and the characters even richer for LGBTQ+ viewers is that both rising star Jo Ellen Pellman, who plays Emma in her first major role, and Ariana DeBose, who plays Alyssa and stars in the upcoming West Side Story, are queer.
“I don’t want to start a riot / I don’t want to blaze a trail,” the song begins. Of course, those familiar with the story know that Emma does blaze a trail for the simple fact that, like most teenagers, she wants to go to the prom in her small Indiana town with the person she loves. But she’s forced to face off with the homophobic PTA members — represented by real-life ally Kerry Washington as Alyssa’s implacable mother, Mrs. Greene, in the film — who would rather cancel the event than allow the teenager to attend with a same-sex date. Eventually, Emma owns her accidental activism when she comes out to the world in an online video in “Unruly Heart,” the musical number that includes a chorus of isolated young queer characters who relate to the impossibility of Emma denying her true self.
A musical theater graduate of the University of Michigan, Pellman shares some traits with the character she plays in Ryan Murphy’s star-studded film adaptation of the hit Broadway show The Prom that dropped on Netflix in December.
“It was this wonderful coming together of all of my various identities — musical-loving, being from the Midwest, my queerness. It sort of came together in this role, and I never take that for granted,” Pellman says. “I came out when I was 17, the same age that Emma is in the film. My mom and I were watching TV one evening and it just sort of ... came out.”
Pellman is coming off of her experience working on The Prom, a story about Emma’s chosen family of solipsistic but lovable Broadway actors — played by Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, James Corden, and Andrew Rannells — with many gifts, including the knowledge she gleaned from working with legends. Additionally, her circle of chosen family grew on the project with the “lifelong friend” she made in DeBose. Now she’s using her platform to help queer kids with the Unruly Hearts Initiative, which she and DeBose created to benefit three organizations that serve LGBTQ+ youth: Covenant House, the Trevor Project, and Point Foundation. Since it launched in December, the initiative has raised more than $140,000.
“We realize that our film centers on some really tough situations that LGBTQ youth face. And even though it’s a musical and everyone gets a happy ending, we realize that real life might not be like that,” Pellman says of the project that DeBose pitched to her.
“We wanted to connect our young audiences with organizations that are doing amazing work for the LGBTQ youth community through mental health awareness, suicide prevention, housing resources, and education access.”
It’s fitting that The Prom should come full circle, not only by featuring queer leads but by giving back to LGBTQ+ teens. It was the 2010 saga of Mississippi teen Constance McMillen, who was thwarted by bigots from going to her prom because she simply desired to wear a tux and attend with her girlfriend, that sparked the idea for the musical from Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin with lyrics by Beguelin and music by Matthew Sklar.
For Pellman, her journey with Emma’s story began in college when she first heard about out-of-town tryouts for The Prom in an art history class. She recalls thinking she hoped it would make it to Broadway, where she could see it. The musical began previews on Broadway in October 2018. Eventually, Pellman and her mom, who is gay, made the trip to New York City for the show.
“We just laughed and cried our whole way through it,” Pellman says, adding that it was everything they could ever want in a musical.
Unlike Emma, whose parents shunned her when she came out, Pellman has a unique support system in her mom and access to the perspective of an older queer person who came out when there was little representation in film and TV. Certainly, it was nearly impossible for someone of her mother’s era to conceive of an Emma and Alyssa serenading one another in a love song on one of the world’s most massive platforms. As the discussion roils in the zeitgeist about who should play LGBTQ+ roles on-screen, Pellman is acutely aware of what it means to some LGBTQ+ viewers that she and DeBose were thoughtfully cast as queer women in queer roles.
“I love reading the continued debates and the continued evolution of how we talk about this. I just know it was so special being on this project knowing that I could show up to set as my authentic self and bring my own real-world experiences to the character, and not just feel accepted or tolerated, but really celebrated,” Pellman says.
“My mom and I have had lots of conversations about this — about not only what this is going to mean for young audiences, but for audiences of her generation. She’s 63, and when she was coming out in the ’70s and ’80s, I mean…”
“It’s thanks to the work of people like Ryan Murphy who has been championing LGBTQ representation in the media for so long that we can have this worldwide release of this wonderfully celebratory and inclusive film,” she says.
When The Prom dropped ahead of the holidays last year, Pellman was at home in Ohio at her mom’s, where she’d been for much of shutdowns. Even with her smash debut about to drop and make her a bona fide star, she was down-to-earth, making a pot of soup on the stove.
Pellman is a musical theater kid whose early loves of the genre are classics like Chicago, The Sound of Music, West Side Story, and the more contemporary Hairspray (the 2007 musical movie). For her Prom audition, Pellman turned to the rather sparse but critical canon of musicals that feature queer women. She sang “Changing My Major” from Fun Home, the musical based on Dykes to Watch Out For creator Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir. It also happens to be Pellman’s “favorite musical of all time.” She still “bawls” when she listens to the soundtrack, she says.
“I was also a product of the High School Musical generation. I feel like now, younger generations, their first introduction to movie musicals might be a film like The Prom that also has this wonderfully inclusive message. That is so special for me.”
It’s a safe bet that The Prom and the approbations for Pellman’s performance will change the trajectory of her career. A big change for the star since the film was released is that she moved back to New York City, where she lived for a time before the pandemic hit. For now, she hopes to focus on ways to grow the Unruly Hearts Initiative with DeBose, whose friendship she says is one of her most “treasured” pieces of the whole experience.
“The easiest part of my job was falling in love with Ariana DeBose on-screen,” Pellman says of the musical theater star of shows like Hamilton and Bring It On, who Pellman now FaceTimes with regularly.
In that friendship, activism, queer identity, and finding one’s people converge. And it’s something Pellman hopes resonates with viewers.
“If there’s one thing that I feel like queer audiences can take away from [The Prom] is that chosen family, found family, is everything. The reason Emma finds this courage to speak her truth is because she has the support of this chosen family,” she says. “And for young audiences to know that their found families are out there too and that they are not alone. There is this world of people out there who can’t wait to love you and support you.”