“Think of ‘musical comedy,’ the most glorious words in the English language,” the fictional director Julian Marsh once proclaimed. And when you think of musical comedy today, one real director comes to mind: Casey Nicholaw.
It’s no wonder why. With four original musical comedies currently running on the Rialto—The Book of Mormon, Disney’s Aladdin, Mean Girls, and now The Prom—Nicholaw has galvanized the modern form of the classic musical comedy. The nine musical comedies he’s shepherded to Broadway thus far have earned 62 total Tony Award nominations and 14 wins. When making a musical comedy, his is the door you knock on.
Nicholaw’s reign in musical comedy isn’t just a question of proliferation, it’s caliber and care.
Long before carving a career on Broadway, Nicholaw fell hard for musical theatre. He plastered the walls of his childhood bedroom with heartthrobs like Singin’ in the Rain, and programs and lobby cards from musicals that came through his San Diego hometown. “The only wall that wasn’t covered, I had painted a mural that was the logos from every cast album on Broadway—like the Bye Bye Birdie lips,” he says.
He grew up captivated by Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire and realizes now “that is probably where I got that affinity for the lighter style and the comedy and stuff.
“I bring my buoyancy and my love for musical theatre to everything I do,” he says.
But don’t mistake buoyancy for frivolity. Nicholaw wields comedy as a tool, disarming his audiences in service of the honest heart at the core of each of his shows.
“My favorite thing to do is to have people laughing their butts off and then, suddenly, at the end go, ‘Wait a minute, how did I get these tears in my eyes? Why am I crying right now?’” says Nicholaw.
That ever-present goal led to The Prom, a musical comedy about four narcissistic Broadway stars who decide to rehab their images by taking up the cause of the Indiana high-schooler banned from her prom for wanting to take her girlfriend.
Involved from the show’s inception, Nicholaw formed the singular vision for the production. “Every show has its own personality and tells you what it needs,” he says. “What was trickiest about Prom was figuring out the tone of it and the style of it.”
Then he realized he was directing two shows at once: an intimate play-like show for the Hoosiers and a splashy flashy musical for the “New York liberals from Broadway.”
“The people in Indiana, their acting is realistic, so when the musical theatre people come in they’re like ‘What the f*ck is happening here?’” he says. That contrast of heightened and grounded made The Prom click. (It’s also a device that worked for his Book of Mormon with the optimistic missionaries dropped in civil war-torn Uganda.)
“The structure happens for a reason; you have to earn every step,” he says. “It also has to come from a completely honest place, and then you heighten it to be that style that musical comedy demands.”
“Casey never stops pursuing the clearest, cleanest, most honest and interesting way to tell the story,” says Ilana Ransom Toeplitz, Nicholaw’s Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation directing fellow on The Prom.
Nicholaw has a gift for manipulating the classic structure of musical comedy, using the “comfortable package,” as he calls it, to spotlight contemporary issues (civil unrest, bullying and social media, celebrity activism, LGBTQ+ rights in schools).
Comedy is often seen as the lesser of the two dramatic masks. But the skill to create surprise and delight should not be underestimated. “People don’t realize how much craft goes into the focus of a comedy, so that you get the laughs. So much of it is math,” he says, noting that moving an actor two feet can be the difference between bursts of laughter and awkward silence. “It has to do with space and focus and people don’t know that.”
“Comedy isn’t just jokes. Comedy is understanding situation,” says producer Kevin McCollum, who tapped Nicholaw for his first Main Stem director-choreographer gig in 2006 with his The Drowsy Chaperone and again for 2015’s Something Rotten!. “So in a dance he can create situations—not just steps.” He adds, “I work with him any chance I get.”
Nicholaw is a director-choreographer who learned from director-choreographers. He started out in the chorus working for masters like Susan Stroman and Rob Marshall. “His vocabulary is deep because when he was an actor he listened and he watched and he wasn’t a typical singer-dancer,” says McCollum. “He was more driven by character and motivation in the role he was hired for and he celebrates the individuality of everybody.”
And he casts with that eye for singularity. “He will cast people for their ability to stand out of a chorus line, not blend into it,” says Toeplitz.
The Prom comes after years of practice and problem-solving—and on the heels of Nicholaw’s personal library of musical comedy successes, from the comedic Holy Grail Spamalot to today’s Prom.
“It feels like a culmination. It feels like I’m able to take everything I’ve learned and put it into one show,” he says. “It’s just engaged euphoria.”
That moniker applies to Nicholaw’s hilariously captivating—and moving—pieces of art writ large. His is the kind of theatre people fall under the spell of—and for one big reason: He just loves it.
“This one’s my heart,” he says, beaming from the mezzanine of the Longacre Theatre where The Prom plays.
Suddenly, it becomes clear that Nicholaw musicals are a realization of the man: gregarious and energetic and optimistic, packed with more craft and intellect than ever credited, bursting with heart, and sprinkled with zazz.