A review of the spectacular, big-hearted film adaptation of The Prom – Chad Beguelin, Bob Martin, and Matthew Sklar’s award-winning, Tony-nominated Broadway musical. Screenplay by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin; the film is produced by Ryan Murphy, Alexis Martin Woodall, Adam Anders, Dori Berinstein, and Bill Damaschke.
The Prom: Someone, Please Spike the Punch!
With the dreariness of 2020 almost nearing its end, Netflix sends us a gift in the form of a star-studded adaptation of the hit Broadway Musical “The Prom”. Headlined by Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman, Andrew Rannells, and Jo Ellen Pellman, The Prom is a delectable addition to the Ryan Murphy universe.
The story follows a group of Broadway actors: Dee Dee Allen (Streep) a stereotypical diva who is a bald-faced amalgamation of Chita Rivera, Patti LuPone, and Debbie Allen; Barry Glickman (Corden) a gay leading man with a tendency to chew the scenery in every space he’s on; Angie Dickinson (Kidman) a big-hearted chorus girl who quit a gig with a long-running show; and Trent Oliver (Rannells) a classically-trained actor waiting for his big break while working the non-Equity tour circuit between stints as a bartender.
Dee Dee and Barry, fresh from a critically panned, big-budget musical, mull over the reviews that found them too self-absorbed and self-indulgent. They are joined by Angie who just quit her job as a dancer in Kander and Ebb’s Chicago, and Trent who just got cast in a rickety Godspell tour across the midwest. Dee Dee and Barry hit upon the idea of finding a cause to champion in an attempt to salvage their reputations, and Angie stumbles upon the story of Emma (Pellman), a young lesbian in the middle of conservative Alabama and her struggle against her school’s PTA who denied her request to be allowed to bring a same-sex date to her own prom. Unbeknownst to the head of the PTA (Played by Kerry Washington), her own daughter Alyssa (Played by Ariana DeBose) has been seeing Emma, and would’ve been her date to the prom. The actors decide to help Emma out and descend upon Indiana (aboard the Godspell tour bus), and almost immediately disrupts the delicate dynamic of the town.
It is at this point in the story where we see the first of several problems: James Corden comes out of the gate strong as Barry Glickman, but you can’t shake the feeling that this role could’ve been better served by, I don’t know, an ACTUAL gay person? There is really no shortage of gay talent onstage and among the stars of Hollywood, who would’ve made just as much sense, and definitely much more authenticity than Corden’s almost cartoonish attempt at apeing gay. The cringe is strong, regardless of how well-intentioned the performance: and while we know Corden is an ally, the end result still falls short of a great performance, and just serves to remind the author that this part could’ve been magic in the hands of someone who is more intimately familiar with the complex emotional undercurrents that made the character so fascinating to watch in the first place.
Another contentious issue is the manner by which the message of the play, even after the warm and fuzzy happy ending, falls into a fairly heavy-handed, liberal, morality play. The people of New York are fabulous, lesbians are desexualized, the people of Indiana are hicks, etc. This stereotyping is present until the very end. Perhaps this is due to the nature of the medium more than the actual material: the sense of whimsy and humor present in an intimate, confined venue such as the theater, where the shared experience allows for more wiggle room, cannot be fully translated to the screen – and a small screen for that matter. The character of Emma is a walking embodiment of this, in that she believes there’s only one way to be gay – in that she cannot grasp the complicated process of coming out as a lesbian in a small town despite having a very real awareness of its possible consequences. The way she badgers and berates, and pushes Alyssa to come out, even if it’s painfully clear that she’s not ready is in itself emotional bullying, plain and simple. Coming out is an extremely personal experience that leaves deep emotional scars if not handled according to the needs of the individual, and no amount of pressure, even from those who mean well, is helpful. People ought to be given the respect to come out when they’re ready, not when the world demands them to be.
For the positives, you can turn to the performances of Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman. Meryl Streep’s Dee Dee is a delight whenever she appears, and her comedic timing is at all times on point. It’s always a joy to watch dramatic actors take on comedic roles: it is at times unexpected, and at times infused with a certain weight that makes the comedy not only funny but also quite compelling. Nicole Kidman is so tragically underused in this film. Her performance as a Fosse dancer adds another accomplishment to her already impressive repertoire and made the outstanding choreography shine.
The direction is something you have come to expect from Ryan Murphy: the film is awash in the same vibrant jewel tones and lit with the same gel-filters that have since become his trademark. One almost expects a return of the entire Glee cast whenever the story shifts to the high school. The music and lyrics by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin respectively are just as bright and as heartfelt as ever, with just some minor tweaks to inch the themes and tunes forward to 2020.
If ever there was an example of a show whose heart was in the right place, it would be this one. Sadly, it just didn’t gel as well as people hoped it would. That said, watch it for the spectacle of the thing, while managing your expectations as to the quality of its message. Just like an actual prom, it’s all magic and fun for one night, with rarely anything underneath come morning.