‘The Prom’ Is a Dazzling Love Letter to the Magic of Broadway

Photo by MELINDA SUE GORDON/NETFLIX/MELINDA SUE GORDON/NETFLIX – © 2020 Netflix, Inc.

Has Ryan Murphy’s historic $300 million contract with Netflix been a successful endeavor so far? If you ask critics, people are pretty divided on whether or not any of his work has been good. And even the project we’re going to talk about today is on the mixed-positive side of things when you look at Metacritic. And to those who will greet The Prom with a ‘meh,’ I wonder, what more do you want from him? Because I think it’s the best thing he’s ever directed.

The Prom follows the story of Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman), a 17-year-old girl from small-town Indiana whose conservative town has decided to cancel her senior prom because she wants to take her girlfriend (Ariana DeBose). Meanwhile on Broadway, we have washed-up actors Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and Barry Glickman (James Corden), shocked by the failure of their latest project, a misguided musical about Eleanor Roosevelt, which opened and closed on the same night.

While drinking their sorrows away with fellow narcissistic downtrodden actors Angie Dickinson (Nicole Kidman) and Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells), they decide the way to give their careers some good press is to become celebrity activists. But not solving world hunger or building houses for Habitat for Humanity – as Dee Dee comments, “let’s find some little injustice we can drive to.” So, after finding Emma’s story on Twitter, this gang of cultural elites decides to travel to small town America to raise holy hell and teach these everyday Americans a lesson about acceptance.

Now, I insisted on seeing The Prom in a movie theater, pandemic be damned, because I just needed some joy in my life, and being somewhat familiar with the 2018 Broadway production, I knew I’d get it here, or at least I hoped it would. I didn’t see The Prom on Broadway, but I did watch a bootleg copy of fairly good quality on Youtube in the months leading up to this film. On stage, The Prom makes you laugh until it hurts and then it shatters your heart and lovingly reassembles it before it sends you out dancing. On film, The Prom is a high-camp A-list explosion of laughs and sequins that turns the ‘zazz’ up to an 11 but somehow sacrifices absolutely none of the heart or dramatic heft of what made it such a special stage experience in the first place. In fact, it might be even better.

I’m going to start out with Meryl Streep, who is playing a Broadway power-belter. I’ve seen Streep sing in several films before, and I’ve never seen her sing like this. I was worried they’d change the key on some songs to accommodate her vocal range, but that doesn’t happen at all. She totally floored me with her voice and obviously her attention to dramatic detail in these performances was never the thing anyone was worried about. Dee Dee has more depth here than in the stage version and she’s more of a fully fleshed out character, and Streep turns in a predictably powerhouse performance.

Surprise #1 – James Corden. I was nervous about Corden here, especially since he seems to be somewhat talented in musical films, but is greatly overexposed. It’s hard for your mind to not immediately go to about three other actors that would have been a better choice. Also, this character is a super-flamboyant theatre queen who says things like “I’m as gay as a bucket of wigs!” Casting Corden seemed to just be another tired choice of having a straight actor play a gay character. And I’ll admit to being wrong and give credit where it’s due. Corden handles the songs very well, and even if his American accent comes and goes, Barry also is more of a character here than on the stage. He has a third act revelation that gives his performance depth, and Corden plays this remarkably well, and he makes you believe everything that’s happening to the character emotionally.

Nicole Kidman and Andrew Rannells have less to do, but both are a joy to watch. Kidman’s big Chicago-tribute number Zazz is a highlight, and brings to mind her Moulin Rouge! glory days, and you really wonder why she doesn’t do more films that involve her singing and dancing and doing high-kicks. Andrew Rannells, however, has the best number in the entire film, a gospel-inspired tune where he’s preaching tolerance to teenagers in a shopping mall. Rannells doesn’t have enough to do here, but he has classically-trained Broadway written all over him in a way our other leads don’t. He’s a total song-and-dance powerhouse, and I will now start a petition asking Andrew Rannells to star in every musical film ever made from now on.

We also have Kerry Washington as the head of the PTA, also Alyssa’s mother. Washington gets to sing a little bit and she has a great costume in the finale. One quick note, Washington’s presence in this role gives this film a really interesting opportunity to talk about black conservatism in the United States and what it means to vote against your own best interests. But the movie doesn’t really have the time to get into all that. Washington feels like another name on the poster instead of being here for a worthy reason. Mrs. Greene does have more of an emotional evolution than she does on stage, but Washington still could have used some more time in the third act to make these scenes work – perhaps a big song.

Surprise #2 – Keegan Michael Key. Key plays Tom Hawkins, the school principal who is Emma’s most powerful ally. Tom is a fan of Dee Dee, and has a great number where he explains what her work has done for him. And this song hit me in a way I didn’t expect, and I was full on crying. It just reminded me what it means to see a live performance you really connect to and how incredible it is to escape from real life where everything is disappointing and sad and stressful, and drift away into a world where magic exists and things actually work out. And this hit especially hard in a year where I haven’t seen any live theatre in the past 10 months, but Key’s performance would have been good enough to move me to tears in the best of times.

Photo by MELINDA SUE GORDON/NETFLIX/MELINDA SUE GORDON/NETFLIX - © 2020 Netflix, Inc.
Photo by MELINDA SUE GORDON/NETFLIX/MELINDA SUE GORDON/NETFLIX – © 2020 Netflix, Inc.

However, best of all in this film where I loved every performance, are our two young leads, Jo Ellen Pellman and Ariana DeBose. This is Pellman’s first starring role, and she was cast after a nationwide search to find the actress who would play Emma. She absolutely nails the emotion of this bullied and heartbroken young girl who learns to find the courage within to be proud of the person she is, even under the worst circumstances. Pellman has a natural charm and wit that will serve her well in future projects, also she has that Disney princess quality to her singing voice and I’m sure she’d fit right in on Broadway. Ariana DeBose, meanwhile, has an extraordinary singing voice, and she’s already on the cusp of stardom after the recent Hamilton pro-shot brought attention to the scene-stealing role she played four years ago, her next project is as Anita in Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story. And she’s got charisma and talent for days and I would be very surprised if she isn’t sweeping award season someday.

Now, The Prom is an old-fashioned song and dance love letter to the glory of Broadway past, with a progressive eye on the future. Murphy directs the musical numbers with all the glitz, glamour, and extravagance they deserve (you can hear him yelling ‘like that, but BIGGER!’ from the director’s chair), but the screenplay from Chad Beguelin and Bob Martin, who also wrote the stage musical’s Tony-nominated book, grounds this thing in a place of emotional realism that is absent in a lot of Murphy’s other work. Between retaining original choreographer Casey Nicholaw, the primary-color explosion of Lou Erych’s costume design and famed cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s glorious lighting and camera work, Murphy has assembled the best team of people possible for this and it’s absolutely dazzling from beginning to end.

Also I have to point out the film’s production designer Jamie Walker McCall. Murphy was told that he couldn’t shut down the streets of Broadway to film a few key scenes, and this entire film was almost scrapped in the process, until Netflix told him, “we’ll build Broadway.” McCall took a street in Los Angeles and turned it into Broadway, and while there are some logistical issues (Sardi’s is not right next to the Music Box), the amount of detail given to this production design is mind-blowing. It’s totally gorgeous and made me feel like I was caught up in the magic of Broadway, which is impossible right now.

The Prom is a love-letter to theatre in the best ways, but it never doesn’t feel like a film. Certain scenes are opened up in ways they aren’t onstage, and feel cinematic in ways that stage adaptations often don’t. This is the kind of musical where people move furniture out of the way so they can dance, and when a character walks into someone’s office and you wonder, “why is that office so big?”, it’s because there’s obviously a dance number coming. And it mixes what I love the most about live theatre with what I love about going to the movies. And while The Prom will be primarily viewed on Netflix, I think in a different time, this would be the kind of thing that would open in theatres in July and stick around until October, playing to packed houses with viewers coming back a second and third time. But, I think it will do a lot to cement Murphy’s reputation at Netflix. The Prom is a total blast – a collection of showstopping musical numbers with an overwhelming excess of energy and heart. It’s exactly what I needed right now, and one of my favorite films of the year.

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