Review: The Prom on Netflix Delivers Broadway to Your COVID Bubble
Meryl Streep and James Corden star in the film adaptation of the delightful 2018 musical comedy.
What a thrill to attend The Prom again. No, I didn't crash my high school's end-of-year dance, which was likely an awkward shadow of itself on Zoom. I'm referring to producer-director Ryan Murphy's film adaptation of the 2018 Broadway musical, which will be available to Netflix subscribers worldwide on December 11. No awkward shadow, The Prom dazzlingly commits Chad Beguelin, Bob Martin, and Matthew Sklar's musical to celluloid with an all-star cast and production numbers that practically leap off the screen. This big gay movie-musical is the perfect salve for your COVID-weary soul, and a glittering reminder of a distant place called Broadway, where they once created such things.
It tells the story of Emma (charming newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman), a teenage lesbian in small-town Indiana who just wants to take her girlfriend (Ariana DeBose) to the prom. She has a sympathetic ally in Principal Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key), but PTA president Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington) is dead-set against the idea. Meanwhile, fading Broadway stars Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and Barry Glickman (James Corden) are attempting career comebacks in a new musical about Eleanor Roosevelt. A savage review sends them scrambling for positive press, which they think they've found when their friend Angie (Nicole Kidman) scrolls up to Emma's story on Twitter. Conscripting a chronically underemployed (but Juilliard-trained) actor named Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells) and their trusty publicist (Kevin Chamberlin), Dee Dee and Barry plan an invasion of Indiana. They'll make those Hoosiers see the error of their ways — and win all the tiny hearts on Facebook in the process.
In my review of the 2018 Broadway production, I called The Prom "the antidote to our ultraserious age." The cure was undoubtedly not administered widely enough to achieve herd immunity. In the ensuing two years, the national discourse has only become darker and more humorless, with millions of Americans retreating into wild conspiracy theories and bitter resentment. Others delight in online witch hunts, "dragging" and "dunking" their victims while chasing a diminishing burst of endorphins down a neverending feed of horrors. The Prom skewers both reactionary bigotry and self-serving sanctimony into one delicious musical kebab. In 2020, it hits the spot.
Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin's screenplay preserves much of their timely and hilarious book, adding backstory and a couple previously offstage characters. Matthew Sklar's songs (with witty lyrics by Beguelin) arrive in all their peppy pop glory, and linger in your head long after the end credits have rolled.
Ryan Murphy makes his musical directing debut (if you don't count Glee). He seems to possess a deep appreciation of the form and the magic lurking under every moment (a quality that manifests itself in the vivid color of Jamie Walker McCall's production design and Matthew Libatique's luminous cinematography). The director occasionally goes overboard. Viewers familiar with Murphy's work (particularly the quixotic final episode of Hollywood) will know that the writer-producer is ever-ready with an inexhaustible bottle of syrup to gleefully pour all over your dramatic pancakes. This results in a version of The Prom that is simultaneously brighter and sappier than the Broadway musical (a budget line was surely dedicated to artificial tears). The more successful of the performances push against this mawkishness, revealing the dark spots that have been mostly painted over by Murphy's Hollywood high gloss.
The most impressive example is Streep, who plays a Broadway diva conscious of the role she created for herself, and wary of others figuring her out. She's not the bedazzled bulldozer Beth Leavel created for Broadway, but she can belt with the best of them. We see her struggling between the instinct to preserve what she knows and her curiosity about what lies beyond her own shores — a struggle she shares with the people of Emma's town.
Corden delivers an adequate Barry, but fails to put a distinctive stamp on the role. He follows a tough act in Brooks Ashmanskas, who pulled funny and memorable moments out of thin air onstage. Unfortunately, Corden leaves far too much comic potential on the table.
Washington lends some much-needed depth to the film's only villain, although she is still saddled with some cheap laugh lines. When Hawkins makes an appeal to the American value of inclusivity, Mrs. Greene responds, "This isn't America. This is Indiana." This former Ohioan guffawed, but I can't help imagining how much better the script could have been if it didn't so often joust with socially conservative straw men. It approaches the real deal briefly when Greene rails against "big government taking away our freedom of choice." Not only can we envision her at an anti-mask rally, we glimpse her genuine fear of a world she cannot control, which seems to have no use for her.
Beguelin and Sklar take another cheap shot with the rollicking second act number "Love Thy Neighbor," which takes aim at selectively enforced religious rules by invoking a golden one that "trumps them all." The lyrics are tailored to poke the very people who are so fearful of the surging tide of liberal culture that they elected the most unqualified president in our republic's history as a bulwark against it. Former Broadway Mormon Andrew Rannells performs this number like the pied piper of Muncie, convincing the town's teens to join him in song and dance (and pro-gay persuasion). And really, when he delivers a glory note from the center of a mall fountain, it's hard not to get swept away with the tide too.
Murphy's smartest choice was retaining original Broadway director Casey Nicholaw to do the choreography, which is even more extravagant than it was onstage, complete with acrobatic teenagers backflipping across the screen. Peggy Tachdjian and Danielle Wang have edited it all together with the supercharged energy of a K-Pop music video.
There's much to admire about The Prom, but the thing I love the most is its compassion. In its own toe-tapping, heart-warming way, it holds out hope that we can always reconcile if we're open to the possibility. It asserts that it is OK to get things wrong so long as you're always trying to make things right — that the lady isn't perfect, but she is improving. In our unforgiving age, such grace feels downright revolutionary.