According to Ryan Murphy, he wanted to make a film version of “The Prom” since the moment he saw it on Broadway.
Watching the new Netflix movie that resulted from that spark of inspiration, it’s not hard to see why. The musical, which found a hardcore fan audience despite a less-than-profitable Broadway run, is a piece that is a perfect match for the entertainment mogul’s brand, a frothy mix that exists on the thin line between camp and hokum, blending sharp-edged wit with inspirational sentiment and over-the-top farce with activism. It’s a queer story with mainstream pop appeal that leans heavily into a love of All Things Broadway. Unless there was also a serial killer thrown in somewhere, how could anything be more Ryan Murphy than that?
There was more behind Murphy’s enthusiasm for the piece than just a savvy selection of tailor-made grist for the entertainment mill that is his contract with Netflix, however. As an LGBTQ person who grew up in a small Indiana town himself, the show-biz powerhouse found a personal connection to its story of an Indiana teen who has to fight against the homophobia of her small town community in order to take her girlfriend to their high school prom. It spoke to his own memories and hopes – and as it turns out, that heart connection is the ingredient that makes his translated-to-film version of “The Prom” much better than it probably deserves to be.
Inspired by the real-life experience of Mississippi high schooler Constance McMillen, the story centers on Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman), an out lesbian senior whose plan to take her secret girlfriend Alyssa (Ariana DeBose) to the prom is thwarted by her school’s PTA-mandated no-same-sex-date policy. Her cause is taken up by a group of down-on-their-luck Broadway actors — including a famous but fading diva (Meryl Streep) and her GBF (James Corden) — whose co-starring turn in a musical based on the life of Eleanor Roosevelt has just closed after only a single performance. They hit upon the scheme of creating an activist cause around her in order to garner some career-boosting publicity.
Along with Emma’s supportive principal (Keegan-Michael Key), they succeed in forcing the school to hold an inclusive prom; but when the PTA president (Kerry Washington) uses a loophole to shut Emma out anyway, the cadre of showfolk will have to dive deeper than their own self-centered motivations if they are going to be able to make things right again and score a decisive win against homophobia in the heart of small-town America.
As written by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin (with the latter providing lyrics to music by Matthew Sklar), the musical is unabashedly designed to be a crowd-pleaser, full of comedy and heart, with just enough drama to make it mean something and a message only a bigot could refute; the score, spiced up with youthful flourishes but nevertheless grounded in a stylistic base that is pure traditional Broadway, is exuberant and infectious, and allows plenty of opportunity for the kind of show-stopping dance numbers that make an evening of live musical theater an experience quite unlike any other.
Presumably out of a desire to maintain the integrity of the show’s original voice, producer-director Murphy enlisted the trio of original writers to adapt their work to the screen; the result is an expanded but mostly faithful reimagining that maintains the bones of its stage-bound architecture while also deepening some of its more sensitive moments with the kind of embellishment made possible by cinematic technique and a no-expense-spared budget.
That budget is also behind the film’s other biggest asset, a stellar dream cast headed by Streep and Corden, with Nicole Kidman and Andrew Rannells in close support – all in addition to the other talented stars mentioned above. It’s clear this high-profile ensemble is having a blast in their roles; Streep is in fine form, as always, and Corden is capable of charming us in anything (even, almost, the horror that was “Cats”), but everyone else performs at an equally high level; special mention should go to Kidman, though, for managing to take on the role of an aging chorus girl and making us believe that she’s been dancing in the background for 20 years without ever getting noticed – as if she weren’t, well, a superstar like Nicole Kidman.
These players are gifted enough to take the broadest, corniest, most cliched bits of the script – which, in truth, amounts to most of it, by design – and giving it not just the extra dimension it needs to be more than a goofy pastiche, but the enthusiasm and all-around show-biz moxie that keeps an audience engaged and entertained even when the story lags.
And it does lag, there is no denying it. As any aficionado of musical theater will surely tell you, all but the most remarkable of shows suffer from what’s often called the “second-act slump,” and “The Prom” is no exception. Indeed, it’s exacerbated here by the script’s reliance on the tried-and-true “beats” that have formed the core of the genre’s dramatic structure since the days when musicals made the transition from the era of Ziegfeld’s Follies to the age of “Oklahoma.” Onstage, this slavish adherence to traditional format is surely part of the show’s charm, another function of its lovingly self-mocking tone. But on film, without the in-person visceral excitement that comes from seeing those aforementioned dance numbers exploding before your eyes, it can be an obstacle to keeping the interest of audiences used to more sophisticated fare.
Thankfully, the film rendition of “The Prom” never lets its slow spots hold it back for long. Murphy the director relies on the strengths of his cast while filling the screen with the kind of artfully kitschy, colorful visual spectacle that makes even his pulpiest endeavors a feast for the eyes; and while his quick-edit cinematic style fails to capture the majesty of its dance sequences (choreographed with vigor and an aptly satirical touch by Casey Nicholaw) in the same way as the long takes of the classic Hollywood musicals that so clearly inform his palette here, the flash and movement with which he instills every moment of them is more than enough to keep us appropriately dazzled by them.
More importantly, though, he makes “The Prom” a success despite its flaws because of that heart connection that led him to make it in the first place; in the midst of all the larger-than-life “zazz” (to borrow a phrase from the film), he never lets us forget the importance of the human story underneath it, and the powerful message of acceptance that was intended to be the show’s reason all along.
It has to be acknowledged that Murphy’s track record is somewhat hit-or-miss for all but his most ardent fans, and that “The Prom” is the kind of bubbly, lightweight musical theater that you’re probably not going to like if you’re not a fan of that kind of material.
For everybody else though, it’s worth putting at the top of your Netflix queue when the streaming platform drops it on Dec. 11.
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Washington Blade: Gay News, Politics, LGBT Rights