Producers: Ryan Murphy, Alexis Martin Woodall, Adam Anders, Dori Bernstein and Bill Damaschke Director: Ryan Murphy Screenplay: Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin Cast: Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman, Keegan-Michael Key, Andrew Rannells, Jo Ellen Pellman, Ariana DeBose, Kerry Washington, Tracey Ullman, Kevin Chamberlin, Mary Kay Place, Nico Greeth, Logan Riley, Nathaniel J. Potvin and Sofia Deler Distributor: Netflix
There aren’t many great new Broadway musicals anymore—and not merely because of the pandemic shutdown. “The Prom” is evidence. Performing modestly in the 2018-19 season—it ran for under forty weeks and didn’t recoup its investment—it was nonetheless considered one of the year’s highlights, despite its hokey combination of obvious Great White Way satire and blatant moralizing. (It turn out that Broadway is a hotbed of gay culture and narcissism, and that intolerance is a bad thing. Who knew?)
But despite its obviousness, “The Prom,” with its bubbly but instantly forgettable music by Matthew Sklar (who also wrote the background score with David Klotz) and amusing if shallow lyrics by Chad Beguelin (who also co-wrote the original book and now the screenplay with Bob Martin), was pleasant enough, and garnered some good reviews, awards attention and audience favor. Among its fans was Ryan Murphy, one of television’s big guns nowadays, who’s pumped it up into a splashy Netflix movie. It not only lays on his familiar glitz—his collaborators production designer Jamie Walker McCall and costumer Lou Eyrich are willing co-conspirators, and cinematographer Matthew Libatique adds gloss to every brightly-colored image—but plays right into his favorite themes.
It all opens with the premiere of a flop Broadway musical called “Eleanor!,” about President and Mrs. Roosevelt, starring diva Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and egomaniacal Barry Glickman (James Corden). When the New York Times pans the show in highly personal terms, the post-opening party at Sardi’s quickly clears as PR man Sheldon (Kevin Chamberlin) tells the stars they’re self-absorbed twits who need to refurbish their public personas if they’re going to regain their success.
Dee Dee and Barry commiserate over drinks, where they’re consoled by bartender Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells), a wannabe showstopper who can’t get a sentence out without reminding listeners of his Juilliard diploma. Soon they’re joined by Angie Dickinson (Nicole Kidman), who’s been stuck in the chorus line of “Chicago” for years, never getting a shot at the lead. They all decide that what they need is a cause to sponsor—something that not just get them attention but refurbish their reputations as caring folks.
They fasten onto an in-the-news controversy in Edgewater. Indiana, where the decision of Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman) to take a girl to the senior prom has led the PTA, under its homophobic head Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington) to cancel the dance. Dee Dee, Barry, Trent and Angie will descend on the backward place with rhetorical guns blazing, teach the town to move into the twenty-first century and, of course, burnish their own reputation as crusaders for right. They hitch a ride there with a travelling “Godspell” company., and upon arrival Dee Dee finds a local fan in Principal Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key), a Broadway buff who’s an unabashed fan (and an opponent of Mrs. Greene).
What follows is collision of cultures that has the sensibility of an updated “Bye Bye Birdie,” but with the contrast between “woke” New York and benighted Indiana laid on with a trowel. There are, to be sure, some enlightened folks in Edgewater, notably Hawkins and Emma’s grandma (Mary Kay Place). But they’re few and far between, which is why instruction is needed. The most obvious example is the song of acceptance the gang the would-be heroes sing to a community meeting when they arrive, but it fails to do the trick. Meanwhile Dee Dee is getting romantic with Hawkins, and Barry is busy serving as Emma’s fashion advisor for the big night after public pressure has restored the prom.
But of course since we’re only at the end of Act I, further obstacles must arise. Hawkins finds out Dee Dee’s real motives, which sours their relationship. Barry is haunted by memories of his own parents’ rejection when they learned he was gay. And most important, Emma is so crushed when her still-in-the-closet date appears to have betrayed her (you can guess who she is), she has to be cajoled into taking up the cause again (Angie does the job with a Fosse-inspired routine). And since the girl’s classmates have to be convinced to change their attitude, Trent delivers a song called “Love Thy Neighbor” at the local mall, where he points out the hypocrisy of their lifestyles in contrast to their supposedly Christian principles and thereby converts them to the Gospel of Inclusivity. By the end all has been resolved—even Mrs. Greene has been brought into the newly-enlightened fold in the big finale—and Dee Dee, Barry, Trent and Angie are rewarded, each in his or her own way.
“The Prom” is anxious to please—which explains the overblown production, the strenuous choreography by Casey Nicholas, the spit-and-polish editing by Peggy Tachdjian and Danielle Wang, the screamingly over-the-top performances by the four stars and the earnestly committed support of the supporting cast. But what worked for many in its more modest format on stage has been inflated to such gargantuan proportions by Murphy that much of the charm has leaked out and the Broadway calculation behind it italicized.
The result is a flamboyant carnival of camp and sermonizing that’s more effortful than engaging, but with amusing moments sprinkled in. Watching it is like consuming a mountain of cotton candy into which a vitamin pill has been inserted to provide nutritional value. It will certainly provide a sugar high, but you might choke on the moral.