2020 was going to be a big year for the movie musical. With In the Heights, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie and the new, Spielberg-directed West Side Story all scheduled to hit screens, it was looking like we might be entering a new golden age for the genre. However, for obvious reasons, all of these releases were pushed back to next year. Ryan Murphy’s The Prom, an adaptation of the 2018 Broadway show of the same name, was the last musical left standing.
Loosely based on a true story, The Prom is about Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman), a girl who just wants to take her girlfriend Alyssa (Ariana DeBose) to the high school prom. Unfortunately, she lives in small-town Indiana, and the PTA at her school decides to cancel the whole thing instead. Meanwhile, a group of four Broadway stars (Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman & Andrew Rannells) are looking for a way to rebuild their tarnished showbiz reputations, and Emma’s story seems like the perfect opportunity for some good publicity. The film focuses on the actors’ plans to change the minds of the people of Indiana and rescue their careers at the same time, plus we get a look into the effect on Emma and Alyssa’s home lives.
Overall, I think The Prom is a good film. Sure, there are a few sub-par performances and a lot of clichés, but ultimately, it’s a feel-good celebration of musical theatre and acceptance. It’s very Ryan Murphy: it has the musical numbers and teen problems of Glee, the flashy production design and costumes of The Politician, the optimism of Hollywood. Murphy’s usual flaws also recur, however: too much time is spent on the adults instead of the experience of the teens the film is supposedly about, and at times style is undeniably placed over substance. That said, at the end of a year in which curtains have hardly left stage floors, The Prom is exactly what theatre fans needed: it’s fun, earnest to a fault, and brings all the glitz and glamour of the stage to Netflix screens.
Remarkably for a stage-to-screen adaptation, The Prom delivers the script of the original musical almost word-for-word. Almost every song remains intact too, with the only changes being a cut to the big showy number ‘The Acceptance Song’, a small cut to a duet at the end of the promposal number ‘You Happened’, and the loss of the reprise of opening number, ‘Changing Lives’. Even some of the choreography from the stage version makes it to the screen, which is practically unheard of.
So then, what’s different? Most obviously, the format. For a stage production to translate onto the screen, adjustments must be made and The Prom does this well, expanding on the script and giving more nuanced, developed backstories to several characters. Production design plays a big part in the translation and transformation: without the limitations that come with set changes and stage widths, the creative team have been able to create a glitzy New York, a drab Indiana, and an all-out, technicolour, glittering prom. The colour palette is what really makes the film, with each of the stars given their own signature colour of the rainbow – costuming is another of its strengths. The lighting design embraces the project’s theatrical roots, injecting the film with the vibrancy and fantasy-world feeling I associate with stage spectaculars. With that said, some things are definitely lost. Key to the stage production’s popularity was its many Broadway references, aimed at hardcore theatre fans. That feeling of being in on the joke doesn’t always make it through the digital jungle in the journey from stalls to screen.
The other obvious difference is the casting. As someone who loved the stage production, and has watched pretty much every clip of it that’s ever been uploaded to YouTube, it was hard not to compare the cast’s performances with those of the original Broadway company. Streep was a pleasant surprise, with her powerful vocals easily living up to Beth Leavel’s original performance and proving why she is a movie-musical staple. Kidman and Rannells were similarly excellent – Kidman in particular brought an unexpected emotional honesty to her scenes comforting Emma. While Jo Ellen Pellman and Ariana DeBose were undeniably likeable, and definitely strong singers, they didn’t quite get into the emotional grittiness as much as I would’ve liked – Pellman was always smiling, even when her character was going through quite the ordeal, whereas Caitlin Kinnunen, the original Broadway Emma, brought a lot more depth and authenticity to the part. An unexpected high point was the scenes shared by Keegan Michael Key, as the theatre-fan high school principal, and Streep – he was easily the most human and least cliched character, and the two have remarkable chemistry.
I am of course missing one key actor. James Corden’s performance was something of a controversy even before the film was released. This was based both on the fact that he seems to have appeared in every single musical film of the last five years, and that he is a straight man playing a character whose arc revolves around being gay. While it’s not my place to comment on whether the latter was offensive, his actual performance made him the weak link of the cast. Corden’s American accent seemed to come and go as it pleased, and he was lacking any kind of emotional honesty. It’s a real shame – the film added a lot of depth to his character through backstory, which could have been really impactful had it been played properly. With all that said – at least it was better than Cats.
But what should we expect from the casting of musical adaptations? For years people have debated the merits and drawbacks of retaining Broadway casts: on the one hand, stage actors should be given the opportunity to break into film, they already know their characters inside out, often having worked on them for years (some of The Prom’s original cast were part of its development for seven years). On the other, celebrities are far more likely to draw in audiences and make musicals financially viable. I think with The Prom, casting big name celebs in the adult roles was sensible – Meryl Streep can bring in an audience with just a cameo. It felt unnecessary, however, that the teen roles were recast – Jo Ellen Pellman is even less known than Caitlin Kinnunen, who I think would’ve given a stronger performance, the same can be said of Ariana DeBose and her Broadway counterpart Isabelle McCalla. That’s not to say that the new actors gave bad performances, or that they were miscast – their casting just seems unnecessary.
Casting controversies aside, it’s important to think about how the film will be received in our current moment – a lot has changed since the Broadway production closed. People are desperate for joy and celebration, and The Prom has an abundance of both. Its message of optimism and acceptance is heavy-handed at times but couldn’t be better timed. With the Biden presidency on the horizon and the long-awaited vaccine arriving, things might be looking up; The Prom nurtures this optimism. On top of this, releasing a film that denounces homophobia can’t go amiss at Christmas time, when people are looking for things to watch with the family. The Broadway production made history by staging the first LGBT kiss during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, and so it’s nice to think of the film continuing this legacy by bringing discussions into the home – releasing the film on Netflix makes it accessible to thousands who would never have found the stage production.
This is the film’s real strength – taking the sparkling, festive movie-musical and bringing it into 2020. Centering a story on two teenage lesbians is a huge, positive move for the genre, one that will hopefully have a real-world impact. The future of the movie-musical remains uncertain, but with so many films lined up to be released in 2021, The Prom feels like it could be ushering us into an exciting new era of all-singing all-dancing entertainment.