It doesn’t bear repeating how awful 2020 has been for the world, including for Broadway and high schoolers. For Broadway, all shows in New York City have been cancelled through May 30, 2021. A recent Broadway musical, The Prom, ended its run in 2019, and a national tour that was planned for 2021 is postponed. For high schoolers, actual proms were cancelled, and it might be awhile until teenagers can safely go to a school dance again.
Ryan Murphy’s adaptation of the 2018 musical seems like it would be the next best thing to experience The Prom these days. Considering how much I miss being able to go to Broadway shows, it says something that this film didn’t make me miss it more. With all of its glitz, glam and star power, The Prom is a forgettable, schmaltzy musical romp.
The Prom has the elements for the making of a heartwarming and affirming LGBTQ love story. It follows a group of narcissistic, down-on-their-luck Broadway stars. After their latest musical about Eleanor Roosevelt bombs, Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and Barry Glickman (James Corden) are in need of good publicity. Joining Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells), a former castmate that always brags about graduating from Juilliard, and Angie Dickinson (Nicole Kidman), a chorus girl who dreams of playing Roxie Hart in Chicago, Dee Dee and Barry find their cause in Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman), a teenager who is fighting with her high school’s PTA council to be able to take her girlfriend to prom. They head to Emma’s small town in Indiana to right this injustice in hopes that the news will spread and they will no longer be seen as narcissists but as compassionate activists.
It doesn’t quite work out the way they expected; Dee Dee, Barry, and company soon realize what it means and takes to help others. However, don’t be misled; the film never digs deep in the themes it touches. Rather, it’s two hours of song, dance, and fun, with a dash of cynicism midway through so that we end the movie feeling as if these characters have grown.
While the film devotes much of its screen time to the Broadway characters, the heart of the film is Emma and her desire to take Alyssa Greene (Ariana DeBose), whom Emma is secretly dating, to prom. Alyssa’s mom, Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington), is the head of the school’s PTA fighting Emma’s request for an inclusive prom. With Principal Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key) and the Broadway troupe on her side, Emma finds the confidence and strength to stand up for her rights and share her story. From “Just Breathe” to “Unruly Heart,” Pellman adds a lot of charm to her musical numbers.
The songs and performances are fun in the film, and the actors ham it up, bringing a lot of energy to the musical numbers. Hence, it’s unfortunate that Murphy captures many of these moments in such a perfunctory fashion. The stage is a limited space, and a good musical makes it feel expansive and infinite. Yet, everything feels so compact in the film, and it doesn’t seem like that was a deliberate filmmaking choice. Some of these choices disrupt the energy of the performances. The only great musical number is Rannell’s performance of “Love Thy Neighbor” in the mall’s fountain court.
James Corden is also miscast in his role as Barry, a gay Broadway actor. The way in which Corden sporadically incorporates stereotypical flourishes throughout his performance comes off as disingenuous. His chemistry with Streep is fine, but the film also spends time forming a connection between Barry and Emma that comes off as forced.
I’d hate to say that The Prom is shallow because Emma’s story is far from it. Yet, because the film, along with its narrative shortcuts, spends more time on its stars than its characters, it leaves the audience entertained but not entirely satisfied.
The Prom was released December 11, 2020 on Netflix.