The 2019 stage musical The Prom was a rarity: a contemporary musical comedy not based on a movie, a book or a celebrity’s life story.
Alas, it didn’t last long — a respectable 309 performances after about two dozen previews. But wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, it was quickly snatched up by producer / director Ryan Murphy and slated for a Netflix feature.
This would not be a shot-from-the-stage-with-original-cast production a la Hamilton or American Utopia but an honest-to-Hammerstein feature-film musical. The turnaround time was astounding. The show closed on Broadway in August 2019 and here it is, premiering less than 16 months later. (For comparison, the previous Meryl Streep / James Corden matchup, Into the Woods, premiered 25 years and change after the original Broadway production closed.)
With such a rapid turnaround, it’s no wonder that most of what appeared onstage made it into the film. Who had time to rewrite? It’s still the story of an Indiana high school girl, Emma, who wants to go to the prom with her girlfriend. Narrow-minded locals want to keep that from happening, and a crew of clueless New York theater folks, discovering the story trending on Twitter, think helping her will give them good PR.
You probably know where this is going.
That didn’t matter on Broadway. With a bright original score, a cast of enormously talented actors and a damn funny book, it proved a delight. (Find my review of the Broadway show here.)
The stage musical amazingly walked the line between the two worlds of the adults and the teens, ping-ponging between High School Musical-like dance numbers, witty tunes for the grown-ups and heartfelt material for Emma. Just about the entire score arrives intact for the film, although the cast doesn’t. Out went the Broadway cast, in came the A-listers — including Nicole Kidman and Kerry Washington.
Not feeling stage-bound at all, the material has been opened up and sometimes in positive ways. For instance: Rather than just hear about it, we see two-time-Tony winner (and don’t you forget it) Dee Dee Allen (Streep) in her stage productions. We are also privy to a charming shopping scene — something that usually turns my stomach — with Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman) and Barry Glickman (Corden). My smile was wide. Here at the mall, the restless camerawork is fun. Other times, though, it does no favors to the material. In a primarily solo turn for Emma late in the film, the material cries out for stillness — for a chance to listen to this smart young woman sincerely define her emotions. Instead, though, we get relentless swirling more appropriate for a carnival ride rather than a revelatory solo.
OK, I was still in tears. Still.
What didn’t open up the waterworks for me were a pair of added scenes clearly designed to turn on those faucets. Both involved Corden, one with Streep and another with Tracey Ullman as, well, that would be a spoiler. (Appropriate, as this soapy scene comes close to the more traditional definition of spoiling a movie.)
Nobody could say the original stage version was subtle, but it trusted the audience to pick up on changes in the narcissistic Allen and Glickman without hammering us with backstory and self-awareness. The adaptation seems terrified that we’ll hate these folks, so out come the overt pathos.
Similarly, a pandering-to-the-audience final moment with Washington, as the PTA parent who leads the charge against an Emma-inclusive prom, robs her of the strong and more realistic exit the character — and the viewer — deserves. This isn’t This is Us. It’s a musical comedy. And it already has enough emotional weight without laying more on with a trowel.
The second-tier adult characters — played by Kidman, Andrew Rannells, and the wildly underused Kevin Chamberlin — come across as, well, second-tier characters. Kidman’s big number as a perpetual chorus girl who never got a lead feels like as much of a well-we-have-to-give-her-a-song as it did on stage. And the intimacy of film makes it uncomfortable and inappropriate for the moment in the story. Further, the scene takes away from the growing bond between Emma and Glickman.
Rannells is a terrific performer (see also The Boys in the Band or his Lincoln Center concert on PBS) and his timing, especially early on, is impeccable. He’s also very funny in a wisely truncated appearance at a monster truck rally. But both his and Corden’s youthfulness work against them. On Broadway, their characters presented as older, adding more goofy out-of-placeness to Oliver and more laughing-to-hide-the-pain depth to Glickman. In the film, the two look closer to the teens than to their alleged peers. Bridging the generation gap should take more than a few short steps.
There are positive additions to the script, however, including a nice role for Mary Kay Place (more of her in movies, please) and a very funny line dealing with cell phones in the theater.
The singing is fine throughout although Streep doesn’t have the belt essential to her character. Still, I doubt anyone would prefer a recording of this cast over that of the stage company. (Is there a human being alive who prefers the Into the Woods film soundtrack to the original Broadway cast recording? I don’t think so.)
As for the center of the story, Pellman is moving, charming, funny and sings well as Emma. She’s exactly what a replacement cast member should be. But here’s the thing: The lead didn’t need to be replaced. I’ll pretend to understand why the adults in the stellar original cast were replaced with box office names. But I can’t see a good reason why Murphy took Pellman to his Prom rather than Caitlin Kinnunen, who originated the role. I don’t get why the actress who embodied Emma so beautifully — and was duly acclaimed for it — couldn’t get an invite to the big party.
For all its flaws, though, I still took enormous pleasure in The Prom. I laughed. I cried. I hummed the tunes afterwards while doing the dishes. It’s no small thing that Murphy and company managed to maintain much of the joy I experienced in the theater, while making The Prom accessible to millions more people. Included among those, I hope, are many LBGTQ+ kids and their siblings and parents — who might not otherwise have such a playful and tearful conduit to connectivity. And there’s always that bootleg of the stage show that I found on YouTube …