Meryl Streep made me laugh out loud, repeatedly, during “It’s Not About Me,” which she sings in her role as the self-absorbed Broadway diva Dee Dee Allen in “The Prom,” Ryan Murphy’s star-studded Netflix movie adaptation of the musical I saw on Broadway two years ago. I didn’t laugh at that song two years ago. Streep can do no wrong, but there’s more to it than that.
On Broadway, “The Prom” was half a funny, knowing backstage comedy, satirizing the self-regard of theater folk; and half a loud, fast high school musical. The two halves were tied together, glibly I thought, by a story of homophobia inspired by true events : In the fictionalized version, a high school senior in Edgewater, Indiana named Emma wants to take her girlfriend to the prom, which prompts the PTA president to cancel the event.
A quintet of Broadway performers and their publicist — smarting in New York from bad reviews and accusations of being “aging narcissists” — read about Emma’s dilemma on their smart phones. They decide this is the cause they can get behind to generate positive publicity for themselves as “celebrity activists” and thus make themselves popular. That way, as Dee Dee’s co-star Barry puts it (portrayed in the movie by James Corden) “we can still love ourselves, but appear to be decent human beings.”
The question this set-up provoked for me was whether there was much difference between the fictional theater people in “The Prom” cynically using a serious cause to repair their image, and the actual theater people behind “The Prom” using that cause to add the appearance of purpose and heft in a giddy entertainment like this musical?
The show’s creators were pros who know from Broadway: The serviceable score is by Matthew Sklar, who with lyricist Chad Beguelin wrote the songs for “Elf” and “The Wedding Singer”; the book is co-written with Beguelin by Bob Martin, the witty Tony winner for “The Drowsy Chaperone” and co-creator of the beloved “Slings and Arrows.” It’s not clear they know about homophobia in Indiana, though.
It didn’t help that when Dee Dee sings of “local yokels” or Barry sings “We’re going down to where the necks are red/and lack of dentistry thrives,” it was unclear to me whether or not the show was making fun of the people in Indiana rather than just satirizing the New Yorkers’ parochial attitudes. Were there any stakes at all in this story; were there any people we were actually supposed to care about?
The film’s director Ryan Murphy seems to address these questions. For one, rather than beginning the show with the Broadway veterans at the opening night of the flop “Eleanor: The Eleanor Roosevelt Musical” (as the stage musical did), the film inserts a short beginning scene in Indiana, where the PTA president Mrs. Greene holds the vote to kill the prom rather than have Emma (newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman) attend with a date. We see a close-up on Emma’s hurt face. And near the end of the film there is an added scene of isolated and deliberately diverse LGBTQ teens in front of their separate computer screens singing in communion and in solidarity with Emma.
The film also seems to de-emphasize the dance numbers, which as choreographed by director Casey Nicholaw for the stage were thrilling, but also tended to upstage everything else, helping make the story of Emma feel secondary, if not incidental. The focus is now more on the story — a shift in emphasis that may be in part ironically because choreography is rarely as exciting on screen as it is on stage – the film editor usually takes over, establishing the rhythm through rapid-fire close-ups, rather than allowing the grace and energy of the performers to command our attention.
It also may not be irrelevant that the PTA president Mrs. Greene is now portrayed by Kerry Washington – not an obvious casting choice, but a star who’s familiar and beloved (and Black), and thus not so easily dismissed as a cartoon bigot.
Could another reason for my changed reaction be that two years ago, Indiana evoked Mike Pence; now it also means Pete Buttigieg?
So, perhaps for all these reasons I felt more comfortable laughing when the quintet of interlopers in the film – Streep, Corden, Nicole Kidman, Andrew Rannells and Kevin Chamberlin as the publicist – go from literally dancing beneath the Broadway marquees on 45th Street (actually, a gleaming re-creation of the street on a set in L.A.) to interrupting a PTA meeting at the Indiana school’s gymnasium, with Dee Dee taking center stage and singing:
Listen you bigoted monsters
Just who do you think you are? Your prejudice and your oppression won’t get past this Broadway star
Much of the humor in the song “It’s Not About Me” is that it is about her. In her effort to rally to Emma, Dee Dee spends most of the time talking about herself (“I understand furious townfolk/I did Beauty and the Beast”; “I’m no stranger to slander/So, my dear you’re not alone/The Post once said I was too old to play Eva Peron.”)
So I’ll give Murphy that, and thank him for Streep. But the Netflix film doesn’t
solve the problems I had with the show – especially the jarring inconsistency in the overall tone – and in some ways Murphy makes it worse.
The Broadway stars start out as flat-out cartoons; it’s hard to buy their transition to the “decent human beings” they initially only wanted to pretend to be. This is especially true since the film adds some treacly touches to the humanizing subplots that were already nearly straddling the line between pathos and bathos. I won’t give these time-consuming new scenes and unnecessary new characters away, other than to say that Tracey Ullman deserves better.
I am in general not won over by the casting. It seems like a kind of betrayal to sack all the original performers, replacing them mostly with screen stars; if you’re going to skewer theater people, shouldn’t you at least allow theater people to be in on the joke, and to profit from it? To be fair, almost all of the film’s principal cast members have at least one Broadway credit of their own (and some many more.)
If it seems a shame that Caitlin Kinnunen, Tony nominated for Emma on Broadway, wouldn’t get her shot at the movie, at least the new Emma, Jo Ellen Pellman, a 2018 graduate of the University of Michigan who has called herself “this lil queer actor from Ohio,” feels like a discovery. As they were on stage, Emma’s two songs (“Dance With You” and “Unruly Heart”) are low-key and lovely. And it was nice to see up-and-coming theater actress Ariana DeBose (Hamilton, A Bronx Tale, Tony nominee for Summer) cast as Alyssa, Emma’s secret girlfriend and Mrs. Greene’s daughter. (Given that she’s playing Anita in Spielberg’s forthcoming West Side Story, I do hope she actually returns to Broadway.) Keegan-Michael Key (whose sole credit on Broadway was in Meteor Shower) does a fine job in the implausible role as the school principal who’s a big fan of Dee Dee and her eventual love interest.
But some of the cast seem chosen for their marquee names alone, at the expense of the character. (Does a film on Netflix actually even need such star power?) Washington seems to fit this bill. I’ve read that Nicole Kidman was a dancer as a child, but she’s been a charismatic movie star forever; it’s difficult to picture her as Angie, an anonymous chorine who’s been stuck in the chorus of Chicago for twenty years, never given a shot at the big time. On stage, Angie’s big number “Zazz” showed what the character (and performer) could do…as a dancer. On film, it’s all camera angle and attitude.
James Corden is a likeable personality, but what does it say in 2020 that an out gay stage actor playing a flamboyantly gay stage actor was replaced by a straight TV talk show host (albeit also a Tony winner)? Can we assume that Ryan Murphy, famously gay and the producer of the all-gay “The Boys in the Band,” must be making some kind of statement – the need for allies perhaps? Statement or not, it’s a mostly unimpressive and occasionally uncomfortable performance.
Andrew Rannells replaces Christopher Sieber as Trent the pompous Juilliard-trained Broadway veteran who’s chronically underemployed and still best known for his long-ago stardom in a TV sitcom, “Talk to the Hand.” (a title that for some reason makes me laugh.) Both actors are Broadway veterans – both in fact two-time Tony nominees; both even sitcom veterans – but the switch in casting steps a bit on an inside joke. Sieber, who studied at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, is still probably most widely-known for portraying the Olsen twins father in the TV series “Two of a Kind”…..which was in 1999, before his starring roles on Broadway (Spamalot, Shrek.) Rannells’ high-profile TV roles (Girls, Black Monday) have come after his star-making performance in “The Book of Mormon.” Sieber seemed to be making fun of himself. Rannells is playing a character.
Do all these strike you as quibbles that are too inside Broadway for a movie on Netflix? But this is not just a show that originated on Broadway; isn’t it a show that assumes you know enough about Broadway, or at least care enough about Broadway, to enjoy seeing its royalty mocked? How, you might ask, will Indianans react? Or gay people who aren’t obsessed with Broadway — who may know of “The Prom” only from the headline-grabbing lesbian kiss at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade? I was tempted to say, let’s wait for Mayor Pete to weigh in. But I’m more interested in the reaction of his husband Chasten, who is all three: gay, living in Indiana and theater-obsessed — a former junior high school drama teacher, who was photographed before the end of its run in 2019 backstage meeting the cast of “The Prom” on Broadway.
Released on Netflix December 11, 2020
Directed by Ryan Murphy
Written by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin, based on their Broadway musical
Music by Matthew Sklar; Lyrics by 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, Sofia Deler
Director of photography: Matthew Libatique
Production designer: Jamie Walker McCall
Costume designer: Lou Eyrich
Editors: Peggy Tachdjian, Danielle Wang
Choreographer: Casey Nicholaw
Casting: Alexa L. Fogel
Rated PG-13, 131 minutes