If 2020 had panned out a little differently, then there’s every chance that the musical The Prom would have transferred to the West End at some point this year, despite the original Broadway production closing after a year and failing to make any money. Instead, the big budget movie version will be streamed into living rooms across the world when this cinematic adaptation from Ryan Murphy is released on Netflix on 11th December.
Murphy (of Glee, and recently, Hollywood, fame) says that he has a personal affinity with the musical, not only did he grow up in Indiana, he grew up gay in Indiana, and like the central character of this musical, couldn’t take his partner to the high school Prom.
In this story it’s Emma Nolan (charmingly played by Jo Ellen Pellman) who wants to take her girlfriend to the Prom, and while the school’s Principal is fully supportive, the PTA are outraged and cancel the Prom in its entirety – this part of the story is actually based on true events from 2010. Meanwhile, on the Great White Way, a misjudged musical about Eleanor Roosevelt has just been closed on opening night thanks to unfavourable notices, and it’s two stars (Meryl Streep and James Corden) need to quickly find themselves some positive PR.
Along with a chorus girl from Chicago (Nicole Kidman) and an out of work actor (Andrew Rannells) they jump on a non-union tour bus to get themselves to Indiana in time to take on public opinion and fight for Emma Nolan’s cause.
As you might imagine, things don’t go exactly to plan, and the quartet find a different way of life outside the Broadway bubble. In fact, the in-jokes and skewering of theatrical types is half the fun of the movie, at one point Meryl Streep’s character, Dee Dee Allen, produces two Tony Awards from her handbag and slams them on a hotel reception desk, expecting a room upgrade, but the mystified hotelier has no idea what they are.
While the Broadway stars go to Indiana to support Emma, albeit with selfish motives, it is of course their own flaws and insecurities that come to the fore, and the inhabitants of small-town America do just as much for the Broadway stars and the Broadway stars do for small town America.
This is undoubtedly a musical about acceptance, and you’ll find that message in almost every scene. Head of the PTA (Kerry Washington) has to face some difficult truths as she is completely unaware that the girlfriend that Emma wants to take to the Prom is her own daughter (Arianna DeBose) but all of these moments are handled with sensitivity, and turn out inspirational and hopeful.
Big song and dance numbers from Bob Martin, Chad Beguelin and Matthew Sklar’s original musical translate well to the big screen, especially with Casey Nicholaw in charge of direction. The Prom is gloriously camp and over the top, and the score is catchy and uplifting. The arrival of the Broadway gang injects some colour in to Indiana, and the rainbow flag seems to have permeated itself in to the very celluloid, or whatever the digital version of that is.
Messages of hope, acceptance and redemption, colourful song and dance numbers, and an overall feeling of pure joy – what’s not to love about The Prom? Well, sadly it does have one pretty big problem that is really difficult to overlook, James Corden.
Corden plays Barry Glickman, Dee Dee’s gay best friend and co-star, the character is integral to helping Emma find acceptance, as well as resolving several plot points, but Corden treats two hours of this multi-million dollar production like a skit on The Late Late Show. It’s not a great performance and is so hammed up it becomes irritating to the point of distraction, but even worse, at times it’s just downright offensive.
While Corden flounces around ticking off every stereotype in the book, and barely managing to maintain a believable accent, the rest of the cast are working hard to compensate. Streep, Kidman and Rannells are superb, Kerry Washington and Arianna DeBose give us some fantastic scenes, while newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman gives them all a run for the money.
Although The Prom does seem to have missed the mark on one piece of casting, perhaps we just need to take a lesson from this explosively colourful movie musical and be accepting of what it is. The Prom is a ray of light in a particularly tough year, but it continues to recognise that for some people growing up, things are always tough, and while it may take a little more than Broadway sparkle to heal wounds – it’s a very good way to start.