By Alan Hurst
(***) Now Streaming on Netflix
There are some problems with The Prom, the new musical that started streaming on Netflix on Friday, but you know what? It’s still a good time – a feel good, funny, campy tale of acceptance all wrapped up in a big rainbow-hued bow. Don’t scratch the surface because there’s not much there; instead just sit back and enjoy a talented group of actors having a wonderful time and giving us a good time. If some of the casting choices don’t make a lot sense, so be it. The way most of us are feeling these days any kind of technicolor pick me up that takes us away from reality for a couple hours is not a bad thing.
The Prom opened on Broadway in 2018 and it was a hit – an old-fashioned musical comedy with a decent musical score that told two parallel stories. One was about a young girl from Indiana who riles the PTA because she wants to bring her girlfriend to the annual prom. The other story concerned a group of self-absorbed performers from New York who decide that helping the poor girl from Indiana is just the thing they need to do revamp their reputations and kick start their careers.
What director Ryan Murphy has done is take those two stories and make them a little more seamless on screen, to the point that we now care as much about the fate of the young girl from Indiana as we do about the four narcissists from Broadway. But it also feels about a half hour too long, and there are probably one or two songs too many – everyone in the cast seems to get their moment – but it’s at the expense of the film’s pace. With the help of his film editor, Murphy keeps things moving too quickly for us to become truly bored, but at over two hours the story doesn’t really support that kind of running time.
Still, what Murphy and his game cast have put on screen serves up a lot of fun for the audience, and by the time the inevitable and uplifting conclusion arrives, you’ve definitely got a smile on your face. At least I did.
The film kicks off with the failure of a new musical on Broadway – Eleanor! a musical about the life of Eleanor Roosevelt (not typical musical comedy fare) – starring Dee Dee (played by Meryl Streep) and Barry (James Corden). While celebrating during an opening night party at a candy-coloured recreation of Sardis, the devastating reviews come in. The two actors fall into their self-absorbed pit of despair and realize things are now very desperate for them. They need something to resuscitate their reputations. With the help of a bartender (Andrew Rannells) who’s between acting gigs and aging chorus girl Angie (Nicole Kidman), they find their solution on Twitter. A school in Indiana has cancelled its prom because they didn’t want to allow a same sex couple to attend.
Very quickly (and with little logic) the quartet on are on a bus (actually a tour bus carrying the cast of a production of Godspell) heading to Indiana. There are no prizes for figuring out how all of this plays out. Each of the cast has their own back story and life wrinkles to work out, and each of them do just that.
Jo Ellen Pellman and Ariana De Bose play the two girls from Indiana, with Kerry Washington as the firmly conservative head of the PTA. Keegan-Michel Key is the school’s principal, who is on the side of the two girls. Tracey Ullman and Mary Kay Place also pop up as relatives of two of the main characters.
Meryl Streep proves once again here that she can basically do anything. As the talented, self-centered Broadway diva she channels both Liza Minnelli and Patti LuPone, but also gives the character some depth beyond the caricature. At the beginning she’s all flash, poses and attitude but when she starts falling for the school principal and becomes engrossed in helping someone else, she calms down and, at the same time, blossoms. She also does surprisingly well with the musical numbers. Streep has appeared in musicals before – she had a great number in Postcards from the Edge (1990), paired well with Lily Tomlin as a singing duo in Robert Altman’s The Prairie Home Companion (2006), she was in the two Mamma Mia! films belting out ABBA, and she was a spectacular witch in the film version of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods (2014). Her showstopper in The Prom is her introduction to the people of Indiana in a gym: “It’s Not About Me” is a paean to her own narcissism and it’s a hoot. She’s also something to see in the film’s opening number with James Corden, “Changing Lives”, a celebration of Broadway and how wonderful the two of them are, just before finding out their show is a flop.
Kidman and Rannells don’t have a lot to do here, but they each get an enjoyable musical moment. Kidman, who is quite warm and charming as the aging chorus girl, befriends Emma, the young girl at the centre of the action. She gives her a lesson in attitude and confidence that becomes a tribute to Bob Fosse in “Zazz”. It’s also a much-needed energy boost at that point in the story. Rannells’ big moment takes place in mall, where he provides a lesson in empathy to a group of hypocritical teenagers in “Love Thy Neighbour”. It’s a catchy and well-choreographed Sunday School lesson.
Both Pellman and De Bose are touching and fun as the two girls who want to go the prom, and Washington and Keys bring nice layers to the traditional conservative vs. liberal archetypes.
Corden seems to be on the receiving end of the film’s most negative reviews – many taking issue with a straight man playing a stereotypically flamboyant and very theatrical gay man. But when you watch the movie and see what Corden has to work with in terms of script and songs, is there really any other way to play the guy? I don’t think so. Corden is a game performer and a Tony award winning actor – he knows what he’s doing and, like the rest, he’s a lot of fun to watch.
I don’t know about others, but with the ongoing pandemic and the election craziness south of the border still dominating the news, and the prospect of Christmas via Zoom weighing on my mind, The Prom provided a welcome, fun and even moving break from the negative.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.
A wonderful article by a very talented writer. This review brought to life a production that many are critical of and gave us new reasons why to enjoy it. Excellent article!