The Prom review: Ryan Murphy’s Netflix musical is winsome and wonderfully ridiculous

It’s as diverting and satisfyingly self-indulgent as you’d expect from Murphy. It’s also smart and deeply heartfelt 

Clarisse Loughrey
Thursday 10 December 2020 15:32 GMT
The Prom trailer

Dir: Ryan Murphy. Featuring: Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman, Keegan-Michael Key, Andrew Rannells, Ariana DeBose, Kerry Washington, Jo Ellen Pellman. 12, 131 mins

Nicole Kidman, with her impossibly long legs, snaps into position. She’s all angles and joints. Her character Angie – an eternal chorus girl who never got a shot at the lead – is determined to inspire the retiring teen lesbian (Jo Ellen Pellman’s Emma) in front of her. And so she digs deep, recalling the sage advice of her idol, choreographer Bob Fosse – “give it some zazz”.

Welcome to the glitzy, winsome, wonderfully ridiculous world of Ryan Murphy’s The Prom. The film takes a moderately successful Broadway musical from 2018 (it earned six Tony nominations, but closed after a year) and stuffs it with enough celebrities and sequins to outshine a Mariah Carey special. Murphy, the television czar behind the likes of Glee, American Horror Story and Ratched, has spent a lifetime doling out little morsels of “zazz” – though this is the first feature he’s personally directed since 2010’s Eat Pray Love. It’s as diverting and satisfyingly self-indulgent as you’d expect from Murphy. It’s also smart and deeply heartfelt.

As a musical, The Prom is no Cats or Les Misérables. It’s little-known enough that Bob Martin, Chad Beguelin, and Matthew Sklar – the original trio behind the show – have been allowed to faithfully adapt their own work for the screen. There’s also a broad, built-in appeal to The Prom, thanks to the way it cleverly blends the old and the new. Classic Broadway comes in the form of four washed-up thespians: Dee Dee (Meryl Streep), distinctly Patti LuPone-esque; Barry (James Corden), “gay as a box of wigs”; Trent (Andrew Rannells), who trained at Julliard and won’t let it go; and Angie, who’s spent decades in the Chicago ensemble without ever getting a crack at Roxie Hart. Dee Dee and Barry’s latest production, Eleanor! – The Eleanor Roosevelt Musical, has attracted such vicious reviews, it’s closed on opening night. Their publicist tells them, matter-of-factly: “You're just not likeable. Nobody likes a narcissist.”

There’s only one solution: latch onto a cause célèbre and rebrand themselves as activists. The Twittersphere points them to a small town in Indiana, where Emma’s high school has chosen to cancel prom, rather than let her attend with her girlfriend. What the school doesn’t know is that she’s dating the confident, preppy Alyssa (Hamilton’s Ariana DeBose), who’s largely still closeted because of her mother (Kerry Washington), the head of the PTA and the architect of this act of small-minded bigotry. And so, the four of them hitch a ride with a non-equity tour of Godspell and descend upon the school auditorium, as Trent smugly announces: “We are liberals from Broadway!”

Jo Ellen Pellman and Ariana DeBose, as Emma and Alyssa, deliver each note with a tender-hearted sincerity
Jo Ellen Pellman and Ariana DeBose, as Emma and Alyssa, deliver each note with a tender-hearted sincerity (Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix)

The world these four have intruded on is a distinctly ordinary one. In that way, The Prom fits neatly into the recent trend of high school-set musicals, from Dear Evan Hansen to Be More Chill, alongside Broadway’s wider demographic shift towards younger audiences. There may be little here beyond home, school, and the mall, but Murphy presents these places as capable of their own magic. Cherry blossoms swirl around Emma and Alyssa during their love song “Dance With You”, as Pellman and DeBose deliver each note with a tender-hearted sincerity. Casey Nicholaw’s boisterous choreography in “Love Thy Neighbor” ends with Rannells in the middle of a mall fountain, drenched and looking like a modern-day Esther Williams.

Both Washington and Corden’s characters have been expanded to give the film a little extra gravitas, though it’s the latter’s performance that marks the film’s one serious bum note. The actor not only delivers an unconvincing, and arguably offensive, caricature of a feminine gay man, he seems to treat the role more as an opportunity to show he can cry on cue than as something emotionally complex.

Corden sticks out like a sore thumb next to someone like Streep, who wreaks utter devastation in a single shift of expression, after Dee Dee learns the extent to which Emma has suffered just for being a lesbian in a small-minded town. You can almost hear that liberal bubble burst. It’s a moment that feels especially poignant in a US election year, when there’s always so much generalising talk of red and blue states. The Prom reminds us of those small battles, still being fought in every corner of the nation. 

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