The Netflix Experience: The Prom
After watching the stomach churning lesbian coming-out pseudo-Hallmark Christmas movie the other day, The Happiest Season didn’t feel so happy, so I knew I really needed a cleansing feel-good lesbian coming-out story that would, basically, make me feel good and happy once again. The Prom on Netflix seemed to be just the kinda ticket required. I had seen the brilliantly funny and smart musical on Broadway when it first opened in October 2018. I remember quite clearly how much it surprised me, happily, joyously. Not really knowing what we, the late great Nashom and I, were walking into, the show found a way to jump ahead of all our expectations, proudly with glitz, glamour, sequins, and simplicity. Easily surpassing its deceivingly stale title with stupendous charm, humor and a whole tour bus full of heart and cleverness, The Prom seemed to reinvent the musical comedy wheel right before my eyes. I don’t think I’ve been so wonderfully surprised in a long long time, but I should have known better, as Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone, “Slings and Arrows”) and Chad Beguelin (Disney’s Aladdin) wrote the clever book, and Matthew Sklar (Broadway’s Elf) delivered perfect music to go with Beguelin’s hilariously spot on lyrics. The stage musical overflowed the punch bowl with smart and sassy songs one after the other, glorified by magnificent performances, and a heartfelt message of love, connection, and inclusion.
As a stage musical, The Prom premiered on Broadway where it ran for just under a year. It should have run much longer, but for some reason, even after all the super positive reviews, it just couldn’t find enough ticket buyers to keep the party pumping and high kicking. So I was over the moon when the film version was first announced, with Ryan Murphy leading the parade and Netflix giving it their stamp of approval. I had wanted the team to not give in to the movie star allure, and offer the roles to that stupendous Broadway cast, especially both of the Tony Award nominees; the magnificent best of the belters, Beth Leavel (Broadway’s Bandstand) and the always amazing Brooks Ashmanskas (Broadway’s Bullets Over Broadway). But my wish was not heard, surprise, surprise, and The Prom went the way of so many other Broadway stage to ‘screen’ adaptations. The big cinematic names are brought it, for better or worse, and the Broadway stars are left to watch on with the rest of us. Sometimes that decision is a disaster, but other times, like (mostly here) it works, despite itself. Most likely cause the musical can withstand it.
The film version, like on stage, begins in a land far far away from small town Edgewater, Indiana, in the land of New York City on the brightly lit streets outside a Broadway theatre. Frank DiLella, my favorite ever so handsome Emmy Award winning host of NY1’s “On Stage” is naturally there, microphone in hand beaconing over the glamourous Broadway star Dee Dee Allen for a few choice words on the night her newest big Broadway musical opens. And who is playing this sequined stage star, none other than the legendary Meryl Streep (HBO’s Angels in America), who is everything Dee Dee wishes she was, and more. I must admit I adore or even worship this actress beyond words, but I was a bit hesitant when it was first announced that she would play this narcissistic piece of work. To follow the big and strong voiced Leavel in pretty much anything musical must be quite the daunting task, even for Streep. And from her film versions of “Into The Woods” and “Mamma Mia!“, I wasn’t convinced that she had it in her. They are fun and all (although MM2- beyond Cher’s arrival, was a bit hard to swallow), but to rise up to some of those Prom big numbers, well, that’s a whole other bowl of spiked punch.
But as it turns out, that wasn’t the thing I should have been worried about. The opening night of this Broadway musical about Franklin D, and Eleanor Roosevelt, called Eleanor!, is also the night of its closing, as the show, by almost all accounts, is an unmitigated disaster, although you’d never know it by the two lead’s delusion. Her costar, Barry Glickman, wheeling around the stage as Franklin D. is as full of himself as his co-star. He’s played by the very fun and appealing James Corden, who seems to be the go-to for stage-to-screen adaptations as often as Meryl. The two are stupendously perfect together, especially as the flame is snuffed out on opening night at Sardi’s. Their pity party of narcissistic befuddlement is deliciously designed with their friends falling over themselves to get out of room in case ‘failure’ was transmittable after having their devastatingly bad reviews are read out loud. The critics accuse the actors of complete narcissism, which is a pretty sly joke, because it not only delivers the obvious truth, it also lets us all into the joke, giving us complete permission to laugh with, and at, these flamboyantly self-involved thespians. Their agent, Sheldon Saperstein, portrayed with an extra slice of disappearing ham by Kevin Chamberlin (Broadway’s Dirty Blonde; Public’s The Low Road), has basically had quite enough of the delusional duo, so he, like the rest of the hangers-on quickly depart, leaving them to drown their sorrows in booze at the bar. With some heavy pouring help from waiter, actor, and proud Juilliard graduate, Trent Oliver, played to cinematic perfection by Andrew Rannells (Broadway/Netflix’s Boys in the Band), they bask fully in their narcissism, feeling ever so sorry for themselves as the twinkling lights of their Broadway show, “Eleanor!”, go dark.
Since, quite naturally, “nobody likes a narcissist“, the two feel the desperate need to find some sort of salvation, or at least a new angle for the P.R. machine of Broadway to portray them in a more positive, caring, well angled spotlight. At a loss of what to do, in struts the still gloriously beautiful aging showgirl with the longest damn legs in showbiz, Angie, dynamically played by the pretty astounding Nicole Kidman, shimmering like she’s making her Chicago entrance on the Fosse stage, It is she who finds them a cause to dig their heels into, after bypassing the boring too big problem of ‘world hunger’ with a flip of a finger. They find Emma, a mid-western Indiana lesbian high school student who after stating that she wants to take her girlfriend to their high school Prom, the PTA cancel the party, just to keep her kind in the proverbial shame closet. Sweetly and magnetically played by the gentle but fierce Jo Ellen Pellman (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel“), Emma bravely stands up for her right, even when denied. She’s a brave soul, almost too brave given the (off balanced) treatment she does and doesn’t get in the halls of her high school. All this, even though her girlfriend, Alyssa, played cautiously by the engaging Ariana DeBose (Disney+/Broadway’s Hamilton) is too scared to come out to her control freak mom and PTA powerhouse, Mrs. Greene, played proudly and strongly by the well heeled Kerry Washington (“Little Fires Everywhere“). It seems Emma, with the help and support of school Principal Tom Hawkin, handsomely portrayed by the wonderful Keegan-Michael Key (Broadway’s Meteor Shower), has the will and the strength to assert herself, even when harrassed.
It’s clear where this is heading, especially when Dee Dee and Barry pull out their theater-award trophies in front of the small town motel clerk to try to get themselves upgraded. They have no idea where they are, and even less of an idea as why or how they can help. When these four Broadway ‘celebrities’, escorted in by a traveling bus show of Godspell, saunter in to that gymnasium, demanding the spotlight, the lights and energy of The Prom rev up, even as they belt out (with glory), “It’s Not About Me“. “What is happening?” the others demand, both in horror and excitement, in sing song precision, but with Meryl demanding center stage and the follow spot, there is just no denying her. Dee Dee commandeers the room with a song that is thick with self-delusion, one that we can’t help but laugh and applaud loudly. Streep delivers it with a powerful hysterical punch that I didn’t really know she had in her. All hesitations about Streep’s vocal capacities are quickly tossed aside, as assuredly as that red cape in front of that glorious backdrop. It’s a hilariously magnificent moment, and one that makes us all know for certain that Netflix’s The Prom is in some very good hands, and that we, its ardent fans, have nothing to worry about…or do we?
What follows next is pretty much heaven on a overtly colorful, well-lit stick, especially when each of these stars get their moment to shine. Thanks to cinematographer Matthew Libatique (“Black Swan“); production designer Jamie Walker McCall (“Into The Wild“); and art director, Sarah Delucchi (“Avatar 2“), the look is flashy and fun, giving us theatricality and home grown appeal all rolled up together in two hours. As directed by Murphy (“Glee“) and choreographed with glory by the superstar director of the stage musical, Casey Nicholaw (Broadway’s Mean Girls), everyone, even those pesky bratty high school students, gets their spotlight number to garner our adoration wholeheartedly. It’s quite fun watching Streep and Corden as Eleanor and FDR flinging themselves around on stage in parady formulations, as this song flips between that and the post-show neon glow, but “Changing Lives” is what the theatrical four are there for, sort of, after their damaged egos needs a ton of external validation.
When the caravan of Broadway types bus themselves out of their homeland into middle America and try their mightiest to save “one lesbian at a time“, it all seems as perfect and ridiculous as it could be, much to the initial delight of the progressive musical-lovin’ principal, Mr. Hawkins, an avid Dee Dee fan. He gets his dream and his disappointment all rolled up in one singular sensation, and Dee Dee knows it and seizes on those starry eyes like a drug addict. She is taken out by the principal to Applebee’s, or as she calls it quite honestly, Apples and Bees, for a meal. He is star struck, and without missing a beat, tells her about why he loves Broadway, and her, through song that is so genius it’s almost shocking. “We Look to You” is his number, and it reminds us all how much we miss live theatre during these lockdown days of the pandemic. It’s nostalgic and heartfelt in a way that it never intended to be, but it tells the truth, bigger and stronger than it initially intended. We do look to Dee Dee and other theatre stars to give us a place to dream and see the world differently, and Key sells it fully with wide-eyed love, singing well and true.
Meryl’s Dee Dee sells us her story soon after with one of the film’s highlights, “The Lady’s Improving“. It’s her unapologetic manipulations that somehow works its magic on us and the principle, as Streep delivers the dual nuances with fierce determination and a big voiced sound. Kidman’s Angie, along with the nervous, albeit wonderful Emma, kicks it up with the fabulously fun “Zazz“, selling it as only that “sweet MILF ass” can. It’s not as well crafted, this ode to Broadway’s Chicago and to showbiz itself, as that Fosse girl (Angie Schworer) did on Broadway, but it certainly knows how to give it to us in theatrically colored spades. James Corden (NT’s One Man, Two Guvnors) is given line after witty line to bring us in. “I had to declare bankruptcy after my self-produced ‘Notes on a Scandal,‘” giving us more into his character and his failings than twelve words ever did before. Starting off strong, Corden finds a way to balance the self centeredness with some form of humanity, and even though this casting choice is being criticized by some for portraying Barry as a gay stereotype, he generally, at least in the first half of the film, comes off both funny and touching. It’s in the later part that I feel he falters, or maybe the fault lies more in the hands of the creators of The Prom. In the stage production, one could feel the intimacy between the shy Emma and the seemingly unflinching Barry slowly developing. Their connection becomes emotionally tender and real, but in the film as Corden’s Barry does his best makeover attempt on Emma, the two never fully bond in the way they did on that stage in the hands of Ashmanskas, and that’s a damn shame, because their attachment is what gives the musical its caring heart and soul. It’s only really Kidman’s character that truly connects to Emma, and marching out Tracey Ullman as Barry’s sad remorseful mother just doesn’t do the trick in the same way. It feels to separate and detached from the central core. It’s as if they are saying, it’s not about those lesbians. It’s really about me and my pain, once again.
Pellman’s Emma gets her moment with the fantastic bed spinning “Unruly Heart” going viral online. It’s a bit of fun, but the number also spreads the true message of this tale to millions of people with a much purer heart. It’s humble and guitar-strumming sweet, but it does showcase that ever moving camera that Murphy sometimes spins us away from actually feeling attached to the story. The lesbian sweethearts are never outshined by the Broadway big-egoed scene stealers though. Pellman’s “Just Breathe” quietly relates us instantly to her through her “Note to self: don’t be gay in Indiana.” It’s clever and authentic, while not to much of a downer. “You Happened” is energetically epic, with heavy duty theatrical choreography and themes of high school candy colored romance that is completely fun and on fire. Although singing engagingly out of view, the hidden sweethearts steal our hearts with “Dance with You“, as the couple daydreams of a different place and time, other than the one they are living. Pellman infuses Emma with a clear hearted radiance, giving us a vision of what could be that is achingly honest and hopeful. But it’s “Tonight Belongs to You” that, despite Corden’s performance, the dual layers of giddy excitement and the darker cruelty of those around her blend strongly together. The heartbreak, though, of watching Emma walk excitedly into an empty balloon littered gym, while the others, after stepping in and out of their identical white limos into the ‘real’ prom somewhere else, takes the cake, slapping the wind out of our hopeful sails, as we systematically feel the weight of hate winning, at least at half time.
Over at the mall, one of those pesky high school students tells Rannells’ Trent, “We don’t have a drama program,” causing him to exclaim quite profoundly, “That explains your general lack of empathy.” Rannells, who has basically been cast aside for most of the film, finally is given his moment to shine in the perfectly timely and smartly written song, “Love Thy Neighbor” raising the roof of that suburban mall like it was a church on Sunday. His ability to point out the hypocrisy of these kids cherry picking which rules from the Bible they feel like following expertly registers at every high kicking moment within this big agenda choreography moment. “There’s no way to separate,/Which rules you can violate…Love thy neighbor trumps them all!” It’s hard not joining in on that anthem, as it rings solid and tru. I’m thrilled to report that The Prom is a full throttle joy to behold, “fighting for the right” for everyone, no matter what, to attend their high-school dance. The movie takes on that battle, fighting the good fight for the right to love and be loved, just like everyone else. This Netflix Prom is an exciting colorful adventure ride, telling us a tale of what intolerance can do to those who don’t feel accepted. It makes me want to insist that everyone out there get a date and go to this festive and fun Prom, especially if you didn’t get a chance to go to your own because of feeling like a loser, an outcast, or an oddity. Don’t hide your love away to fit in. Dress yourself up in your personal prom-best, pin on that corsage, push aside that evil bigoted mother of Alyssa’s, and dance with all the joy you can muster, as all are welcome to The Prom. “Is this what not failing feels like?“. Yes. It. Is. No regrets here.