Meryl Streep was voted homecoming queen of Bernard High School in 1967 and she’s queen of The Prom in 2020. Streep inevitably steals the show in Ryan Murphy’s effervescent all-star musical. Playing veteran Broadway legend, serial narcissist, and Patti Lupone double DeeDee Allen, Streep is clearly having a ball. The Prom lets Meryl kick up her heels, belt some big numbers, and even rap some beats. It’s fitting that Streep headlines 2020’s most upbeat respite from COVID-19 blahs since she mixed quarantinis and Sondheim numbers on Zoom with Christine Baranski and Audra McDonald, doubling down on musical theatre for the second wave after giving us a booster in the first.
This crown befits The Prom since the musical is designed to save people from a dreary existence. The adaptation of the musical by Chad Beguelin, Bob Martin and Matthew Sklar sees Broadway stars rally to save a teenage lesbian (Jo Ellen Pellman) from her oppressively square Indiana hometown. DeeDee has just been grilled by the critics on the opening night (and, consequently, closing night) of her new musical about Eleanor Roosevelt. The critics are equally harsh on her co-star, Barry Glickman (James Corden), and make the reviews personal. Underlining the pans are harsh critiques about DeeDee and Barry’s self-absorbed personalities that can’t disappear within their performances. While Corden is surely no stranger to bad reviews (especially with this film…) a thumbs-down is new to Streep. DeeDee rallies quickly, arguing that a celebrity cause will endear her to fans.
The Glee Club
Broadway fashion, however, calls for two featured actors to complement the leads. DeeDee and Barry hook-up with Angie Dickinson (Nicole Kidman), a leggy chorus girl who can’t land the lead in Chicago, and Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells), a Julliard-trained waiter on the road with Godspell between Broadway gigs. They choose Emma among the trending topics, knowing Broadway’s ability to rally the gays will guide their renaissance.
A hop, skip, and a razzle-dazzle later, the quartet lands in Indiana in a terse moment. The school’s parent-teacher association is cancelling the prom in lieu of letting Emma bring a same-sex date. Cue the uptight head of the PTA (Kerry Washington) and the sympathetic, Broadway-loving principal (Keegan-Michael Kay) and the stage, so to speak, is set. However, booking a crowd in Indiana proves just as tough as packing a house with a dud musical. The stars, and Emma, realise they need to shake their jazz hands harder than ever.
Murphy keeps The Prom light and bubbly. The film proudly accentuates and celebrates its Broadway origins, opting for full-scale chorus numbers and production design that showcases its theatrical origins. Murphy, after all, has Glee as the foundation of his career. Singing and dancing divas in the schoolyard are his forte. However, the film admittedly runs half-an-hour overlong and runs into some tonal and stylistic inconsistencies. After his banner year with Hollywood, Ratched, and The Boys in the Band, The Prom suggests that Murphy’s a stronger producer/showrunner than director. However, the film’s also proof that his relationship with Netflix has delivered some of the most valuable LGBTQ content in years. He appropriately lets the varying generations of stars share the spotlight with many of the film’s funnest—and finest—moments carried by the young leads.
Stars in the Making
Pellman is a natural star. The ingénue has a voice that soars and a sincere all-American girl screen presence that gets to the heart of the material. She’s open and vulnerable, especially in some dark moments in the third act when the town cruelly turns on Emma. But the role is a perfect introduction for an actress who believes in theatre’s power to change the world. The Prom is an unabashed message movie and Pellman lets it walk the walk and talk the talk. (Or dance the dance, sing the song, etc.) Similarly, Ariana DeBose is every bit the future star as Emma’s girlfriend, Alyssa. The Hamilton cast member has a voice and dance moves that ensure a bright future.
Both young stars have the chops and spirit of Broadway in their bones, making Emma and Alyssa’s journey buoyantly gay in either sense of the word. The film’s emphasis on Emma’s story first and foremost should prove therapeutically escapist for young queer audiences. Although The Prom is admittedly over-repetitive with its “it’s okay to be gay” mantra, it provides all-ages edu-tainment. It’s a welcome corrective to films that favour the perspectives of parents in stories of acceptance.
The Prom moves between the school and the wonderfully generic accommodations in which the Broadway thesps find themselves. Murphy gives each veteran star a signature number to complement the solos and duets performed by the young players. For example, Kidman elevates the film’s most underwritten role with a saucy Fosse number. In “Zazz,” Angie educates Emma on the power of jazz hands and the impact of dramatic presence. Kidman is a lot of fun in this role, playing Angie as a bright and bubbly tribute to all the girls who never fully ascended the playbill. (The film’s rife with actorly in-jokes.)
Rannells, who proved a scene-stealer in The Boys in the Band, gets the showiest number with “Love Thy Neighbour,” a chorus-line skewering of Christian hypocrisy. The sequence plays out amid the crowded shopping mall with Emma’s classmates gradually see the light. This number draws the close-minded members of the chorus into the fray, and creates a positive and inclusive environment where all are welcome to join the party. Rannells is a very good ringleader for this queering of a “come to Jesus” number. Like Streep and Kidman, he understands the duality of film and theatre, going big when the numbers call for showmanship, but not overdoing it.
Corden is another story. Playing Barry as an effete limp-wristed queen, Corden’s turn is the antithesis of Rannells’ natural charm. While I have no qualms with actors playing outside their lived experiences, Corden’s performance is unfortunately regressive. It employs every gay stereotype imaginable. It’s a surprisingly derivative performance. His numbers are the sound of one hand clapping, but to Corden’s credit, this performance improves upon Cats.
Queen of the Prom
Corden also doesn’t receive any favours sharing the spotlight with Kidman, Rannells, and, notably, Streep. Meryl is a powerhouse in her performance that pays tribute to, and sends ups, the grand divas of showbiz. Her early numbers with the headliners, “Changing Lives” and “It’s Not About Me,” leave little doubt that she’s Queen of the Prom. It’s so good to see Streep let loose and have fun, while delivering her reliable depth of character. “This Lady’s Improving,” performed with Kay, offers a heartfelt counterpoint to Rannells’ “Love Thy Neighbour.” DeeDee evolves throughout the Indiana odyssey, and Streep charts the character’s growth through the size and maturity of her performance. Her obvious delight with the role is infectious.
The Prom is an upbeat and refreshingly dazzling ray of sunshine in an otherwise unrelentingly bleak year. Who knew 2020 could be fun?