With director Ryan Murphy’s joyous queer romantic comedy musical, The Prom, landing on Netflix this Friday December 11th The Queer Review caught up—virtually of course—with the film’s stellar ensemble cast and Murphy himself at the recent global press conference. Based on Chad Beguelin, Bob Martin and Matthew Sklar’s Tony-nominated Broadway production, the screen adaptation sees two self-absorbed Broadway stars Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and Barry Glickman (James Corden) with a flop on their hands looking for some good PR. Joined on the road by their jobbing actor/barman acquaintance Trent (Andrew Rannells) and an ageing chorus girl, Angie (Nicole Kidman), they head to small-town Indiana where they hope to get a career lift out of helping high schooler Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman) to attend her prom with her girlfriend Alyssa (Ariana DeBose). Despite the support of her school principal—and major Dee Dee Allen fan—Mr. Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key), the head of the PTA, Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington), would rather cancel prom altogether than let two girls go as dates.
Q: Tell us when you saw The Prom on Broadway and what made you want to make this film adaptation right now?
Ryan Murphy: “I remember it very vividly. It was a very snowy night in January 2019 and I went just as a fan. I was invited and I wanted to see it. I was feeling in my life, as many of us were, a little dark at the time. So I walked into the musical and I only knew what it was vaguely. I saw families in the audience; I saw people laughing and crying and having a very big experience, which I ultimately had. The thing that was interesting to me is the heroine is from Indiana, where she is denied going to her prom, and halfway through the musical, I realised that was my experience. I’m from Indiana, and I was not allowed to go to my prom. So it became a very personal thing for me, and I just thought it had so much joy and optimism. It was about something and yet it was also just fun. I walked out of there, and I had dinner with the producer, as we were friends, and we were just talking and I said, ‘I really think I want to make this a movie.’ And he said, ‘Okay, great!’ And so it started from there. It was very quick and spontaneous. I just loved how it made me feel. It was very old fashioned in a way, it was like a Valentine and I love that about it.”
Q: Jo Ellen, tell us about yourself and why this story resonates with you?
Jo Ellen Pellman: Sure. So, I’m Jo Ellen and I am originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, so I have a strong connection to the Midwest and Indiana. That’s actually where I am right now, Cincinnati, Ohio. I studied musical theatre in college and I was a huge theatre kid growing up and I am such a lover of the craft of musical theatre. I saw the show on Broadway with my mom and it is so personal to me because I’m queer, and I came out in high school also in the Midwest and it’s a wild experience. So being able to tell this story with this cast is quite literally my dream come true. Truly every day on set was the best day of my life and learning from these people who I have looked up to for so long and learning from them as artists, but also as people. Every single person in this cast is so kind and generous with their time and I don’t think I have ever laughed as hard as I did when we all filmed together. They are wonderful people.”
Ariana De Bose, tell us about your experience and what it feels like for a story like this to be showing all over the world on Netflix?
Ariana DeBose: “I saw The Prom three times on Broadway, and every time I laughed harder, I cried harder; I was just more and more moved by everything I saw. Ryan’s right in his observations. There were so many different types of people in that audience. I particularly noticed so many young girls, and lots of young girls of colour actually, and so when this opportunity came to me, I really thought about it and I went after it because I know how important it is to see yourself reflected on a screen, because if you can see it you can believe that you can do it and I wanted to be a part of telling this story. Also it was the first time I’d ever seen anything close to even potentially my experience on a Broadway stage. So yeah, I cried a lot when I saw it, I’m still blubbering! That’s ultimately why I was so honoured when Ryan asked me to do this. And the experience of doing it with all of these incredible people, just like Jo Ellen said, it’s like we’ve looked up to so every single one of them for such a long time and to have the experience of making work with them and laughing with them and realising that they’re human, just like us, and they’re kind and they’re normal and emotional and funny. It was so heartening to have this be the first one of hopefully many experiences for me. So I treasure it very much.”
Q: How well did you take to the choreography and were there any mishaps? I feel like that’s a question for Meryl Streep!
Meryl Streep: “I don’t know why?! Well, I’m the oldest person in the cast and I have the most dancing, which didn’t make sense to me! When I saw the show, which I had not seen before Ryan called and said, ‘Do you want to maybe look at this project?’ I went to the theatre and found out that it was closing and I couldn’t believe it was closing because it was absolutely packed and I’ve honestly never heard a reaction like that in the theatre. People were standing on their seats at the curtain call; screaming and crying and laughing. Anyway, I noticed that the leading lady didn’t do a lot of dancing, which I was very encouraged to see, and then all hell broke loose when I got to Los Angeles and they laid out for me what it was! So it was a lot of dancing and I got in shape. You know, it’s a lot of stamina, and man it was hard work, but it was really, really fun!”
Q: Keegan-Michael Key, how nervous were you when the day came and you had to kiss Miss Meryl Streep?
Keegan-Michael Key: “How nervous was I? Um, I was nervous! Let’s say this, I was nervous with anticipation. Ryan’s a lovely and kind person because he doesn’t make you do it first. Meryl and I had an opportunity to work with…honey, we did most of our scenes together before that, didn’t we?”
Meryl Streep: “Yeah, we did.”
Keegan-Michael Key: “We had a lot of time to get to know each other and spend time with each other and to be comfortable with each other, but it was nervous in that it was exhilarating. So I mean, it’s not a thing when you’re a kid in theatre school and you’re 22 years old…if your future self came back and said, ‘I just want you to know that in 2020 you’re going to be kissing Meryl Streep, you’re going to be Meryl Streep’s love interest in a movie,’ you’d just be like, ‘Get out of here, lying demon! You’re not real, you can’t be real!’ So, I’m just gonna be honest, it was exhilarating and I was waiting for it the entire shoot. I think I had an entire tin of Altoids, and when you eat them all at once, they’re not curiously strong, they’re just strong! But it was wonderful.”
Q: Nicole Kidman, tell us about learning the choreography.
Nicole Kidman: “These days a lot of times the rehearsal period just gets shoved aside, but we came in and we diligently rehearsed and because I was doing Fosse I came in thinking, ‘Oh yeah, I can do this.’ It was terrifying because Fosse dancing is so specific, but I had this amazing group of dancers that just trained me and trained me with the patience of saints, and actually it was really fun as well. I remember seeing Meryl do her first number on the first week and just going, ‘Oh, my God, this is so, so good!’ I just looked at her and went, ‘What?! You can do that, too!’
Q: Ryan, you set up a kind of musical boot camp before the shoot for everybody is that right?
Ryan Murphy: “It kind of was that, yeah. We took over a very large space at Paramount Pictures and we rehearsed and we trained as much as we could and that was one of the great things because usually there’s not a lot of rehearsals when you’re doing film or television, but we had it built into the schedule. I think when you’re making a musical it’s where the cast bonds, and they kind of did become like a Broadway troupe, it was interesting and everybody cheered each other on. There were injuries and ice. Everybody was free to try things. It was cool.”
Q: Kerry Washington, who plays the villain of the piece, do you feel that culture can spark social change?
Kerry Washington: “It’s really fun to be the bigot in this one! Do I think that art can spark social change? I think so. I was talking about this with some friends recently, because there’s all the talk about how as a culture we have to sort of heal right now, and this friend of mine was saying we all need to be sitting in meditation and sort of getting in touch with that better part of ourselves. And I said to her, ‘You know, I think for a lot of people, where they sit in the dark and have transformative thoughts is in movie theatres or in their living room watching TV.’ That’s the stillness that I think so many of us engage in, when we sit and we watch these stories, that aren’t just the ones that play in our mind, but they’re the stories that inform us of who we are as a society and a culture. We get these moments to look at these characters and say, ‘Oh, I see myself’, to Ariana’s point earlier, ‘I really see myself there’, or, ‘I see who I don’t want to be’ maybe in the case of Mrs. Green. We get to get in touch with our humanity and who we are, who we want to be, and who we don’t want to be. I think that is powerful. It’s not the only way to make change; we need people in the streets, we need people voting, we need people writing legislature, we need all of that, but I do think art has a place in the conversation, and because it gets to our hearts it’s so so powerful. This story, it’s such a powerful story about acceptance and the power to create community where you need it and that when you fight for your own belonging, you create belonging for other people. It’s just such a beautiful, powerful story and I’m happy to be the bad guy to try to get in the way and be unsuccessful!”
Q: Do any of the cast have any embarrassing stories from their own proms? I feel like James Corden needs to take that first, though I don’t know if they have proms in Britain?
James Corden: “We don’t. I mean, I’ve got a multitude of embarrassing stories but none of them are connected to a prom! We don’t have the prom in Britain, so it was never really a thing for me at all, but I know that Andrew Rannells has got some absolutely cracking stories!
Andrew Rannels: “Well, I went to an all boys Catholic school and I took an older woman to my my prom, she was 20 and the difference between 17 and 20 at that age is pretty severe! She wore a black cocktail dress, not a prom dress, and she was just like a woman that I took the prom! I think I was overcompensating, I wasn’t fully out. It made me very popular for my senior year.”
Q: Meryl Streep, what do you enjoy about making movie musicals?
Meryl Streep: “I think more than anything I love the dancing because I’m not a dancer in my actual life. There are numbers in The Prom where the young people get up, and when we were in the rehearsals we’d be struggling with these numbers and then they would get up and just sort of lift the roof with their exuberance and their joy and their vitality and love of being alive! That’s the thing, it’s the breakout aspect of musicals, the fact that the lid comes off the pressure of your life, whatever it is, whatever your particular sadness is, it’s irresistible in movie musicals when people start to dance, and the singing is great too, but that’s what I love about musicals.”
Q: Nicole, can you talk about the relationship that develops between your character, Angie and Jo Ellen’s character, Emma?
Nicole Kidman: “The wonderful thing for me was that Angie is incredibly kind and warm to her. I remember when we were shooting, Ryan said, ‘I’m going to write you a new scene’, and it was the scene on the bed, where I talk about my life and I share that with her, where we’re eating ice cream together, just before the Zazz! number. I just love that there’s this older woman helping this younger person through by just being there for her and saying, ‘Whatever you need from me, I’m here, and I will help you.’ Jo Ellen and I shared a lot of stories just sitting around on the set, and I feel like that about her as well. So it was beautiful to be able to have that scene and therefore have that sort of journey together through it, and watching both Ariana and Jo Ellen take a huge bite out of the screen like this…they came on set and they just stepped in and owned it from the word go. I was so intimidated when I watched them sing and dance. I was like, ‘Help me girls, help me!”
Q: James, I love that I love the relationship between your character Barry and and Jo Ellen’s character Emma as well, it’s so sweet isn’t it?
James Corden: “Yeah, I think it’s a really lovely relationship in the film. It starts out as, I think for Barry and all of the four performers that travel from New York, as let’s be honest quite a sort of cynical and self-serving escapade in a way. I think for Barry as soon as he sees Emma he sees himself in her completely and I think part of him wishes he’d had somebody like him around in those times, in those moments. I remember those scenes so vividly. Before we started shooting we actually went to the location to rehearse the scene where Emma says to Barry that she’d like him to go to the prom with her, and I remember saying to Jo Ellen, ‘I’m going to spend the rest of my life telling people that I was in Jo Ellen Pellman’s first ever film!’ And they’ll say, ‘No, you weren’t!’ And I’ll go, ‘Yeah, and Meryl Streep was in it!’ I was blown away by Jo Ellen in pretty much every scene that we were in. I really felt like I was watching the start of a career. I just thought, here’s an actress I’m going to watch for the rest of my life. I will see her on stage, I will see her on screen, I will see her in TV shows. There’s just no doubt in my mind that if she wants any of those things to happen they will. I was so taken in every moment that I was in scenes with her. I found it incredibly uplifting actually.”
Q: Meryl, were you a Ryan Murphy fan before doing The Prom, and what is your favourite Ryan Murphy show?
Ryan Murphy: “No! I protest!”
Meryl Streep: “Well, yes, I was a Ryan Murphy fan, but I was also terrified of Ryan Murphy because of American Horror Story. I was pulled to its scariness and it was beautiful, horrible, grotesque and something very, very true. So I knew he had a sharp eye for what’s really scary and true and in life. I also loved the OJ piece. There’s a lot of lovely stuff in Glee. But I have to say I was unprepared for the joy he brings to the work, and the love and the size of that. I loved this experience, making this film. I feel like the same as James that we were in on the birth of two gigantic careers with Ariana and Jo Ellen. I was unprepared for the big hearted gesture of this piece. It’s how attached he is to trying to get the truth of something, but he’s unafraid of the great big gesture and that’s what this is. It’s just a big embrace and, boy, do we need it right at this time in the world.”
Ryan Murphy: “So now I can retire now! You’re very kind, thank you. That’s amazing to hear. Ariana and Jo Ellen were new to me, but everybody else was on my bucket list. So just the very idea that you go after people that you’ve watched and loved and you ask them to the dance, and they say yes was an amazing experience. I think Meryl’s right, we all approached this with so much love and we loved making it and I felt that when we were making it we were excited for people to see it, because like Meryl says, I think we need the message of the movie right now, the joy of it and the escapism of it.”
The Prom premieres on Netflix globally on Friday December 11th 2020.