While Broadway remains dark after more than nine months, with the help of a little movie magic and an impressively detailed set (production design by Jamie Walker McCall), The Prom, lights up 42nd street once more and delivers a joyous, thoroughly uplifting movie musical where the dialogue scenes pop just as much as the song and dance numbers sizzle. Adapted from Chad Beguelin, Bob Martin and Matthew Sklar’s Tony-nominated 2018 stage production, the Ryan Murphy directed film is pacy, effervescent and makes the most of every beat. It’s family friendly comfort viewing with a queer love story at its centre that offers some hope after four divisive years where intolerance, fear, and hatred of ‘the other’ have been given a megaphone.
In small-town Indiana we meet high school senior Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman) who has been out since she was 16 and planned to take her girlfriend Alyssa Greene (Ariana DeBose)—who’s not yet out—as her date to the upcoming prom. Refusing to sanction an inclusive event, the head of the school’s PTA, who happens to be Alyssa’s overbearing conservative mother Mrs Greene (Kerry Washington), decides that prom should be cancelled altogether. Meanwhile in Manhattan, the buzz of the opening night party of Broadway darlings Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and her fellow thesp and gay best friend Barry Glickman’s (James Corden) latest spectacular Eleanor!: The Eleanor Roosevelt Story quickly fizzles once a scathing New York Times review lands online that describes Dee Dee as an “ageing drag queen” and dooms the show to instant closure.
Drowning their sorrows at the now deserted bar, the pair are served cocktails by resting actor Trent (Andrew Rannells), a proud Juilliard graduate (he name drops the place like a vocal tic) best known for his role on a 90s sitcom. In desperate need of some good publicity, with the help of their glamorous chorus girl friend Angie (Nicole Kidman) they stumble across Emma’s story on Twitter and decide it’s the perfect PR vehicle to rehabilitate their careers after the diabolical flop of Eleanor! With Trent about to go on a regional tour of Godspell that conveniently begins in Indiana, Dee Dee and Barry join him on the bus, with Angie going along for the ride, leaving the Great White Way to head “where the necks are red and lack of dentistry thrives” as Barry puts it, and where the only restaurant with cutlery is an Abblebee’s (or ‘that Apples and Bees place’ as Dee Dee thinks it’s called).
When the uninvited ‘liberals from Broadway’ burst into town it initially appears that they might do more harm than good, but they’re determined not to leave until Emma gets the prom she deserves, and more importantly, Dee Dee bolsters her chances of a third Tony. Thanks to a few dialogue scenes that weren’t part of the original stage production, the focus on all the characters remains pretty evenly spread throughout and everyone has their moment to shine, with plenty of catchy tunes along the way. The music itself is pretty standard musical theatre fare that’s elevated by some strong performances, but the lyrics are often witty with skilful rhymes in there (thespian/lesbian, anyone?).
At the heart of the film is a terrific performance by Jo Ellen Pellman making her feature film debut as Emma, giving the character, and her songs, emotional depth, authenticity, and a steely vulnerability. With great romantic chemistry between her and DeBose, their voices beautifully complement each other on their duet Dance With You. Thrown out by her parents, Emma was taken in by her accepting grandmother (a wonderful Mary Kay Place) and through the arrival of the out-of-towners eventually gains an unlikely chosen family. Even though she’s initially sidelined by her more dominant Broadway pals, Kidman as Angie shines every second she’s on screen and is hilarious, touching, and an utter delight as the ageing chorus girl who dreams of her moment in the spotlight. Wise, warm, loveable, she’s an instantly recognisable theatre type, and the unexpected friendship that develops between Angie and Emma leads to a standout sequence where she advises the teen to Fosse up her life and ‘give it some Zazz’, emboldening her to speak to the world about the way she’s been treated regarding her high school prom. It’s a thoroughly delicious supporting turn that should earn Kidman a Golden Globe Comedy/Musical nod at the very least. Then there’s another award worthy turn from Meryl Streep in great voice as “gay positive icon” Dee Dee who carries her two Tony Awards around with her in case she needs to pull a ‘don’t you know who I am?’ diva moment when she’s not getting what she wants. Corden’s Barry, self-described as being “as gay as a bucket of wigs”, has some touching moments throughout the film as he recalls why he left home at 16, “terrified” when his mother (Tracey Ullman) threatened conversion therapy, and subsequently trying to prove himself worthy with acclaim as an actor, estranged from his family. Later when reunited with his mother, his speech is something so many of us have felt but likely never uttered to our parents, “What I needed was a mother who didn’t know if it was okay, but loved me anyway”. There’s also a moving sequence where he dances with his younger self.
Emma’s supportive principal and longtime Dee Dee Allen fan, played by the effortlessly charismatic Keegan-Michael Key, delivers a passionate, teary-eyed love letter of a speech about what theatre means to his life and its transporting, uplifting power, “I need you to do what you do”, he tells Allen, and he encapsulates that feeling we’ve been missing out on as so many theatres around the globe remain shuttered. Embracing the small-town setting there are two shopping mall set numbers including Love Thy Neighbour, performed by Rannells on fine form, that highlights the selectiveness and hypocrisy of using the Bible to support homophobia. As the film reaches its climax there are some beautiful moments of LGBTQ+ joy and inclusivity, and sequence encapsulating how young LGBTQ+ folks often find representation and empowerment online. Despite a few digs at small town life from the “liberals from Broadway” which says more about their own preconceptions, The Prom doesn’t demonise those who reject and fear us, but takes the optimistic stance that people might just surprise us and hearts and minds can open. The result is just the soothing and restorative tonic we need right now.
By James Kleinmann
The Prom is streaming on Netflix now.
Read our exclusive interview with Joe Ellen Pellman and Ariana DeBose and our interviews from the global press conference with Ryan Murphy, Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Kerry Washington, Jo Ellen Pellman, Ariana DeBose, Keegan-Michael Key, James Corden and Andrew Rannells.