With so many canceled high school events this year (pretty much all events), it’s nice to see that The Prom is still on. Ryan Murphy’s glitzy, sparkly, self-congratulatory, Glee on a Diet Coke rush musical about intolerance is just tolerable enough, if you can sit back and enjoy Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, James Corden, and more doing jazz hands for two hours. There are worse ways to spend that time, and with the lights down on Broadway this is pretty much the only show in town.
Just don’t think about it too much. If you’ve come to The Prom expecting nuance on celebrity activism and LGBTQ discrimination, clearly you’ve not encountered a Ryan Murphy series yet. Naivete mixed with overabundant sincerity (or in the case of The Politician, insincerity) is what you’re in for, and what better way to show that sincerity than through song and dance. Broadway is the place where you are free to be who you are; what’s interesting is that The Prom is too often not about the girl who is struggling to do just that, but the vacuous celebs looking to leech off of her pain.
Good thing the musical numbers are so much fun.
After a critically-panned stage show on Eleanor Roosevelt (Eleanor!) threatens to doom their careers, washed-up diva Dee Dee Allen (Streep) and tired actor Barry Glickman (Corden) look for a way to change perception of themselves as narcissistic has-beens. So they teamup with conceited Juilliard grad Trent (Andrew Rannells) and fed-up chorus girl Angie Dickinson (Kidman) to find a cause worth championing. So these are pretty terrible people, all around.
They decide to latch on to the story of Emma Nolan (talented newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman), the only out lesbian at her Indiana high school. Emma just wants to bring a girl to prom, but the evil PTA board isn’t so cool with that because of conservative Midwest values or some shit. Rather than being branded as bigots for excluding her, they just canceled prom altogether. Making matters even tougher is that the girl Emma wants to bring is Alyssa (Ariana DeBose), who isn’t quite ready to come out to her mother (Kerry Washington), who happens to be head of the PTA.
The first half of the film leans hard on satire, as the four actors try to force their liberal politics on those dumb conservatives in flyover country. At the same time, they’re attention whores, not only from the people they despise but from us. Streep, Kidman, Corden, and Rannells mug for the spotlight at every chance and it’s tremendously entertaining. Of course, their pushy opinions and grandstanding cause more trouble and don’t actually solve anything. But that does seem to be the point. The Prom is simplistic and its lack of subtlety is part of the joke. Better that than a self-serious drag; we have enough of those this time of year already.
Of the performances, Streep and Kidman best navigate the parallels between their characters and their own real-life activism and politics. At one point, Dee Dee discovers there’s no suite in the cheap hotel they’re staying at, so she plunks down a couple of Tony Awards on the desk to show what a big star she is. As Angie, who longs to finally play Roxi Hart in Chicago, Kidman flits and twirls, overacting with the kind of big emotion such an earnest, and let’s face it, cheesy story deserves. Rannells never quite clicks in his role, most notable in a clunky number shaming a bunch of teen Bible-thumpers. Corden has some sweet moments with both Streep and Pellman, but something about his performance feels like too much of a show.
The supporting cast is uniformly excellent. Pellman is a star in the making with a terrific voice, and it’s too bad there isn’t more time spent with Emma as she learns to take control of her life. Surprisingly, the best performance of all goes to Keegan-Michael Key as Tom, the school principal who stands by Emma’s side. Of all the things I didn’t expect to see, well, ever, is a love story between Key and Streep. Tom, a devoted fan of Dee Dee’s, wins her over and becomes part of her arc to put aside the vanity and become a good person. More than that, his message is of the power of the arts, and its ability to make the world a better place for all. Again, it’s cheesy as Hell, but heartwarming nonetheless. This comes with full acknowledgment of how problematic it is to have this black character teach a wealthy white woman how to be a human being. Like I said, try not to think about all of the ways in which The Prom doesn’t work.
Based on the Broadway stage musical by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, The Prom is full of big ensemble numbers, and is best when indulging in them. Murphy and spectacle go hand-in-hand, while Matthew Libatique’s cinematography paints a vivid teenage fairy tale. This being a Murphy production, the narrative structure is a mess as he tries to cover a lot of characters and even more emotional territory, muddling the tone. The second half of the film, after what I’m guessing was the intermission point, meanders and feels overlong.
The Prom isn’t going to create any new musical converts, but for those looking for a bit of well-meaning razzle-dazzle, mawkish and imperfect though it may be, this is one party you’ll want to attend.