The Prom Review
On March 12 of this year, Broadway closed its doors for the foreseeable future. Foyers and orchestra pits emptied, with only ghost lights left shining on barren stages. While it’s still unknown exactly when the beating heart of American theatre will return, all shows have been declared officially shut until at least mid-2021. But for graduating high-schoolers all across the country, the pandemic took something far more valuable from them: their prom night.
There is, of course, an inherent theatricality associated with such a cultural rite of passage, especially within the teen movie canon. These range from performative, Heath Ledger-esque ‘prom-posals’ to the cathartic rhetoric of Lindsay Lohan’s Spring Fling Queen speech in Mean Girls. It is in itself a stagey tradition and is partly why The Prom, in its 2016 musical incarnation, originally came over so well. But, like trying to Google Translate something to another language and then back again, Ryan Murphy’s star-studded cinematic rendering comes out slightly garbled and alien. In its endeavours to establish itself both as a loyal adaptation of the Broadway play, but also as a teen movie trying to engage with very real social issues up close, it keeps the oddly spartan sets and corny dialogue (originally designed to be returned with the laughter of a large audience), without the necessary suspension of disbelief.
This has long been the coach-horse behind the failure of many stage-to-screen modern movie musicals. In order to work on film, they must adopt an extremely specific vision. Chicago nailed its diegetics by filming most musical numbers on a stage itself, as if within the characters’ minds, whereas Tim Burton branded Sweeney Todd with his trademark mothy macabre. Without this, other less… successful examples (Cats, we’re looking at you), end up being bland in the most bizarre way.
Seeing James Corden dancing in the street in The Prom's opening number, though thankfully furless and human-sized this time, doesn’t do much to heal anyone’s Cats trauma, despite the relatively brilliant performances of the rest of the cast. Meryl Streep predictably dazzles as a narcissistic Tony-brandishing diva; Nicole Kidman waggles her Fosse hands admirably well; Andrew Rannells is, as usual, delightful in his didactic “Love Thy Neigbour” number; and newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman beams like an adorable Never Been Kissed-era Drew Barrymore, with added powerhouse vocals. But Corden somehow manages to be deeply boring and offensive at the same time.
The elephant in the room being the fact that Corden, a straight man, camps up his openly gay character in an affrontingly ostentatious display. This isn’t to say straight people should never play gay people as a rule – but it is to say that, when that performance is enforcing a potentially harmful stereotype, the very least that can be done is hire a queer actor to portray it, especially when the whole moral of the story revolves around LGBTQ+ rights and issues. Emma (Pellman) wants to take a girl to prom, but the PTA, headed up by the dictatorial Mrs Green (Kerry Washington), refuses, instead cancelling the whole event. Enter four washed-up Broadway stars (Streep, Corden, Kidman and Rannells) who turn up in small-town Indiana to support Emma as a baby-kissing PR exercise, but learn to think about people other than themselves along the way.
What is The Prom trying to be then? It clearly fails as a queer narrative, while its hollow attempts at depth deprive it of the ‘feel-good’ status of something like Mamma Mia. Its repetitive camera sweeps and overly long run-time make it clear Murphy hasn’t made much effort to turn it into a cinematic experience, and though this admittedly isn’t being seen on the big screen anyway, it isn’t a stage recording either.
The truth is, though it packs some great tunes and fun choreography, The Prom falls short of all these. In trying to tackle too many issues, beats and formats at once, all we’re left with is a wilting, half-bloomed corsage made to be thrown out the next morning, turning what was supposed to represent the most memorable night of our lives into one of the most forgettable ones.
The Prom is available in select cinemas and to watch on Netflix from December 11.
The Prom (2020)
Dir: Ryan Murphy | Cast: Andrew Rannells, Kerry Washington, Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman | Writers: Bob Martin (book), Bob Martin (musical book), Chad Beguelin (book), Chad Beguelin (musical book), Jack Viertel (based on an original concept by), Jack Viertel (creator)