Musicals are one of the most earnest types of theater in existence. From “Hamilton” to “Show Boat,” the history of musical theater is littered with stories preaching tolerance and promising that love conquers all. "The Prom," whichpremiered in 2016 before moving to Broadway in 2018, falls squarely into that camp.
Netflix’s new film version, directed by Ryan Murphy, arrived in theaters Dec. 4 and is now streaming for those at home. It is loud, passionate, in your face, covered in sequins and soaked in glitter glue. It is the visual equivalent of a toddler on a sugar bender.
It is loud, passionate, in your face, covered in sequins and soaked in glitter glue. It is the visual equivalent of a five-year-old on a sugar bender.
Not that hyperactive children aren’t hilariously cute — but typically only in very small doses. “The Prom,” unfortunately, is 2 1/2 hours long. Though there are occasionally delightful moments, the overall experience is exhausting. It’s also probably not good news for Murphy, whose reputation as a hitmaker seems to have nosedived since he moved to Netflix.
If the streaming wars are fought with content, then content creators become your most valuable asset. At least, that seems to have been Netflix’s thinking the past few years, as it faced down coming competition from Disney, Warner Bros. and NBCUniversal (NBCUniversal owns NBC News). Murphy’s five-year Netflix deal — the largest in TV history at the time — made a huge splash, leading to stories declaring him “TV’s First $300M Man.” Unlike other big players in the space — say, Shonda Rhimes or David Benioff and D.B. Weiss — Murphy also raced to begin putting out content on Netflix after the deal was signed.
“The Politician,” technically won at auction by Netflix prior to the deal, was not an auspicious start for the Murphy era. It was generally regarded as a flop (and season two did worse). “Hollywood,” Murphy’s first show under the deal, received mixed to withering reviews. Throw in the hot mess that is “Ratched,” Murphy’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” prequel, and it’s not surprising that Netflix is already reorganizing, and perhaps reconsidering this strategy of throwing money at creators in hopes of a hit.
That puts a lot of pressure on “The Prom,” which desperately needs to be viewed as not another Murphy stumble. Unfortunately, that may have been unavoidable, due to the musical itself. The Broadway show is based on a real-life event, the 2010 lawsuit brought by Constance McMillen against Mississippi’s Itawamba Agricultural High School. When the school found out the out gay McMillen planned to bring her girlfriend to senior prom and wear a tux, she was banned from attending. When she challenged the ruling and won, the school responded by canceling prom altogether.
The Broadway show is based on a real-life event, the 2010 lawsuit brought by Constance McMillen against Mississippi’s Itawamba Agricultural High School.
“The Prom” changes the name of the main character to Emma (played by Jo Ellen Pellman) and relocates the story to Indiana. It also creates a fictionalized set of Broadway actors who decide to take advantage of the controversy — and its publicity — by showing up in Indiana to "solve" the problem on Emma's behalf. Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and Barry Glickman (James Corden) have recently flopped in an Eleanor Roosevelt musical, while Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells) and Angie Dickinson (Nicole Kidman) are down-on-their-luck actors looking for a profile boost.
The first half is filled with satirical musical numbers such as “Changing Lives,” where the celebrities declare they can change the world simply by existing, and “It’s Not About Me,” where the celebrities make the controversy all about themselves. Their plan backfires, however, and naturally the second act is spent making sure Emma gets the prom she deserves, and love conquers all.
The story obviously worked on stage, as the show made it all the way to Broadway. But the original characters were played by less famous actors, whereas “The Prom” is filled with a cast that is painfully recognizable. Moreover, this is a year in which celebrities have already embarrassed themselves plenty trying to “help.” (The celebrity Instagram “Imagine” cover early on in the coronavirus pandemic and the “I Take Responsibility” video in response to police brutality demonstrations come to mind.) Even if it wasn’t Ryan Murphy at the helm, this “celebrities learn a lesson” morality tale would have felt awkward at best.
Unfortunately, it is Murphy at the helm. And though his heart is clearly in the right place, Murphy's style dials everything up to 11.
But, unfortunately, it is Murphy at the helm. And though his heart is clearly in the right place, Murphy's style dials everything up to 11. The showrunner first became a household name for “Glee,” the loudly inclusive musical TV series that became known for over-the-top and often nonsensical storylines. In “The Prom,” Murphy takes all that “Glee” energy and adds a Netflix-level budget. The result feels a bit like someone taking a glittery baseball bat and beating the audience about the head with it.
Streep, as always, sells herself to the hilt, making up for her lack of belting skills with sly winks at the camera, and turning her part of “It’s Not About Me” into a drop-dead number complete with a cape. Rannells is here to remind you the Tonys failed when they didn’t recognize him for “The Book of Mormon.” And Keegan-Michael Key looks solid in his solo: “We Look to You.”
On the other hand, Pellman is clearly trying, but her lack of chemistry with love interest Ariana DeBose completely deflates the show’s premise. Kidman feels shoehorned into the proceedings, and at one point she disappears for so long I forgot she was in the film. And Corden’s performance brings up a whole different set of controversies. Between this and lats year’s “Cats,” perhaps the late-night host should sit out of musical theater for a while.
Murphy still has many chances to right his ship at Netflix, with at least three more shows in the pipeline to arrive in the next year or so. It only takes one comeback, as the Broadway stars remind us, to put you back on top. Too bad “The Prom” was not the party to do it.