Just when I thought I had Ryan Murphy figured out, he goes and drops The Prom on me.
I like Murphy’s work … generally. For the most part. Occasionally, or at least somewhat mostly. OK, I’m torn by it, because I admire his passion for telling queer stories (though generally he does his best work with stories of cis white gay men) and I admire his commitment to hiring queer actors (except when he doesn’t, which we will get to here, trust and believe) and I admire his devotion to camp and melodrama and anything over the mother-loving TOP.
But truly, Murphy’s best work comes when he shows restraint. Think The People Vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story and its singular drive. Think The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story and its unblinking aim, despite the frippery around it. Think Pose Season 2 — yes, despite the corpse in the closet. On the flip side, consider latter-day Glee or Nip/Tuck, or the end of every single season of American Horror Story, or the style-over-substance misfires of Ratched and The Politician.
And so, when you see Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman and Andrew Rannells and James Corden wearing every single sequin in Los Angeles, and you see all of the other candy-coated visuals and the production numbers and the pitch-it-to-the-back-row singing and mugging in the trailers for The Prom, you think you know which Murphy you’re going to get, and it isn’t Restrained Ryan.
And we don’t. And it’s OK. Dare I say it, it’s pretty damn good. It’s the marriage of Murphy’s exuberant creativity with that most boisterous of art forms, musical theater, and this time, it’s a happy union, each side bringing out the best in each other.
Murphy’s adaptation of the short-lived, warm-hearted Broadway musical The Prom, which drops Dec. 11 on Netflix after a limited theatrical run beginning Dec. 4, works far better than I’d expected. It’s big and broad, but Murphy and his cast hit the right emotional beats, too. Maybe it’s, in part, because I’m desperate to see a big, bright stage musical again, but The Prom really won me over.
Streep, Corden, Kidman and Rannells star as a quartet of down-on-their-luck Broadway actors — the first two fresh off a mega-flop musicalization of Eleanor Roosevelt’s life (called Eleanor!, natch, exclamation mark included), while Kidman is a little-noticed, 20-year vet of the chorus of Chicago and Rannells is making more money as a bartender than as an actor. They need some good publicity, or maybe just a good distraction from their woes, when they see a news item about a town in Indiana that has canceled its high school prom rather than let one student bring her girlfriend.
Now, for a minute, I thought that maybe The Prom should have been set 15, even 10 years earlier, but then I remembered how precarious LGBTQIA+ equality has felt for the past four years, and I got over that right quick.
Anyway, the young lesbian is Emma Nolan (played by sensational newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman) and, with the stalwart backing of her principal (Keegan-Michael Key), she’s in pitched battle with the PTA president (Kerry Washington) when our Broadway babies arrive, with a non-Equity cast of Godspell in tow. There’s plenty of fish-out-of-water humor (Streep’s Dee Dee Allen is particularly unsuited to small-town life) and, despite some selfishness in their motives, the actors’ hearts prove to really be in the right place.
But while there’s plenty of glossy production numbers and uproarious humor, Murphy — following the lead of screenwriters Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin (who also wrote the Broadway version) — never forgets the real hurt that Emma, her closeted girlfriend (Ariana DeBose) and actor Barry Glickman (Corden) are dealing with, thanks to the close-minded people surrounding them.
As I understand it, Murphy and his writers expanded on Barry’s story for the film (even adding his mother, played by Tracy Ullman, to the cast), and while I thought that might take away from Emma and Alyssa’s story, instead it enhances it. There’s a symmetry in the parental rejections of Barry and Emma and, we fear, Alyssa that rings so true to the queer experience for generations upon generations.
I just wish someone besides Corden had played Barry. I almost understand why Murphy went with big names like Streep and Kidman, but Corden’s Carpool Karaoke fanbase surely doesn’t compare to the wattage that those dames bring. And he’s a straight guy, and Barry is very much not a straight guy, and the fey mannerisms don’t play the same when Corden is doing them. Yes, a good actor should be able to make us suspend our disbelief and accept the character, but Corden never completely succeeds, at least for me, even when he’s otherwise truly affecting.
The rest of the cast is aces, though. Streep is having a blast as Dee Dee, and she’s singing better than I ever remember, too; “It’s Not About Me” is a damn delight. Kidman’s a little overqualified to be an over-the-hill chorine, but she’s pretty sensational, and Rannells lathers on the smarm nicely. Key and Washington fit in well, too, and Pellman and DeBose give star-making performances.
Murphy has talked about seeing himself in Emma’s story, and you can tell he’s exorcising some demons here. This time, though, he finds a way to balance high spirits with a beating heart. Take a bow, Prom King. (Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some suggestive/sexual references and language)