A couple of months back, Netflix wowed critics and viewers alike with its stage-to-screen adaptation of “The Boys in the Band.” The landmark queer-centric drama, which won the 2019 Tony for Best Revival of a Play, was produced by Ryan Murphy, directed by Joe Mantello, and boasted a stellar ensemble of nine out-and-proud gay men, all of whom reprised their roles from the Broadway production.
And now Netflix and Murphy have found another LGBTQ-themed Broadway hit titled “The Prom” — this one a heartwarming, fizzy musical comedy — and revamped it for the screen. Choreographer Casey Nicholaw directed the stage version, and its themes of acceptance and resilience struck a chord with theatergoers. The New York Times anointed it a “Critic’s Pick,” proclaiming it a “joyful hoot.” You may also recall that girl-on-girl smooch heard round the world, when the climactic musical number was showcased in the 2018 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade telecast.
The screen adaptation, however, is a mixed bag under Murphy’s obsessive guidance. It’s still an amusing romp, and the queer-inclusive message resonates stronger than ever. Yet while Murphy’s trademark glossy, high-octane conceit is a feast for the eyes, the heart often goes hungry. Some of the humanity has been shellacked over, blunting the emotional impact.
The talented original Broadway cast was unceremoniously jettisoned in favor of more bankable stars. Instead of Brooks Ashmanskas, Beth Leavel, Christopher Sieber, Angie Schworer, Michael Potts, and Courtenay Collins we have James Corden, Meryl Streep, Andrew Rannells, Nicole Kidman, Keegan Michael Key, and Kerry Washington, respectively. Other familiar names include Mary Kay Place, Kevin Chamberlin, and Tracey Ullman.
With a screenplay by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin (the creative team behind the stage version, which also included Matthew Sklar), the madcap plot feels even more farfetched on the screen. In a Podunk town somewhere in Indiana, Emma Nolan is devastated when the PTA forbids her to bring girlfriend Alyssa to the high school prom. To complicate matters, Alyssa is deep in the closet and her mom is the bigoted head of the PTA. The plan is to come out blazing on the night of the prom, which gets canceled, sort of.
After the story makes national headlines, a band of cynical Broadway has-beens decides to swoop in and “rescue” Emma. Initially they’re in it solely for the PR that might jumpstart their stalled careers. But when their egomaniacal activism backfires, they are forced to take a hard look in the mirror. Can they redeem themselves and give Emma the chance to celebrate her truth?
Murphy’s knack for amping up the visual voltage is on full display here. He favors candy-colored lighting, sequined costumes, and swirling camera shots that would make Baz Lurhmann’s head spin. The opening musical number, set mostly in Sardi’s and on West 44th Street (meticulously recreated in a Los Angeles backlot) is overinflated with a cast of hundreds, complete with snappy waiters dancing on tabletops. Since we are not yet invested in the story or the characters, the spectacle comes across as unearned and hollow.
By contrast, another musical montage, set at the prom, is a stunner. It features a vast, magical space filled with scores of tuxedoed and gowned students busting out Nicholaw’s hard-edged dance moves.
The performances are generally strong yet uneven. Murphy struck gold with Jo Ellen Pellman as Emma and Ariana DeBose as her love interest, Alyssa. Their chemistry is palpable; their eyes sparkle during their duets together. Pellman’s voice is appealing, and she grounds the movie with her nonchalant, clear-eyed confidence.
At first, Streep’s Dee Dee Allen is a caricature of a hardened Broadway diva, carping and preening. But once she learns Emma was disowned by her parents after coming out as gay, like the Grinch her heart suddenly grows three sizes that day. Dee Dee becomes vulnerable, more relatable.
Corden, as Dee Dee’s former co-star Barry Glickman, is miscast. The popular talk show host, who happens to be straight, lacks the acting chops to pull off the demanding role of a gay Broadway star trying to resurrect his career while coming to terms with rejection by his parents.
The screenplay pulses with clever zingers (“This is our moment to change the world, one lesbian at a time”). Yet Corden’s delivery of the potentially comic line “If they don’t have gay people here, why is my Scruff going crazy right now?” lands with a thud.
If “The Prom” is an ode to queer acceptance, it’s also about the fraught business of Broadway, skewering and embracing it at the same time. Each of the interlopers from the big bad city has their moment in the spotlight, belting out a show-stopper.
Streep channels Patti LuPone in a rousing “Evita”-inspired number, with a dash of “Gypsy” thrown in for good measure. Kidman, as the down-on-her-luck chorus girl, Angie, performs a Kander & Ebb-esque number that’s straight out of “Chicago,” shamelessly substituting “All That Jazz” with “Give it Some Zazz.”
My favorite is Rannells’ rollicking, gospel-fueled number “Love Thy Neighbor” at the local mall, where his actor-bartender Trent scolds the churchgoing students for being closed-minded. “You can’t cherry pick the Bible,” he croons in an endearingly snarky tone.
To be fair, it’s exceedingly tricky to capture the magic of a Broadway musical comedy on film. In live theater, the ensemble and audience have an organic, symbiotic relationship, and actors can recalibrate depending on the immediate mood. Laughter that is infectious in a packed theater can grow stone cold while watching at home on your laptop.
Perhaps the conundrum of this engaging albeit erratic musical is best illustrated in the tender duet between Emma and Alyssa, “Dance with You.”
“I don’t need a big production, streamers hanging in the air. I don’t need to spend the night with confetti in my hair,” Alyssa sings. This just seconds after they’ve strolled through an otherworldly grove of cherry trees, with an artificial blizzard of blossoms swirling around them. Perhaps Murphy should have taken a cue from this song and dialed back the pyrotechnics — just a bit.
THE PROM | Directed by Ryan Murphy | Premieres on Netflix on Dec. 11 and in select movie theaters across the country