The Prom is as showstopping and flashy as it is aggressively mediocre

The all-star Ryan Murphy adaptation proves that the path from stage to screen is not always smooth.

Stage musicals and screen musicals are not the same thing.

Apologies for starting on such an obvious note, but it’s something that needs to be reiterated, clearly, after seeing Ryan Murphy’s The Prom, a flashy, Netflix-bound adaptation of a hit Broadway show. Stage musicals can make great movie musicals and vice-versa, but it’s not something that translates automatically from medium to medium. It will do The Prom no great service to be compared to some of the all-time great movie musicals, but Singing in the Rain and All That Jazz look and feel like movies; hell, even The Greatest Showman, a movie that I think is pure corn, looks like a movie. The Prom looks like an interminable Fruit Gushers commercial, all of its goodwill and theatre-kid spunk flattened by aggressively mediocre visuals and indifferent staging. I’ll admit that I was a little apprehensive of 132 minutes of Ryan Murphy-led jazz-hands metafuckery, but for once, I was served exactly what I expected.

Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and Barry Glickman (James Corden) are once-bulletproof Broadway superstars who have received such terrible notices for their most recent effort (a musical about Eleanor Roosevelt) that their careers hang in the balance. Commiserating at the bar after the premiere, they run into struggling former sitcom star Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells) and ageing diva Angie Dickinson (Nicole Kidman) and together they hatch a plan to get back into the public’s good graces. They’re going to find a cause and leverage all of their East Coast glitz and glamour into supporting it. That’s how they come across the story of Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Perlman), a gay high school senior who wanted to take her girlfriend to the prom – a decision that was not only unilaterally shut down by the PTA leader (Kerry Washington) but has led to the cancellation of the prom, much to the dismay of the school’s principal (Keegan-Michael Key). The quartet of overbearing showbiz stereotypes gets on a bus to Middle America, hoping to parlay the injustice into a bit of publicity. 

The prom aspects of The Prom are fairly interesting – there’s certainly something to be done with all of the themes of coming out and being accepted by your community, but this takes a backseat to the barrage of metatextual humour that comes from Hollywood royalty (and Rannells, who comes the closest to being actual Broadway royalty) acting like prissy divas and spraying privilege all over the Midwest. There’s a huge amount of “what is this Applebee’s you speak of?”-type jokes that Corden, Kidman and particularly Streep attack with almost alarming gusto. Their energy is so off-the-charts compared to the more grounded work being done by Perlman that it bulldozes all of their scenes together. The perpetual winking at and breaking of the fourth wall grows worrisome after a while as Murphy seems so enamored with his high-wattage cast that he cannot even imagine asking them to rein it in a little.

The Prom is very old-fashioned in its musical qualities. There’s no rapping or leftfield songwriting choices, just blaring showtunes and choreographed dance numbers in spades. The musical numbers come at you fast, often without much pause in between. It happens a few times that there are a scant two or three lines of dialogue before the music starts blaring again. Everyone gets a song: the mean girls who hate that lesbians want to go to prom get a song, the nameless jocks that ask the mean girls out to prom get a song, Keegan-Michael Key gets two songs in which he waxes poetic about his love of musical theatre, etc. Under the guise of a stage musical, I think this onslaught of musical numbers probably works; it’s a barrage of performance and razzle-dazzle that’s undeniably energetic, but on-screen it soon becomes an exhausting exercise in tedium. Some of the musical sequences are undeniably charming — especially the ones focused on Perlman, who treats the material like something with more depth than an extremely long Carpool Karaoke segment — but they’re so relentless and similar in their aesthetic properties that it becomes rather pointless before long.

In fact, the majority of what makes these musical sequences tedious is not the quality of the songs (which are often charming if same-y in their overtly codified style) or the psychotic enthusiasm of the stars. It’s in the staging, blocking and lighting, which have all of the studied artlessness of an Old Navy commercial. Every musical scene is garishly lit and filled with neons; every dance sequence is cut to bits and inexplicably focused almost entirely on the performers’ faces. What’s the point of an elaborate dance number featuring 25 dancers when most of it is going to consist of a close-up of James Corden’s head? What’s the point of building an elaborate set for your showstopping musical sequence if most of it is just going to be an unbroken shot of the two leads singing in each others’ faces, peppered perhaps by crane shots of exactly the same thing? 

Granted, there’s a thankless task at hand here: The Prom is set mainly in everyday locations, and these can be abstracted as much as possible on stage. When you make a movie with two musical sequences set in a mall (!), you cannot simply suggest the idea of a mall — you have to shoot the fucking thing in an actual mall, and there aren’t too many ways to make jumping around an escalator look like something other than a very slick Place Versailles ad. There’s certainly an issue with the bumpy road to adapting this particular source material, but I think it also has to do with the fact that Murphy doesn’t seem to particularly think of this project in cinematic terms. It’s an exhausting onslaught of stuff that never gels the way it’s supposed to. It somehow feels like a filmed version of a live stage show that’s slicker and more soulless, in spite of its best intentions and laudable message. ■

The Prom is on Netflix as of Friday, Dec. 11. Watch the trailer below:

Andrew Rannells, Meryl Streep, James Corden, Keegan-Michael Key and Nicole Kidman star in The Prom by Ryan Murphy

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