I never saw a single damn episode of Glee yet it's the project that allowed Ryan Murphy to become "Ryan Murphy" in all the ways he's now heralded as the creator of all that is edgy (and a little self-important) which is kind of funny given what I've gleaned of Glee in the few actual clips I've seen of the show (AKA we're talkin' multiple football fields away from edgy). Never mind the fact Murphy has now become a bigger draw than the actual content on any film or television property he decides to slap his name on (did you see that last season of America Horror Story?), but let us not focus on how much the man has turned himself into a brand all his own and spread himself so thi...I mean, how prolific he's become that there's no possible way his latest endeavor doesn't turn out rushed and rather uninspired, right? No, instead let's remind ourselves that the man who has more ongoing projects with Netflix than Kevin Hart has returned to the director's chair for his first feature in a decade and further, has returned to his musical theater roots! Whatever that might mean...I said I haven't seen Glee, this a good or bad thing? Wherever you fall in regards to your respect for and/or expectation of Murphy's work one thing at least seems to be consistent throughout the man's work and that's his ability to construct atmosphere whether it be in a high school hallway, a haunted insane asylum, or middle-of-nowhere Indiana. With The Prom, Murphy has taken a screen adaptation of the Broadway comedy musical (that is full-on musical and mostly-on comedy) as penned by the writers of the original production (Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin) and stacked it to the brim with stars whereas the material is smart enough on its own terms to elicit just the right balance of rebellion and sweetness. It's not difficult to imagine then, why The Prom - a message musical with major bones to pick with intolerance - will go over smoother than butter on a fresh baked roll. Yes, even in what are apparently hostile Midwestern towns. It’s almost magical how inoffensively the writing deals with the offensiveness of some of the characters and further, is able to convey everything the film wants to say while maintaining a tone akin to the feel good movie of the summer, but this is why atmosphere is key: it chooses to radiate positivity even in the face of ugliness when it could just as easily bury itself in the genuine heartbreak of the story. Though a little long-winded with maybe an extra song or two that could have been cut for reasons of both efficiency and effectiveness, there is no denying the charm of The Prom and its pleasing blend of old school Hollywood musicals with modern ideals and meaning.  

From left: Barry (James Corden), Angie (Nicole Kidman), Dee Dee (Meryl Streep), and Principal Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key) in Ryan Murphy's The Prom.
© Netflix 

First performed four years ago in 2016, but premiering on Broadway in 2018 only to close less than a year later The Prom was expected to have a touring production rollout nationally in 2021, pandemic. I can't imagine that planned tour not being a response in some capacity to whatever this movie version might still become on Netflix, but I can imagine if it doesn't go forward as planned venues around the country might miss out on more ticket sales than even expected. That is to say that despite the perceived standardization of the material and mainstream-ness of the casting for their names rather than for the necessary talent to pull something like this off, Murphy's film is undeniably charming and appropriately moving. What is key in making what some (maybe many) will see as the "high-horse" perspective from which the story is told is that Murphy (and probably more so Martin and Beguelin) understands that in order to really change someone's heart you have to first either relate to them or make them laugh and while those opposed to homosexuality likely won't be relating too quickly to the flamboyant opening musical number they might be, like the movie itself, laughing at the stars of it. In essence, the film preaches this liberal message while poking fun at the liberals relaying said message. Further, we're meant to laugh at these spoiled and privileged celebrities due to their disconnection to middle class, middle American life who are not at all actually concerned with our heroine's plight, but only narcissistic enough to know it might earn them favorable media attention and help shed some light on if not re-vamp their failing careers. By making these supposed purveyors of justice flawed, entitled people there is less a sense of bias for who they are as individuals over those on the other side of the line forcing audiences from both sides to not necessarily look at who is championing what message, but instead focus on the message itself. To that extent, the film doesn't satirize the principles of the matter as these remain sincere given Martin and Beguelin base the very real victim of this very real hate around the most grounded character on screen: a well-meaning high school girl. It only helps that this strategy is fleshed out with over-the-top choreography, catchy songs, and production design for the ages allowing for a certain wholesomeness that one would hope might win over any cold-hearted prejudiced person by the end of the day. Like Nicole Kidman's character who blames her cockeyed optimism on having played Nellie Forbush in a dinner theater production of South Pacific, the hope of ridding this community, and by extension, the nation, of this cancer of intolerance might be too tall an order even for something as grand and surprisingly noble as The Prom, can hope.

As stated, we begin in the heart of Broadway and are introduced to Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and Barry Glickman (James Corden) - two staples of the stage - as they attend opening night of their latest collaboration: an Eleanor Rooselvelt musical. As interesting as the life of the longest-serving First Lady of the United States might be one might easily suspect that a staged, musical version of her life might not be the best route to take in dramatizing it. Dee Dee and Barry learn this pretty quickly as well after opening night rapidly evolves into closing night. While the speed at which the reviews pour in after their first performance might be scarier than the actual insults the critiques hurl, it becomes abundantly clear that this will be another in what is a string of flops for both Dee Dee and Barry. Drowning their miseries at Sardi's across the street they are joined by lifetime Chicago chorus girl, Angie (Nicole Kidman), and tended to by struggling actor and Julliard graduate Trent (Andrew Rannells). The conversation wastes no time in getting to the bottom line of how Dee Dee - a two-time Tony Award winner - and Barry - an out and out gay man who left his small Ohio town behind and never looked back - might resuscitate their flatlining careers. They all agree they need to tackle a cause and use their celebrity influence to reverse the perception they are little more than aging narcissists (which Dee Dee doesn't see a problem with). As a result and thanks to some Twitter scrolling Kidman's Angie learns of a high school student in Edgewater, Indiana who has been banned from attending her prom with her girlfriend. Dee Dee and Barry immediately decide that this predicament is the perfect cause to help them resurrect their public images thus motivating them to hit the road with Angie and Trent in tow. Of course, no one in Edgewater, Indiana knows who these four Broadway stars are with the lone exception of the high school principal, Mr. Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key), who is completely in support of his student being able to take whomever she wants to the prom and who may or may not, but definitely does have a huge crush on Streep's Dee Dee. It is here that we first meet the real star of our show, Emma Nolan (newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman), as she works to strike a balance between being neither a symbol nor a cautionary tale, but simply someone who is free to love who her "unruly heart loves" without the interference of those who don't understand it. As Emma and her girlfriend Alyssa (Ariana DeBose), but more so Emma, deal with the head of the PTA (Kerry Washington) who is threatening to cancel prom should Emma be allowed to attend the self-absorbed celebrities come to see that having their heart in the right place might actually matter as they realize truths about their own lives on their way to giving Emma a night where she can truly celebrate who she is.    

Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman) and her girlfriend Alyssa (Ariana DeBose) celebrate their all-inclusive prom.
© Netflix

I hate to break it to you guys, but James Corden is super talented and he shines as "Uncle Barry" in Murphy's stage to screen adaptation. I note this right out of the gate because for one reason or another (most of those reasons likely being Cats or his general over-exposure, which I understand) the tide has completely shifted and turned against Corden over the course of the last couple of years. And while I'm afraid that tide will continue to shift for his portrayal of a gay man while he himself is not actually a homosexual, we once again must ask ourselves what the purpose of "acting" is. I understand the want for gay performers to have as much opportunity to play true to life roles as that of straight performers, but having a straight man fill a gay role isn't worth attacking someone personally - especially when they're as good as Corden is here. To back-up said claims would be to point out that in more than one scene Corden turns in just as emotionally charged a performance as he does excel in the musical numbers. Though his lone solo number, "Barry is Going to Prom," doesn't land near the top of the favorites list his contributions to the ensemble numbers are undeniable as they not only put on display his ability to communicate the necessary story points effectively through song, but his natural ability as a performer in general. In addition, the man delivers a handful of solid laughs to boot - one line of dialogue in particular will be used by me in response to any questions my wife asks from now on. 

Speaking to the biggest draw of the film though, the musical numbers go over incredibly well especially for this first-time listener. Of course, there's always some affinity or familiarity toward big, broad musical numbers as so many share a similar cadence in the performances or the same sounds from an instrumentation perspective, but the strong message and clever, self-deprecating lyrics add a strong layer to the familiar melodies. The aforementioned opening number titled "Changing Lives," isn't exactly the hook of a show-stopper it could be, but it plays it so safely down the middle that it braces viewers to know exactly what they're in for. Things begin to shift in a stronger direction once our Broadway stars land in Edgewater with Streep having her moment to shine, ironically, in, "It's Not About Me," while Key's adorable Mr. Hawkins beautifully explains how, "a distraction is momentary, (but) an escape helps you heal" in the low-key, "We Look to You." It isn't until the central showpieces that are, "You Happened," and, "Tonight Belongs to You," that Murphy, his cast, choreographers, and set designers take things to a whole other level. It is through, "Tonight Belongs to You," that Pellman truly shines despite earlier tunes like, "Just Breathe" hinting at what's to come. "Tonight Belongs to You" also highlights the chemistry between Corden and Pellman's characters while giving supporting players like Logan Riley, Nico Greetham, Dominique Kelley, and Nathaniel J. Potvin their chance to shine as well. It is in this cumulative moment that the editing perfectly captures the impact of the scene as the tone of the music perfectly matches the emotional beats of the story; it's as equally magical as it is heartbreaking. Kidman also has a moment of her own in the B-side duet that is "Zazz" while Rannells performance of, "Love Thy Neighbor," might be my favorite of the entire production. Educating the small-minded small-towners of Edgewater about how much they "cherry pick the Bible" via a cheeky little Gospel-inspired number that simply pleads for the use of some common sense is lively, smart, and while the transition of the listeners may feel a little too easy the point is successfully made. In this same vein, while The Prom may largely be preaching to the choir Murphy's film exudes such joy and sweetness that one can hope it might also reach a few who haven't already converted. 

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