Sometimes a filmmaker can match their material almost too well. Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin’s 2018 Broadway musical The Prom is a high-energy comedy about big-city cluelessness and small-town small-mindedness whose braided humor and earnestness make for a heady concoction. Turning a high school dance into a crucible for a showdown about acceptance and homophobia via some high-kicking dance numbers and tongue-in-cheek humor feels like a reimagining of Ryan Murphy’s Glee. Now that Murphy has adapted the musical for Netflix, the process has come full circle, though not always in a good way.
The prom in question is in the generic small town of Edgewater, Indiana. At the show’s start, the PTA’s religiously homophobic president Mrs. Greene (a surprisingly fierce and spiky Kerry Washington) has voted to cancel the prom in order to stop one of the students, Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman) from attending with another girl. Meanwhile on the Great White Way, stars Dee Dee (Meryl Streep) and Barry (James Corden) are savaged after their comedically atrocious Eleanor Roosevelt musical closes on opening night.
Their planet-sized egos having been hit by the meteor of a scathing New York Times review of Eleanor! (“it’s not the show,” their agent tells them, “it’s you two”), they dust themselves off and decide it’s time for a career makeover. In one of the great modern Broadway opening numbers, “Changing Lives”, Dee Dee and Barry announce their reinvention as “celebrity activists” who will go to Edgewater and fight for Emma’s rights. “We’re going to help that little lesbian / whether she likes it or not” pretty much sums up the amount of introspection they have engaged in while drinking and scheming in the upstairs bar at Sardi’s.
Following that head-snapping opener, the action shifts to Edgewater. Once there, the humor continues to jab at the fish-out-of-water Broadway contingent, filled out by aging chorus-line dancer Angie (Nicole Kidman) and fallen sitcom star Trent (Andrew Rannells) who’s now touring the provinces with a production of Godspell. Charging into a PTA meeting where principal Mr. Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key) is trying to mollify the parents, the do-gooders bring signs, big ideas, and not a lot of planning. “We are liberals from Broadway!” they announce, while Dee Dee’s demands (“listen, you bigoted monsters”) go over as well as her insistence that the local chain hotel must have a suite or at least a spa.
Jo Ellen Pellman as Emma Nolan and Ariana DeBose as Alyssa Greene (Photo by MELINDA SUE GORDON/NETFLIX/MELINDA SUE GORDON/NETFLIX – © 2020 Netflix, Inc. / IMDB)
Once the limousine liberals’ clumsy attention-grabber of a protest goes awry, the story takes somewhat of a backward step. While throwing theater people back into high school makes sense, given the presentation of actors as self-centered adolescent drama machines living in a reality of their own concoction, its presentation here is not especially fresh. The in-jokey satire is put aside in order to allow the characters to step out of their showbiz bubbles and reconnect with the reality they have been avoiding.
Facing the town’s small-mindedness pushes Barry toward reconnecting with the family he left after coming out as a teenager while Dee Dee (Streep delicately mixing 110-proof narcissism with flickers of self-awareness) and Mr. Hawkins begin a flirtation at an Applebee’s restaurant. Their slow journeys to self-improvement, along with the mean-girl melodrama surrounding Emma—whose girlfriend Alyssa (Ariana DeBose) has not come out to her mother Mrs. Greene—seem particularly Glee-ish in their sometimes rough mixture of sentiment and satire, only without any Lady Gaga dance numbers.
Fortunately, the show remains a fairly unstoppable machine. Though many of the numbers musically blend together, Casey Nicholaw’s fizzy choreography is sensationally high-energy, while the singing ranges from sweet and full-spirited to bring-the-house-down. Rannells’ show-stopper with “Love Thy Neighbor”, a fun Book of Mormon-ish jab at Christian hypocrisy staged in a mall food court, is one of the brightest spots in the film’s more conventional second half. The Broadway geek material—likely from The Drowsy Chaperone co-writer Martin—is often handed off to the struggling Barry (he declared bankruptcy “after my self-produced Notes on a Scandal“), who gets to announce in the lead-up to the glitterama prom finalé, “It’s Mickey and Judy time!”
At times, though, Murphy’s approach substitutes gloss for precision. The over-caffeinated editing, Matthew Libatique’s too-pretty camerawork, and almost pathologically high spirits produce a sensation that feels like what might have happened if the Disney Channel ever did Chicago. It’s overkill on top of overkill, like a full season or two of Glee smushed into one feature. While that excess was likely part of The Prom‘s highly self-aware original concept (why have a high school story with just one prom when you can have two?), in Murphy’s hands it becomes all pop and very little sting.