The Prom is a musical with an identity crisis. An Indiana school board cancels prom to prevent a lesbian couple from attending. A troupe of actors organize a protest to jump start their sinking careers. Is the story about the celebrities or the teens? Ryan Murphy’s film skews towards the adults and away from the tales’ darker elements. It’s fun to watch his stars mug and sing under pink spotlights. But the film lacks zazz.
Who Is the Protagonist?
On one hand we have Barry the actor, played by a lisping James Corden. Barry’s career sinks when a critic calls his work “the most insultingly misguided, offensive, and laughable performance that this reviewer has ever had the squirming misfortune to endure.” (Insert your favorite James Corden joke here.) He decides, on a whim, to become a celebrity activist and travel to Indiana. When his narcissism backfires he’ll be forced to learn empathy. This gives him the largest arc.
On the other hand, we have Emma the teen, played by a winsome Jo Ellen Pellman. She should be the protagonist but she lacks personality and agency. The adults shove her into the background while they fight on her behalf. Emma could use some outrage. Instead she smiles through tears and warbles like a classic Disney Princess.
Corden doesn’t travel alone. He brings friends played by Nicole Kidman, Andrew Rannells and Meryl Streep. Their roles feel superfluous. Three Velma Kellys to Corden’s Roxie Hart. But they get the best songs and their energy carries the film. Streep also gets a romance with Keegan Michael-Key’s woke principal. It’s more fun than anything the sad lesbians are doing.
Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin have written a pastiche of Broadway hits. Their score cribs notes from Chicago, Funny Girl, Godspell, Hairspray and The Music Man. Streep’s numbers pay homage to Liza Minnelli and Patti LuPone. What they lack is a song that gives The Prom its own voice.
We’re entering spoiler territory. Emma’s tormentors seem cartoonish till the midpoint. Then they perform an act of staggering cruelty. The story stops to take a hard look at the insidious nature of prejudice. It’s the bravest moment in the film. And Ryan Murphy can’t run from it fast enough.
The teen bullies are soon won over with a peppy song. That was true on stage but it’s not enough for Murphy. He adds some awful new scenes to reform the adults. Corden’s tears end homophobia and drain the film of all honesty. I’m sorry but…
We need to talk about James Corden
In the 1960 musical Bye Bye Birdie an Elvis-like star drives a small town wild. His managers, Dick Van Dyke and Chita Rivera, face prejudice for their interracial relationship. The 1963 film replaced Rivera with the Caucasian Janet Leigh and cut the racism plot line. Here Ryan Murphy replaces the openly gay Brooks Ashmanskas with the openly straight James Corden. But his character remains a flamboyant gay man. This does Corden no favors.
Much has been written about Corden’s bland performance so I’ll spare you. My issue is not with straight actors playing LGBQ roles. My issue is with Hollywood’s habit of rewarding them for their “bravery” while blacklisting openly LGBTQ artists. It’s an ugly double standard. Ryan Murphy likes it both ways. A Boys in the Band here. A Darren Criss vehicle there. But Corden was not a good fit for this part. Will his talk show “fame” attract an audience? Or will he sour the film’s rep like Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany‘s? Time will tell.
Build a Prom
The teen and Broadway worlds are meant to combine. Instead they simply alternate. If you’re looking for a campy musical you’ll enjoy this. It’s closer to the workmanlike Mary Poppins Returns than to the dismal Cats. But if you’re looking for an LGBTQ teen drama you can do much better. Try Alice Junior, Booksmart, Dramarama, The Half of It, Love Victor or Kokon. Or wait a few months for Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.