For the last several days, I’ve been singing one line from the musical The Prom at everything in my house. “One thing’s universal,” I bellow at the coffee maker. “Life’s no dress rehearsal!” It’s from Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin’s song “Tonight Belongs to You,” one of the show’s strongest and wickedest numbers, and it’s the sort of earworm that, once it hooks you, doesn’t let you go. The more I yell it, though, the more I worry — It’s wrong, right? We live in a gosh-I-hope-this-works world. Life is totally the run-through: We’ve got to get it right even though the house is empty and there is no curtain call.
And speaking of performing without applause, Netflix made a movie of The Prom! It wasn’t an obvious or easy choice for Hollywoodification: Co-writers Beguelin and Bob Martin and composer Sklar’s musical comedy about four Broadway actors who rally (uninvited) around a small-town lesbian named Emma was not a mammoth hit. Box-office receipts don’t tell the whole story, though, and the show’s valor and sweetness won it bushels of affection. “Giddy, smart, bighearted,” said our Sara Holdren about the 2018 production.
It’s also, though, a stubbornly theater-y show, with gags about Drama Desk Awards and Bob Fosse and trust exercises. “It’s Mickey and Judy time!” trumpets one showbiz optimist, when it turns out that putting on a show is the only (?) way to defy the homophobes and give Emma her prom. Theater folk love to make fun of themselves almost as much as they like to refer to themselves, so The Prom is full of wry self-mockery and joshing love. Diva Dee Dee (Meryl Streep), chorus girl Angie (Nicole Kidman), classically trained bartender Trent (Andrew Rannells), and “gay as a box of wigs” leading man Barry (James Corden) are arrogantly certain that their tinsel is really luster — Barry thinks heartsoreness can be solved with a makeover; Dee Dee learns an important lesson … that you can date a fan. Still, while their plans to help are follies, they’re quintessentially theatrical follies, which heighten and brighten the situation until even introverted Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman) can laugh at her pain. What happens when you take a fish like this out of the theater and put it on a soundstage? Can it breathe?
It’s good to have a new musical to watch in this awful year, to be sure, and the first five minutes — the orchestra strings are immediately thrilling — kick-started my cold heart. But as the show goes on, its unbeautiful but glossy surface grows increasingly depressing. The onscreen version has the terrific music, the message of kindness, and Casey Nicholaw’s exciting jump-jump-jump-really-hard choreography, which has a dependably rousing effect. But while it’s faithful to the stage incarnation in the sense of its plot and music, with Ryan Murphy at the helm, The Prom lacks much of the original’s spirit. Is this a sniffy, it-was-better-on-Broadway reaction? At least in part. I will admit I’ve been annoyed since Murphy announced his cast. In many cases, the roles were written specifically for the Broadway cast members, who are the best belters and comedians and hoofers in the biz. Art can get a little … tribal, and I was outraged that the cast I considered “my” team was getting benched. I have tried to build a fence around those feelings, though, and to smile at celebrities chalking up another victory. I guess something else is universal!
The best part is the beginning. We’re on 44th Street, cameras flashing, everyone celebrating the opening of Dee Dee and Barry’s latest vehicle, Eleanor! — The Eleanor Roosevelt Musical. Everybody’s storytelling is cranked up to Clue velocity: a gray-wigged Streep whizzes Corden around in a wheelchair; bang, we’re at Sardi’s waiting for the review; bang, the Times is mean to them; [sad trombone] we look up at the Eleanor! marquee winking sadly. This is Murphy’s visual imagination at its peak, a witty treatment of the mise-en-abyme of the Broadway box: marquees across from restaurants across from other marquees, light bulbs reflecting in one another’s windows. Rannells is nicely impervious as the actor between jobs who went to Juilliard, and Streep discovers new and hilarious ways to convey post-review despair, drooping glamorously low on her barstool. Corden, though, is overmatched, and Nicole Kidman decides to do a Brooklyn accent. (She also has the thankless job of Irony Signaler, as Angie complains that she’s been passed over yet again for Roxie in Chicago because they brought in an unqualified star.)
The film’s scope, weirdly, diminishes the minute it leaves New York. Despite taking up the bulk of the movie, Indiana is basically the school, Emma’s house, and a mall — which looks like a thrifty, more-appropriate-for-serial-TV choice. When we’re meant to think about the magic of theater, the lights turn deep pink and blue, which just makes each set look like an empty club on Miami Vice night. They do indulge in one visual gag, when the Hundred Dollar Quartet try to perform at a monster-truck rally. The Midwest! What a bunch of cultureless yahoos, amirite? Certainly Martin and Beguelin wrote their dear, foolish heroes as incurious; they come to Emma’s town and see only what they expect to see. But Murphy’s lens should be wiser than his characters, or at the very least, look around.
We do, though, find Ariana DeBose in Indiana (she was Tony-nominated for Summer: The Donna Summer Musical and played the dancing “bullet” from Hamilton) playing Alyssa, the apple of her mother (Kerry Washington)’s eye, and — dramatically at least — the plot’s fulcrum. Will closeted Alyssa dance with Emma under the streamers and balloons, in front of her fellow cheerleaders and everybody? DeBose’s voice is as tight as a trampoline, and her big song, “Alyssa Green,” blows the doors off the gym. Her eyes even show some shadow of pain, unlike the cheery Emma’s — Pellman grins and grins and grins, even as the plot piles awfulness at her feet. This is important: An invulnerable Emma spoils almost all of the musical’s calculus. She and Alyssa need to have a lock-and-key chemistry, which Pellman evades, and Emma is also meant to draw out Angie, who helps her discover her “Zazz,” and Barry, who needs someone to nurture. The only relationship that thus survives in the movie version is Dee Dee’s, which is — despite Keegan-Michael Key trying to act out a romance on her margins — with herself. Perhaps Dee Dee is also universal.
In fact, the plot of The Prom actually has more fondness for dress rehearsals and the “do-over” than that “Tonight Belongs to You” might suggest. For one thing, the plot includes three proms. (Four if you count the sequence from Eleanor! Broadway is prom for adults: Discuss.) That gives me hope, because I think that there’s room in the universe for another attempt at putting this beloved and big-souled property on film. Look, Hollywood has made A Star Is Born [refusing to check notes] 48 times. What’s a second Prom? Imagine how wonderful it could be, if when you got to the dance, you looked around, and your friends were there. It wouldn’t matter if they had to spend a little less on decorations, it would still make a better party.
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