Ryan Murphy’s new Netflix adaptation of the 2018 Broadway musical The Prom has a lot to live up to. The musical garnered a devoted audience and critical acclaim over its short run, as well as seven Tony nominations. And while it didn’t actually win anything, its glitzy tongue-in-cheek showbiz narrative about two girlfriends fighting to attend their high school prom made it perfect fodder for Murphy’s small-screen milieu of mixing queer stories with musicals and camp.
On Netflix, The Prom has gotten a glow-up, with its Broadway cast of veteran character actors traded up for A-listers across the board, including Meryl Streep and James Corden as aging Broadway divas clinging to relevance by turning to social activism. Their focus? A small Indiana high school where a civil rights battle over prom night leads to a noxious moment of small-town ostracism — one based on an equally ugly true story.
The Prom’s solution to the deeply complex problem of American bigotry is to do theater to it. Its conceit is one part a blatantly romanticized show of optimism wrapped in a love letter to Broadway, and one part a bittersweet gesture of empathy toward anybody who’s grown up as a small-town misfit. Oh, and it’s also a musical comedy in the classic singing/dancing/jokes sense.
I wasn’t sold on this concept when The Prom debuted onstage, because it felt too easy, outdated, and possibly even exploitative. And I had my doubts about whether Murphy would be able to more successfully meld the show’s exploration of queer identity with its over-the-top Broadway fantasy. But while the film has made very few changes to the stage version, the small-screen treatment blessedly works just fine: The jokes land, the cast is superb, the score is still charming, and fans of the show will have little to complain about.
Our story opens in the middle of a two-fold crisis. At James Madison High, the local PTA, headed by an angry mom (Kerry Washington), has just voted to cancel the spring prom over one student’s request to attend the dance with her girlfriend. The principal (Keegan-Michael Key) vows to petition the courts over the PTA’s decision, much to the chagrin of the student herself, Emma (newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman, cast after a highly publicized nationwide talent search, just as you’d expect from the creator of Glee).
Meanwhile, in New York, a crew of self-absorbed theater veterans (Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman, and Andrew Rannells) is facing a crisis of their own — a flood of bad reviews. Newly downtrodden, they decide to embark on a show of social activism to make themselves look good to critics. Their cause celèbre, chosen entirely at random, is Emma’s quest to go to prom with a girl.
The city slickers promptly travel to Indiana and barge into the situation unannounced, with loud, showy messages of tolerance. “There will be banners! And choreography!” Corden’s Barry, himself a gay Midwestern transplant, declares. LuPone-ish diva Dee Dee Allen intones, “I read three-quarters of a news story and knew I had to come,” and all hell breaks loose.
Initially, the theater troupe just makes things worse, and the film relishes in dipping into some of the more outré cliches of small-town life, like having our heroes perform an ill-advised song about tolerance at a monster truck rally. But the biggest complication of all is one closer to home: Emma’s girlfriend Alyssa (Ariana DeBose), unlike Emma herself, is closeted. In fact, she’s one of the popular girls — and the daughter of the mean PTA mom. (Before the controversy, going to prom together was intended to be Alyssa’s coming-out moment.)
And while our Broadway stars are having their own moments of growth and change as they start to support Emma for real, Alyssa has to decide whether she’s really ready to come out and risk the full force of her town’s ostracism. This tension culminates in a punishing moment of full-on hate, when the town finally allows Emma to have her prom — but at an ugly cost.
When I saw The Prom in previews in 2018, I felt distinctly like the only buzzkill in an otherwise ecstatic crowd. It was clear that the show was already beloved by its audience, who fully embraced its Sorkin-esque liberal escapism and its deliberately campy approach to ideological warfare in the American heartland.
But for me, the conceit didn’t quite land. The two narratives, one about narcissistic but well-meaning showbiz veterans glomming onto a social justice fad and the other about deep-seated small-town bigotry, didn’t fully cohere, and it seemed naive rather than romantic to pretend they could. It was a version of queer Americana that felt teleported in from the ’90s without many updates; hell, the heartbreaking true story that The Prom is based on was itself nearly 10 years old.
Further, as a queer kid who lived for many years in an Indiana town well-established as one of the most gay-friendly places in the nation, I bristled at The Prom’s constant treatment of the state, and by proxy the “flyover states” at large, as a generic monolith. Although the entire show is an ironic send-up of misguided white liberalism, it also openly embraces its own white liberal fantasy of tolerance. The low point in this regard comes when one of the New Yorkers, Trent (Rannells, looking fully the part of a rejected church youth group leader), seamlessly converts a bunch of gullible teen bigots into acceptance and love, simply by singing a litany of hypocritical Bible dictums. It’s the kind of argument that only centrist democrats who get their political arguments from The West Wing believe actually works on real Bible belt churchgoers; but miraculously, in The Prom, it works faster than you can say Leviticus.
Still, it’s very clear the show knows it’s an escapist fantasy — and that’s even clearer in the Netflix adaptation, which sharpens its satirical points throughout and gifts Key with a small but sincere song that screams The Prom’s self-awareness about using the theater as an idealized version of reality. It helps that during the pandemic shutdown of Broadway, The Prom’s depiction of New York as a shining mecca of tolerance is as much of an escapist dream as everything else about it. The film gives us permission to dream big, of a place far, far away — in this case impossibly far away, even if it’s just Manhattan.
Murphy has always had a flair for merging camp and pathos, and it’s put to good use here. The big first-act closer, “Tonight Belongs to Me,” is both a rousing rip-roaring ensemble dance number and a horror show, as it serves as the big reveal for Emma’s punishment, courtesy of the entire student body and their parents. This moment, which to me felt too glossy and glitzy onstage to fully convey the emotional impact of the town’s cruelty, plays better here, scaled down to the pain on Pellman’s face.
Other moments from the Broadway show also play better on screen, even though they conversely lose scale. Most notable among them is “The Lady’s Improving,” the second-act showstopper that Meryl Streep delivers without a lot of accompanying pizazz just by being Meryl Streep. It’s the highlight from a score that frequently slaps, even if the lyrics do a lot of obvious scenery-chewing.
I had, and still have, serious qualms about the decision to model this entire story on an actual incident of small-town bigotry, one that resulted in the student ultimately winning a lawsuit against the school district — after moving away. It all just feels too easy, easier than it was in real life. Emma does endure plenty of hardship — like many queer kids, she’s kicked out of her house after coming out and the town makes her the scapegoat for the PTA’s own intolerance. But the bright-eyed ease and plucky courage with which she endures this, even forging a bond with Barry over their shared experiences of isolation, makes her feel one-dimensional. The story’s insistence that it gets better blares from every chorus, but the complex challenges modern-day queer (and entirely absent genderqueer) teenagers face largely feel pushed to the side.
Still, The Prom clearly wasn’t intended to be a deep treatise on its subject; it’s a musical comedy, after all. Instead, it presents itself as a celebration of the optimism and humanity that still thrives in such small towns — despite suggesting that those of us who can do so should find a way to relocate someplace better. But if that feels jaded, The Prom still has all the cheeky magic of singing and dancing against the backdrop of local hotspots. If common ground can be found through overblown dance breaks at a Cinnabon or a quiet song at the local Applebee’s, the film suggests, perhaps it can be found anywhere.
We might call it the Footloose philosophy of American politics. It’s a patchy, untenable form of resistance, but it’s undeniably fun.
The Prom is streaming on Netflix.