Netflix gave showrunner extraordinaire Ryan Murphy an awful lot of money (a reported nine-figure sum) to be a new king of their domain, and so far, it seems to be working out pretty well for them. Sure, the reviews have been, to put it graciously, mixed, but if their own reported viewership numbers are anything to go by (spoiler: they’re not), audiences are still turning on in droves for the latest slice of Murphy-esque camp of questionable taste. With everyone (hopefully) staying at home this festive season and fighting families in need of a mostly inoffensive Christmas movie to fill the gap left behind by West Side Story, Murphy is prepared with his own musical, The Prom.
Based on the minor Broadway hit of the 2018/19 season, which had the honor of being totally overshadowed by Hadestown, The Prom centers on a quartet of intensely vain out-of-work theatre actors. Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep in one of her weaker wigs) is a former beloved diva whose brightest days are behind her. Barry Glickman (James Corden) is her best man and an aging (?) actor desperate to be taken seriously. Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells) can’t get out of the shadow of his tacky sitcom past, and Angie Dickinson (Nicole Kidman) has spent decades in the chorus for Chicago waiting for a chance at Roxie Hart. They’re unemployed, ignored by the masses, and in need of a PR boost. They find it when news breaks of a young gay teen in Indiana whose attempts to attend her high school prom with her girlfriend ended in the bigoted PTA canceling the event altogether. The actors turn activists for their own benefit, but, of course, lessons are learned along the way.
It’s not hard to see what Ryan Murphy saw in this musical. It’s an old-fashioned song and dance show with an inclusive message at its heart and lots of inside baseball jokes about Broadway and the vanity of actors. The songs, by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, are charming and full of one-liners that will raise a chuckle, but they’re staged so lifelessly. Murphy has no idea where to put the camera to best display the choreography (put together by Casey Nicholaw, the stage show’s original director) and spends too much time spinning around actors as if he’s determined to make the cameraman fall down. Colorful lighting cues are meant to fill in for good blocking. It doesn’t help that said songs, as sweet as they are, need the buoyance of a live audience to make the zingers land. For a showrunner who is used to comedy, Murphy has an oddly tin ear for when it comes to making a punchline work. I was reminded of the big-screen adaptation of the musical version of The Producers, which took a hilarious theatrical experience and slapped it into a movie with little understanding for the adaptation process. Musical comedy needs a deft hand and room to breathe, neither of which it gets with The Prom. That’s not to say the songs aren’t still fun. I imagine the Spotify playlists of the soundtrack will be very popular with Murphy’s oddly devoted fandom.
Murphy has always struggled with tone. He loves to be callous and use camp as a cover for his casual misogyny, but he’s also exhaustingly erratic and seems to get bored quickly with his own ideas. Look at every season of American Horror Story and count how many episodes it takes for him to give up on his own conceit. Like the long-running FX anthology series, The Prom is hindered by this inconsistency. The quartet of egocentric losers who try to hijack a vulnerable young woman’s life for their own agenda is just too darn loveable to Murphy. He seems to care way more about them and their cuddly anti-heroism than Emma and her fight against homophobia. The Prom is dependent on nailing the balance between snark and sincerity, mocking the actors while allowing them wriggle room to eat crow and do something good for once in their lives, but Murphy has never been great at walking such a precarious tonal tightrope. If anything, he probably could have stood to be meaner about the main characters, but it’s clear that he likes them more than even the source material does.
These actors are meant to be losers. You’re supposed to be able to scent the desperation and conceit that emanates from their flop-sweat and last season’s shoes. I imagine this worked better on stage when the characters were played by Broadway stalwarts, but here, Murphy’s miscasting sinks the concept from the first song. How do you see Dee Dee as pathetic and past-it when she’s played by Meryl f**king Streep? Angie is meant to be a nondescript chorus girl but she’s Nicole Kidman!? These people are winners and the movie wants you to know that, regardless of what’s coming out of their mouths. At least Andrew Rannells gets to shine as Trent, mostly because he’s Andrew Rannells and he can play roles like this in his sleep, on stage, screen, and even Quibi if he had to.
Debates have swirled for decades over the issues of straight actors playing queer roles. It’s an issue of inclusivity, fairly rebalancing the scales, and the power of representation, particularly when LGBTQ+ people have been stereotyped and demonized by pop culture for so long. I cannot claim to be an expert on this issue, but I will say that watching James Corden play a gay man verged on a hate crime. He is a veritable grab-bag of swishing, camp voice, and limp wrists, as if he learned the role from a 1930s sissy villain. There’s a moment where his character receives a review describing his performance as FDR in an Eleanor Roosevelt musical (yes, really) as ‘the most insultingly misguided, offensive, and laughable performance that this reviewer has ever had the squirming misfortune to endure.’ Can I just steal that quote and leave it here? What else is there to say? It’s a cringe-inducing performance that has the effing audacity to position itself as worthy. Given how much Murphy has done for LGBTQ+ representation in his series, it’s baffling to me that he approved a casting choice seemingly designed to undo so much of said work. Because the film spends so much effing time focused on Corden (who is also too young for the part), we’re forced to endure this caricature and his tawdry attempts to make the audience relate to his struggles with homophobia throughout his life. Truly, listening to Corden mug his way through a supposedly tear-jerking reunion with his estranged mother made me kind of angry. Seriously, Corden, how dare you? Go back to Cats and stay there.
There are effective emotional moments in The Prom, but they mostly happen in spite of Murphy’s ham-fisted direction. He can’t navigate the tonal demands, so he simply slaps some sincere musical cues around here and there to let the audience know when it’s time to be sad. He prioritizes the wrong narrative then tries to have his cake and eat it with some moments of inert emotional vomit. If this is supposed to be a damning indictment of the political phoniness and self-serving interests of the entertainment business, then why does Murphy adore those creeps and do so over the young woman who desperately needs love? It’s self-satisfied and simplistic in the way that Glee was at its worst, a pantomime of mugging and vanity that believes it serves a higher cause.
If you like the sound of the songs, check out the original cast recording, which features singers who can actually belt and land a musical comedy joke. At least its finale offers a moment of true joy for LGBTQ+ teens who may find this story all too relatable, but it’s 2020 and we’ve long outgrown the need for Ryan Murphy’s table crumbs.
The Prom premieres on Netflix on December 11.
Header Image Source: Netflix