By Moira Armstrong
This review includes spoilers and is best read after viewing The Prom on Netflix.
On December 11, The Prom dropped on Netflix: the story of Emma Nolan, a lesbian in Indiana who wants to bring her girlfriend to her high school prom. However, the homophobic head of her school’s PTA, Mrs. Greene, cancels the event entirely in retaliation, and a group of Broadway actors come to help her in an attempt to challenge their narcissistic image in the press. These include the stars of a failed Eleanor Roosevelt bio-musical Dee Dee Allen and Barry Glickman, down-on-his-luck Juilliard graduate Trent Oliver, and Angie Dickinson, who has just quit her job in Chicago because she’s tired of being in the chorus. They storm into a PTA meeting and then perform at a monster truck rally to encourage acceptance, sending the town into even more panic–including Emma’s girlfriend, Alyssa Greene, who is closeted. However, the Indiana Supreme Court tells the school that they must hold an inclusive prom, and the group celebrates, including Dee Dee and Tom, who bond over dinner.
Emma and the other kids in town prepare for prom; however, when she arrives with her Broadway escorts, she learns that the PTA has planned a separate, bare-bones prom for her while throwing their own prom at the town’s Elks Club. This causes conflict between Emma and Alyssa–Emma does not believe that Alyssa didn’t know about the second prom, and becomes even angrier when Alyssa refuses to come out to her mother and join Emma. The actors also accidentally reveal that they came to Indiana for publicity, creating a rift between Tom and Dee Dee.
Each character tries a different tactic to repair the situation: Angie convinces Emma to tell her story to the world, Dee Dee apologizes to Tom, and Trent convinces the other students that being queer is not sinful. In the end, Alyssa comes out to her mother, and the actors throw an inclusive prom in a glitzy, feel-good ending.
The movie is based on the musical of the same name, which premiered in Atlanta in 2016 and ran on Broadway from October 2018 to August 2019. A national tour was scheduled for February 2021, launching from Providence, Rhode Island; considering the cancellation of theatre until at least May, movie musicals like this could be a welcome substitution, easier to produce and consume safely in the time of COVID-19. However, The Prom falls horrifically short, managing to be both a poor standalone movie and a poor adaptation.
The movie has allowed for some truly enjoyable additions, such as the brief clip from Trent’s sitcom “Talk to the Hand” and a flashback to young Barry standing outside of his prom. However, the cast’s singing voices are so smoothed out in editing that they lose emotion, the lighting choices are bizarre, and the camera cuts from shot to shot abruptly, creating disjointedness and often restricting the view of choreography (particularly noticeable in Zazz). Several songs are unfortunately cut short, including the campy, funny Acceptance Song, a highlight of the stage show. A few new quips are funny, like Tom’s comment about how his passion for Broadway and secondary school administration will never get him a date, but all the politically sharp comments about Trump and Fox News are gone, and many of the jokes that did survive don’t land.
The film also failed to cast the actors for whom the roles were originally written: Angie Schworer as Angie, Christopher Seiber as Trent, and Brooks Ashmanskas as Barry. Instead, we have Nicole Kidman, who talks about the lack of attention granted to chorus girls without a hint of irony; Andrew Rannells, who manages to make the campy, hilarious Trent Oliver flat and bland; and James Corden, who provides nothing more than an offensive caricature of queerness while openly gay three-time Tony nominee Kevin Chamberlin’s immense talent is wasted on a small supporting role as the main crew’s publicist. The slurs, thankfully, have been removed, but the lines “I’m as gay as a bucket of wigs. A bucket of ’em!” and “who cares if you’re a big ol’ girl?” were still off-putting coming out of Corden’s mouth.
Meryl Streep, though not Beth Leavel, does give a strong performance as Dee Dee Allen–her scenes and musical numbers were some of the highlights. Alyssa Greene and her mother, played by Ariana DeBose and Kerry Washington respectively, are also not bad, though like the majority of this movie, lack depth and emotion, which abounded with the original cast of Izzy McCalla and Courtenay Collins. Keegan Michael Key as Tom, however, seems far too young to fall in love with Dee Dee, and he lacks the warm fatherly energy provided by Broadway’s Michael Potts. And Jo Ellen Pellman as Emma, who has been completely thin-washed and femme-washed, and never stops smiling. Sadly, she’s a far cry from the complex Emma of Broadway’s Caitlin Kinnunen.
And then there are the plot-level changes. The change to the screen inherently messes with several of these elements; for example, the group is shown entering the prom from the obviously-empty parking lot, ruining the twist, and the song Build a Prom is not sung while the cast is doing so, making it seem out-of-place. However, these are nitpicky compared to the real issues: the setting, the focus on the adults, and the redemption arcs.
The Prom is supposed to be set in a small town; in the musical, Tom says that Edgewater has had a rough year because their car parts factory closed down, so lots of families had to leave town and jobs are hard to come by. The set reflects this, from the 24 Mart where the kids hang out and the rundown motel where the actors stay to Emma’s realistically small and simple school and bedroom. However, those lines are cut from the movie, perhaps in an attempt to justify the setting, which can only be described as gentrified. The kids now hang out at a massive mall with escalators, expensive stores, and a fountain, even though originally when Barry wants to take Emma shopping for a prom dress, she proposes K-Mart. The motel has a chandelier and a wishing well, the school has a swimming pool, auditorium, and massive principal’s office, and Emma’s bedroom is bigger than an ordinary living room. Small towns with closed parts factories don’t look like that, which leads me to assume, as a viewer, that’s not the canonical background of this town anymore.
That leads to another problem. The story of The Prom wouldn’t happen in the movie’s version of Edgewater. Yes, there’s homophobia everywhere, but the musical version has an explicit, realistic reason that it’s so defensive and hateful towards outsiders, change, and anyone or anything different: those things stole the core of their town, so this is how they act the next time they’re confronted with them. The musical establishes that through both the dialogue and the set, but that’s stripped away in the movie, which strips away the realism.
Additionally, the claims that Edgewater is homophobic doesn’t ring true in the actions of the characters. In Dance With You, Emma and Alyssa hold hands, twirl, and almost kiss in public, the latter in a parking lot where Alyssa’s mother drives up seconds later. This happens again in You Happened. With this kind of open affection, they’re not acting like a closeted lesbian and a targeted one in a homophobic small town, demonstrating once again that this movie doesn’t actually understand small towns.
It also gives both Dee Dee and Barry new, explicitly Midwestern small-town backgrounds, not a problem in and of itself if the rest of the story had been adjusted accordingly. After all, Trent has always, in the introduction to Love Thy Neighbor, told the kids of Edgewater that he is also from a small town. However, while Trent is believable–he works as a waiter in between gigs, he remembers the Bible well enough to challenge homophobia with textual support–Dee Dee and Barry are still portrayed as completely out-of-touch with the part of America that they’re supposedly from. If they had really grown up in small towns, Dee Dee would know what an Applebee’s was. Barry wouldn’t expect Emma’s town to have a Saks. In Changing Lives (Reprise), they wouldn’t sing about ill-informed stereotypes, and they wouldn’t try to explain to Emma what Häagen-Dazs ice cream is just before Zazz. And most importantly, a group of former small-town kids never would’ve stormed into a small town to try and make things better; they’d understand that would make things worse because small towns are so averse to strangers.
This is one of several clear attempts to make the audience feel sympathy toward the adult cast of the show. However, all of these attempts are misguided. Even the stage musical was critiqued for focusing on the adults more than the young lesbians, but the movie takes this to the extreme. Even her coming-out story is told by her grandmother instead of her. We don’t see her go from the miserable girl who didn’t want the help of Broadway actors when they arrived but slowly comes to appreciate and bond with them, becoming happier in the process. There’s almost no chance to watch her grow at all. Instead, we get Dee Dee crying over her ex-husband, who Barry insists that she still has feelings for, and Barry’s reconciliation with his mother. This makes Dee Dee’s pursuit of Tom seem like a rebound instead of a genuine relationship, and establishes a redemption arc for Barry’s mother that no one asked for.
In the musical, while Barry still sings the lines “though it’s been years, I might call my mom” while picking up the landline in his motel room during Barry Is Going To Prom; however this is quickly followed by “and if you’re not happy, I’m over you,” and he then slams down the receiver. It’s symbolic; Barry has moved beyond how his parents hurt him by rejecting him. But in the movie, he makes the phone call. He hangs up and doesn’t actually talk to his mother, which is when Dee Dee intervenes. She calls her for him, and then his mother arrives in Edgewater. At first, it seems like Barry isn’t going to forgive her, but then he caves, admitting that he has missed her.
There are dozens of problematic layers to this plotline. First of all, by this point in the movie, Dee Dee has made her transformation into a better, more caring person, implying that it’s a good thing for an outsider–even a friend–to try and reconcile an estranged family, when that’s no one’s decision but the person themself. Secondly, it reinforces that forgiveness is necessary. Barry’s parents tried to send him to conversion therapy and would’ve kicked him out of the house if he hadn’t left on his own; he’s not obligated to forgive them, but he does. And thirdly, that action–forgiveness–is the antithesis of the musical’s theme: build your own prom, meaning, if you’re not being accepted by the people around you, find the ones who will.
That theme has been trampled on by Barry’s mother’s forgiveness arc, as well as Mrs. Greene’s–despite her characterization throughout the movie as a very private and intensely homophobic person, she publicly accepts Alyssa minutes after she comes out, dances at the inclusive prom, and even hugs Emma. This isn’t even prompted by Barry’s line from the musical “if you don’t accept her now, you’re going to lose her. Trust me. I know what I’m talking about.” That would fall awfully flat with his mother right next to him. Instead, it’s just a completely unrealistic change in heart.
Overall, this movie was extremely disappointing. It felt built for metropolitan, straight audiences, and as a result, it completely lacked its original heart, on top of the poor choices made in terms of direction and technical elements. This is a prom I would recommend skipping–or at least not going back to.