Kel Tells: Ryan Murphy's The Prom
Kel Tells is a series reminiscent of the pre-rebrand life of the blog. Triggered by the infamous and downright scathingly mean-spirited New York Times review of King Kong from back in 2018, I decided to launch this series on the blog where I give my honest thoughts about each Broadway production - rooted in a place of love for the theatre - a perspective that, ironically, often feels entirely absent from many of these critical analyses.
I only was able to complete two of these types of posts (for Choir Boy and True West) before I was then hired to work at a Broadway ad agency. Because I'd be working so closely to the shows I was assigned to, I decided that it would be a conflict of interest to continue posting that type of content. But NOW Broadway is on pause, I no longer have a job, and dammit I'm going to write my feelings about this new piece of content that's the cherry on top of the absolute shit sundae that 2020 has been.
I think we were all pretty starved for something new and zazzy (wink wink), and Ryan Murphy's movie musical The Prom (based on the Broadway show of the same name) was exactly what was needed to quench the thirst of creatively-parched artists and patrons everywhere. It was a celebration, a spectacle, and (in my humble opinion) wonderfully executed. Viewers around the world voiced their praise of the movie (accessible via Netflix) but often with the "there are certainly issues," or "no movie musical is perfect" contention noted therein. It's this annoyingly insatiable quality that makes us theatre people kind of the worst. But what are you gonna do? That's showbiz, baby!
I am a firm believer that if you're going to launch a creative entity, you'd better do it right, and you'd better do it full-out - both concepts I feel were undeniably accomplished in this movie adaptation. The approximately $300 million endeavor (placing it among the top ten most expensive movies of all time) flexes its budget at every turn, from gorgeous costumes to dynamic cinematography, and fully fleshed-out settings, even for scenes that only lasted a moment (like the below shot -, the first spanning exactly 6 seconds as Meryl Streep sings the final note of "It's Not About Me," and the second capturing two monster truck stunts spanning exactly 5 seconds).
Among the other financial flexes of the film is the lighting, which often reflects the color palate of the key art with blues, greens, pinks, and purples - an artistic detail that I LOVE and am obsessed with.
There's no arguing that the production quality is top-notch, but the biggest divisive issue of the movie comes down to the casting. Let's. Talk. About. It.
When rumors began circulating that The Prom would be made into a movie, my initial assumption was that it would be professionally filmed in its stage form and released in theaters (similar to Hamilton, which became available on Disney+ this past summer, or Newsies, which premiered in theaters for a limited engagement), but that assumption was quickly debunked when casting was announced - retaining not a single member of the original Broadway company. Our core four "liberals from Broadway" (as they describe themselves), originally played by Beth Leavel (Dee Dee Allen), Brooks Ashmanskas (Barry Glickman), Christopher Sieber (Trent Oliver), and Angie Schworer (Angie Dickinson) on Broadway would now be embodied by Meryl Streep, James Corden, Andrew Rannells, and Nicole Kidman, respectively.
This sparked outrage among fans of the Broadway show, upset at the decades-long political act of casting directors prioritizing star-power over talent (or even dues paid), which feels especially unfair to individuals who have pioneered the development of these characters in question. Though this is a valid basis for malcontent, there is much, much more to the story, which seems to involve hands being tied even among the greatest power-wielding individuals. To quote theatre historian, producer, and author, Jennifer Tepper's tweet from the other night, "social media *group think* tends to blame the most accessible 'powers' on a show for things that are actually totally out of their control and in fact, probably frustrate THEM too." To be honest, I was actually totally open to the idea of new actors inhabiting these roles. I loved the Broadway cast, and I was ready to love this movie cast as well.
And that I did! Meryl Streep's Dee Dee Allen hit each and every comedic idiosyncrasy whilst also inviting us into some truly beautiful moments of vulnerability that took us on the full journey of her character: from washed-up Broadway star all the way to reformed narcissist. Nicole Kidman fit the archetype of the borderline-alcoholic Fosse chorus girl and brought a special, maternal quality, especially apparent in the scenes she shared with Jo Ellen Pellmen (who plays Emma), which was really lovely. Andrew Rannells as former-child-tv-star and Julliard-grad-who-won't-shut-up-about-it Trent Oliver was funny and charming. His big number "Love Thy Neighbor" which he does at the mall with all the high school students felt particularly reminiscent of his Book of Mormon days, and when he sang IN the fountain, I lost my mind. Kerry Washington played an icy yet human Mrs. Greene, rooted in authentic concern for her daughter rather than sheer apathy or abasement. Jo Ellen Pellman was an earnest and satisfactory Emma Nolan - though at times maybe too open and enthusiastic. Ariana DeBose absolutely shines as Alyssa Greene, closeted daughter of Mrs. Greene and secret girlfriend to Emma - showcasing the internalized fear and pressure that this character has shouldered on behalf of her mother and the community for her entire life.
And then there's James Corden...
Ah yes, James. The most centrally divisive figure. Many people have had many things to say about James Corden. And I suppose I'll throw my bedazzled hat into the ring as well.
James Corden's embodiment of Barry Glickman is a cliche caricature of a gay American man, from effeminate gesticulations right down to dentalized esses. Some argue that it's merely acting - that he's fulfilling the assignment of the character description. That may be true, but even still...why does it feel so disconcerting to watch?
The thing James Corden has that is dissimilar to his other cast-mates is his claim to fame. Though his roots do in fact lie in theatre and television, he's become a household name for his personality as a talk-show host/comedian more than anything else. When we think of James Corden, we don't think of his movie roles or Broadway appearances, we think of him in a car singing with celebrities. There's something about him being famous for being himself that makes it very difficult to suspend our disbelief as audience members when he's playing a character. We don't see Barry Glickman, we just see James Corden impersonating a gay man. And it feels a little icky.
First impressions are everything, and had his opening scene not been SO hyperbolic, perhaps he would have been more lovable. I do think that as he mellowed out throughout the movie, I warmed up to his character. I LOVE that he got to dance with his younger self in "Barry is Going to Prom" - though that's likely less in thanks to James and more to Ryan Murphy (Director & Producer).
Every single other performer brought something to their character that felt wholly satisfying - I didn't yearn for anything more. Barry Glickman's character was the only one I found myself aching for it's former inhabitant. One thing's universal...that shoulda been Brooks.
Among other additions to The Prom movie were a couple new scenes and a new song (wherein THE Meryl Streep raps). The eight-page scene between Dee Dee and Barry which takes place in their hotel room gave us a lot of context into their mutual dejection - Dee Dee's in reference to her divorce from her cheating, gold-digging ex-husband, and Barry's from his parents' unwillingness to accept him when he came out to them as a teenager. I really enjoyed this scene and felt it gave both actors a beautiful landscape on which to demonstrate the full range of their acting chops that might otherwise not have gotten the chance to be conveyed (yes, even you, James).
The other new scene - one that showcases a heavy-handed reconciliation between Barry and his mother - was less welcomed by me. I'm not sure if it was my subconscious resistance to the emotional undoing I was sure to experience, or if I found the scene just a little TOO on-the-nose. In certain ways, I suppose it was necessary to complete his character arc, but in other ways, I kind of admire the lack of a perfectly-finished storyline. Something about the ambiguity of the latter feels much more based in reality.
One little nugget that I mentally skated right over during the Broadway run was the song "We Look to You." Against the backdrop of our ghostlit 2020 however, the song, sung with poignant sincerity by Keegan Michael Key made me sentimental about our adored artform that feels suspended in time right now. Specifically the lyrics "The curtain goes up / and every now and then / it feels as if we're coming home again." O U C H.
This movie begins with an opening night cast party at Sardi's, where audience attendees and industry professionals alike gather to celebrate the opening of Eleanor - a fictional musical about Eleanor Roosevelt that debuts within the movie. Everyone is adorned in sequins and colorful tuxedos, and quickly huddles around their phones when it's announced that the New York Times review has come out. A hush falls over the crowd as everyone scans the critic's words, and then one by one they all trail off and depart the venue. "This is not a review you want when you have crappy advance sales..." says their publicist, Sheldon (played by Broadway veteran, Kevin Chamberlin), "This is gonna close us!"
This all-too familiar scenario occurs all-too frequently in our industry: this sort of sink or swim verdict hinged on the subjective creative palate of one individual from one publication. When Broadway does return, I do hope that we'll lessen the emphasis reviews have as an indicator of a show's health or lack thereof. Critical analyses are not the gatekeepers of inspiration or connection for the general public. Some of the very shows that prompted me to pursue theatre professionally were dubbed absolute flops. It's all relative and it always will be (but they'll never print that).
As for The Prom? All in all, I feel it was a resounding success! I laughed out loud, I cried a lot, I yelled at the tv, I kicked my leg at one point. It was great. But don't take my word for it, stream it and form your own unabashed opinion, for better or worse. Unruly heart and all.