Friday, December 4, 2020

Reverend's Preview: Everyone Should Go to This Prom


Guys, rent your tux. Ladies, buy your dress. Or vice versa! The Prom is coming to Netflix this month, and everyone is invited!

This inclusive, visually dazzling adaptation of the Tony-nominated Broadway musical will debut on the streamer December 11th. Reverend was given a sneak peek of the movie last month as well as an opportunity to confer online with its director and all-star cast, headed by the divine Meryl Streep. I also spoke virtually with the show's three talented writers.

The Prom was inspired by real-life cases of LGBTQ high school students who were forbidden to bring same-sex dates to their senior prom by school officials. It deals seriously with this situation while weaving in a more satirical tale about struggling Broadway performers who are in need of a boost to their public image.

Indiana high schooler Emma Nolan (a terrific performance by newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman) is heartbroken to learn that, despite the support of her principal, the PTA has banned her from attending the prom with her girlfriend Alyssa (stage actress Ariana DeBose, making an impressive film debut). Meanwhile, Dee Dee Allen (three-time Academy Award winner Streep) and Barry Glickman (talk show host and Tony Award winner James Corden) are New York City stage stars with a crisis on their hands: their expensive new Broadway show based on the lives of Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt is a major flop that has suddenly flatlined their careers.

When they learn of Emma's predicament via Twitter, Dee Dee and Barry decide that it will provide the perfect cause to help resurrect their public images. They hit the road to Indiana on a Godspell tour bus with Angie (Academy Award winner Nicole Kidman) and Trent (out Tony nominee Andrew Rannells), another pair of cynical actors looking for a professional lift. When their self-absorbed celebrity activism unexpectedly backfires, the foursome finds their own lives upended as they rally to give Emma a night where she can truly celebrate who she is.

The movie was produced and directed by Ryan Murphy, the impresario behind such hit TV series as Glee, Nip/Tuck, Pose and American Horror Story. He saw the Broadway production in January of 2019 and immediately decided he wanted to adapt it for the screen. As Murphy recounted: "There were two things I took away (from the show). First of all, I had a great time... I thought it was funny and stylish and it felt like a relief in the middle of a very dark time in our country. I also loved that when I looked around, there were families there. There were parents with their kids. There were gay people there. There were straight women there who had come in groups. It played for everybody. I just loved that people were laughing and crying. There was a great humanity and spirit to it."

But there was also a more personal aspect to The Prom for Murphy. "The girl who was denied going to the prom because of her sexuality was from Indiana. Which is something that happened to me, and I'm from Indiana," the filmmaker reflected. "I remember walking out of (the show) thinking, 'Wow, I wish there had been something like this for me to see or watch with my parents when I was younger.' But there wasn't. So, I thought, 'Well, then maybe I should make it.' So that's what I did."

He quickly went on to assemble an impressive cast for his adaptation. "I've never done this before, but on the plane ride back to LA I wrote out a list of who I've always wanted to work with, who's on my bucket list," Murphy said. "Number one on everyone's bucket list is Meryl Streep, who I knew a little bit socially but I was always so shy around her. And then James Corden, and Nicole Kidman, and Kerry Washington, and Keegan-Michael Key." Rannells previously worked with Murphy on the TV series The New Normal as well as Netflix's recent remake of The Boys in the Band, which Murphy produced. Washington plays against type as the antagonistic head of the school's PTA, while Key portrays not only Emma's empathetic principal but Dee Dee's unexpected love interest.

The writers of the stage and now screen musical drew from a true story. In 2010, Constance McMillen was a senior at Itawamba Agricultural High School in Fulton, Mississippi. She had plans to bring her girlfriend to their senior prom and wear a tuxedo, and in response, was banned from attending by the school board. McMillen challenged the board's decision. In response, the board decided to entirely cancel that year's senior prom. McMillen and the ACLU sued her school district and a federal court found the Itawamba School District guilty of violating McMillen's First Amendment rights. However, the judge did not force the school district to re-instate the prom. Multiple celebrities including Green Day, Cat Cora and Lance Bass rallied together via social media to show their support for McMillen and agreed to help sponsor a Second-Chance prom, which McMillen and her girlfriend could attend without homophobic backlash.

Matthew Sklar, co-writer and composer of The Prom, shared some background into the production's history. "A producer by the name of Jack Viertel had this crazy idea," Sklar explained. "He was reading the newspaper in 2010 and there were some stories about kids not being able to take their same-sex partners to prom. As a theatre person he felt outrage and thought, 'Maybe we can get a bunch of people to go down and help them.' Then he realized, 'That's a terrible idea but that's a funny idea."

Viertel was working at the time with director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw and had just seen something that Sklar had written with his Prom collaborators Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin. "We started meeting and the outline came pretty quick, but then it took a long time to get on stage," recalled Sklar. It finally opened on Broadway in 2018, where it was met with critical acclaim and was nominated for six Tony Awards including Best Musical. It won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical that year.

Nicholaw remained involved in the film version as choreographer, and he retained many of the stage production's high-energy dance numbers. Meryl Streep shared that this was her favorite aspect of making The Prom as well as the previous movie musicals she has headlined, Mamma Mia! and Into the Woods. "When you're dancing," Streep said, "the lid comes off the pressure of your life." She is predictably spectacular as the narcissistic Dee Dee, with Corden giving his best musical performance to date as her equally vain partner in crime, Barry. I envision award nominations for both of them.

I asked the writers if their Broadway characters were inspired by or modeled on any real-life performers. "Yes, yes, yes," all three answered in quick succession. "We won't name any names but it was very funny because at one point early on we were like, 'Do we just cast these people?,' said Beguelin. And then we were like, 'Oh God, no, the reason they're so funny is because they're so difficult!" According to Martin, "We actually used their names in early drafts, which nobody will ever see (laughter from all)."

During an ordinary year, one would only be able to watch such a star-studded affair as The Prom in a movie theater for its first few months. Unfortunately, many movie theaters are still closed due to COVID-19. In fact, the pandemic impacted this film just when production was nearly finished.

"The hardest scene to shoot was the big dance number at the end," said producer-director Murphy. "We shot 500 people dancing and then, a week after that, we were shut down for COVID. We had three days left to shoot and they were important scenes. We went into quarantine for two months, but we thought it was important for the movie to come out for the holidays. So, we worked with a group of epidemiologists and we came up with a back-to-shooting production plan. They helped us come up with the protocols to finish The Prom. All of these things were incredibly difficult but joyful, and it was a showbiz tale. It reminded me of old classic musicals like Singin’ in the Rain, where part of that DNA of those musicals is to roll up your sleeves, figure it out, and put on a show."

The timing and global availability of Murphy's film adaptation on Netflix is actually proving to be most auspicious. At the end of a grueling year featuring a death-dealing virus, a toxic political climate in the US and economies in shambles around the world, The Prom offers both sustenance and escapism. As Nicole Kidman's Fosse-loving Angie sings encouragingly to young Emma in the film, "You've gotta give it some zazz!" The Prom delivers zazz in spades and proves we do indeed need it! Sklar and Beguelin's score also features the timely religious anthem "Love Thy Neighbor," which is energetically performed by Rannells in the middle of a shopping mall.

Another journalist participating in last month's press conference with the film's cast asked, "Can art spark cultural change?" While all agreed it can, Emmy award winner Kerry Washington gave perhaps the most thoughtful answer: "I think so. I was discussing this recently with some of my friends. There's all this talk about how our culture needs healing right now. I think the best way we do that is in the dark and in the theater, whether we're watching a play or a movie. That's where we get in touch with our heart and our humanity."

The screenplay also makes mention more than once of the importance of arts education in public schools. Historically, the arts have usually been the first programs to be cut when there isn't enough money in a school's budget. Without drama programs, in particular, students lose the opportunity to grow in empathy that is naturally gained while walking in another character's/person's shoes.

Clearly, the time is right for a movie like The Prom, and Murphy's sensitive yet frequently hilarious production is pitch perfect. As the director noted: "Everyone knows what the prom is or has their own version of it, but not everyone is allowed to go and to express themselves freely. Through this film, I hope they have that experience of being a part of something and feeling a part of a community. It's something I didn’t have growing up, and it's something we were very conscious of when we were making it. I'm excited that it's going to be released at the same time all over the world. It's almost like everybody's going to the dance together all over the world. A worldwide celebration of an idea and a hope of a different kind of world."

Reverend's Rating: A-

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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