Among the shiny, bouncy, madly infectious musical numbers that are a big part of what make Ryan Murphy’s “The Prom” such an old-fashioned newfangled blast, one of the show-stopping highlights is “Love Thy Neighbor,” which Trent (Andrew Rannells), a struggling Broadway drama queen who has landed on the distant planet known as small-town Indiana, sings to a bunch of clean-cut and pious Middle American teenagers from James Madison High School. They’re at a shopping-mall food court, where one of the students tells Trent, “We don’t have a drama program,” causing Trent to snap, “That explains your general lack of empathy.”
He’s not kidding. The kids are united in having banned Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman), their fellow senior, from taking her girlfriend, Alyssa (Ariana DeBose), to the prom; he’s about to give them a supremely catchy lesson in tolerance. The students insist that they’re good, nice Christian kids who all go to church. But Trent points out that there are a ton of rules they fracture every day — that they’re cherry-picking the Bible. As he breaks into song, he amusingly ticks off the transgressions that none of them think twice about living with: tattoos, lost virginity, masturbation, divorce. Then he gets to the heart of the matter: “There’s no way to separate,/Which rules you can violate…Love thy neighbor trumps them all!” The number, which is like something out of “The Book of Mormon” crossed with “High School Musical,” puts its message across with a no-fuss crispness, as Trent and the kids sing and dance and flip the light fantastic.
In other words: message received. By the characters and the audience. It sounds conventional enough, yet as the rhythm escalates and the dancing peaks, there’s something about the funny crazy snap of it all, the way the song turns into a shopping-mall gospel revival merged with a romping chorus line that evokes the bounding athletic spirit of Gene Kelly, that makes the message…well, sing. Yes! Love thy neighbor. That’s a thought from a long time ago that America needs to hear again, and “The Prom” is an effusive, fast-gliding, purple-spangled delivery system for it. The movie has a universalist spirit that’s wired into its very form. It turns doing the right thing into a fizzy and elating high-camp showbiz high.
As a stage musical, “The Prom,” written by Bob Martin and Chad Beguilin, with songs by Beguilin and Matthew Sklar, premiered on Broadway in October 2018, where it ran for just under a year. I never got to see it, so I went into the film version cold, but of course I’ve seen “Glee,” the TV musical series that elevated Ryan Murphy into an uber-brand, and this movie draws on the best impulses of that show — the giddy youthquake spontaneity of it — which it combines with something I’d characterize as a kind of cathartic squareness. In the last 50 years, you could say that musical theater itself came out of the closet, as any number of writers and composers who would once have had to restrict themselves to telling stories in a “straight” context no longer needed to do that. “The Prom” is a shining example. It’s a musical that tells a story of what intolerance does — the way it torments and crushes individuals, in this case forcing a gay teenager to hide her love away.
Yet if “The Prom” is a proudly liberated musical, it’s also one that’s so defiantly square, with a vibe that reaches back to the incandescently wholesome musicals of the studio system, that it all but reconfigures the meaning of mainstream. I greatly enjoyed the insider theatrical knowingness, the tossed-off PG-13 entertainment and fashion barbs, but in a weird way it’s the inner squareness of “The Prom” — the fact that this is now a mainstream event — that’s the most adventurous thing about it. There are moments when the film seems to have reinvented classic Hollywood for the 21st century.
The opening number is a snazzy fake-out. We’re on the street outside a Times Square theater, where Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep), a fabled high-maintenance, edging-past-her-prime grand dame of Broadway, and Barry Glickman (James Corden), her co-star in a new musical entitled “Eleanor!” (the two play Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt), are celebrating the fact that they got through opening night, and they think they have a hit. The number, “Changing Lives,” seems to be an ironic toast to Broadway at its most over-the-top: a celebration of this totally wretched idea for a musical, deliriously miscast, served up with shameless glitzy “showmanship.” But then the cast and crew head over to Sardi’s, where they read the review in The New York Times, which skewers the show for being every one of those things. It even accuses the actors of “narcissism.” This is a pretty sly joke, because it lets the audience know that the drop-dead diva attitude and flamboyant theater-bug bitchery we’re about to witness in “The Prom” are, in their way, ridiculous. It’s okay for us to giggle not just with it but at it.
With their careers in tatters, Dee Dee and Barry, scooping up Trent the actor-slash-bartender and Angie (Nicole Kidman) the lifelong chorus girl and wannabe leading lady, decide to pool their resources and rescue their falling stars by hitching themselves to a social cause. Rejecting world hunger as too big, they fasten onto the case of Emma, who has made the national news. It seems that her desire to take her date to prom and simply be the person she is has caused a major kerfuffle, resulting in the PTA, led by the scolding puritan Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington), canceling the prom. Dee Dee and her crew will go to Indiana to set things right!
It’s a knowingly absurd fish-out-of-water premise, complete with Dee Dee and Barry planting their theater-award trophies in front of a motel desk clerk to get themselves a suite or (in Barry’s case) a “cabin,” which the motel doesn’t begin to have. These neurotically pampered urbanites have arrived in a small town where the fanciest restaurant is Applebee’s. What’s more, they don’t give a flying fig about the cause they’re supposedly there for! It’s all just a publicity stunt — which sounds like an idea Preston Sturges would have come up with for the age of Instagram. The reason it works is that the creators of “The Prom,” going back to what John Waters brought off in the original film of “Hairspray” (1988), have concocted a liberal message movie that scathingly satirizes liberal message movies. “The Prom” is a musical that has its Hollywood nobility and eats it, too, and has its high camp and eats it, too. That makes for one silly but zesty-tasting dessert.
After Dee Dee and her crew march into a school meeting, Dee Dee commandeers the action by singing “It’s Not About Me,” a song so luscious in its self-delusion that it could be the anthem of social-justice warriors. Streep delivers it with an operatic aplomb that leaves you giggling with joy. The actress has long been celebrated for her classy warbling in the “Mamma Mia!” films, but as much as I revere “Mamma Mia!” as a stage musical, Streep’s character, as written, was never all that much. Dee Dee, with her drop-dead vanity and all-the-world’s-a-stage life force, is the kind of imperious high priestess of illusion Streep can sink her teeth into, and she does. Especially when Tom Hawke (Keegan-Michael Key), the handsome high school principal, turns out to be a major fan of hers. Streep’s Dee Dee is as hooked on being admired as Blanche DuBois, but with a brassy awareness of her own shelf life. She’s the spirit of theatrical celebrity incarnate.
There’s no denying that “The Prom,” like “Glee” and the “High School Musical” films, is on some level a knowingly assembled package of shiny happy film-musical clichés. Yet Murphy, working with the cinematographer Matthew Libatíque, gives the movie an intoxicating visual sweep, and there’s a beguiling wit to the dialogue. “I had to declare bankruptcy after my self-produced ‘Notes on a Scandal,’” says Corden’s sad-sack Barry, and in 12 words we glimpse the life of an actor and his failed dream.
Corden may be criticized in some quarters for portraying Barry as a gay stereotype, but like Christopher Guest in “Waiting for Guffman” he burrows so deeply into the character’s quibbling insouciance that he gives him a three-dimensional essence. He’s soulfully funny and touching. Streep is sensational, and Key brings a disarming sincerity to his role as a lonely secondary-school lifer who, when Dee Dee’s around, seems to be waking up from a dream. He takes her out to Applebee’s and sings a song, “We Look to You,” about being a Broadway fan that is so ingenuous it’s almost shocking. Nicole Kidman, all self-effacing warmth, gets one big number, the Fosse-esque “Zazz,” and while she does it charmingly, it’s a little cringe-y, at least for me, to see Bob Fosse turned into a brand/meme/signifier.
“The Prom” is very much a movie about the “two Americas,” and part of its luster is that it portrays the conservative Midwestern one with dignity, even as it attacks the impulses of bigotry. Regarding the issue of intolerance, the film gives no quarter, but it does separate the sinner from the sin. Jo Ellen Pellman, who sings in a lilting soprano, endows Emma with a tremulous radiance, a desire to be herself that’s defiantly unpolitical, and in a funny way it makes the movie unpolitical. She and Alyssa, who is Mrs. Greene’s daughter, aren’t “fighting for the right” to attend a high-school dance. The movie takes that right for granted. They’re fighting for the right to love and be loved like anyone else. The timing of “The Prom” feels karmically right, because it’s about the two Americas coming together. Whatever the film’s fate — just another movie on Netflix? Or Oscar contender? (I’d believe either one) — that’s a story worth telling, and one that we need to hear.