Let’s be honest the year 2020 has been chock full of bad news and negativity. The Coronavirus has impacted millions of people across the globe. Broadway was forced to shut down while movie theaters worldwide have been opening and shutting down at a moment’s notice. In troubled times like these, movies help distract many of us from life’s harsh reality. That’s why The Prom is exactly what I needed in my life.
Over the past 9 months, many of us have revisited our favorite films and tv shows for comfort while streaming services like Netflix and Hulu have given us a healthy dose of new content that has kept us entertained. Going to the movies or seeing a Broadway show has always been my go-to whenever I needed to escape from reality. Sadly, I haven’t been able to do either one. Luckily, I can still watch movies at home, and even though the experience is not the same, there is absolutely nothing that can replace live theater. That is an experience that cannot be replicated even though there have been several memorable stage to screen adaptations throughout cinema’s history.
Recently, screen adaptations of Broadway musicals have become so popular amongst moviegoing audiences that studios have started to release at least one new movie musical each year. Unfortunately, not all stage adaptations translate well to the big screen. We all know what happened when Universal released Cats last December…but I digress. In my eyes, the last great musical adaptation is a toss-up between Hairspray and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, both of which were released in 2007. I did like 2008’s Mamma Mia, but it wasn’t a great adaptation, especially compared to the two previously mentioned films. So, again, this is why I am beyond excited to report that The Prom is the best stage to screen musical adaptation in well over a decade.
For those who are not familiar with The Prom, the film is based on a Broadway show. It played at the Longacre Theatre in New York City from October 2018 to August 2019. It was not a hit by any means, but it was a huge crowd-pleaser that audiences loved. The film’s plot is pretty much identical to the show, and like most Broadway musicals, it is pretty straight forward. The Prom is centered around a group of Broadway actors, who, after the critics slaughter their new Broadway show, decide they need to do something to boost their reputations. They end up turning to Twitter, where they discover a news story about a girl named Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman), who has been banned from attending prom because she is a lesbian. The actors immediately agree to help Emma, hoping for it to be a quick and easy way to improve their public image, but little do they know that they are in way over their heads.
As someone lucky enough to see The Prom on Broadway, I was pleasantly surprised to see how loyal this film adaptation is to the show. Some additional scenes give Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and Barry Glickman (James Corden) a more well-rounded backstory, but I think these minor additions work in the film’s favor. It should also be noted that a lot of the people who worked on the Broadway show came on-board to help with the film, including writers Chad Beguelin, Bob Martin, and Jack Viertel. These writers treated this project like it was their baby, and it shows consistently throughout.
Director Ryan Murphy is clearly a big fan of musicals, and with The Prom, he is finally able to go big. The song and dance numbers are very much what one would expect to see on-stage. They are big set pieces, and the dance numbers are awe-inspiring. My favorites amongst the musical numbers are “Tonight Belongs to You” and “It’s Time to Dance.” That being said, I also loved the simplicity and emotional effectiveness of the “Unruly Heart” scene. I’ve watched the film twice already, and I teared up both times during that song.
We all know that Meryl Streep is a legend. There is no denying that. However, this film allows her to deliver her most endearing performance since Julie & Julia. And considering her status as an iconic actress in Hollywood, it is so much fun getting to see her play a character like Dee Dee, where she can poke fun at what it is like to be a celebrity. Streep looks like she is having a blast, just like she did in Mamma Mia.
As for James Corden, I don’t think he has ever been better. His portrayal of Barry Glickman pretty much plays as a homage to Brooks Ashmanskas’ performance from the original production. I also found that the additional scenes created for his character helped strengthen his character arc. As a viewer, you got to learn a bit more about his upbringing and why he becomes so invested in making sure that Emma gets the prom that she so rightfully deserves.
Acting alongside Streep and Corden is a great supporting cast that includes Keegan Michael Key, Kerry Washington, Nicole Kidman, and Andrew Rannells. All of these actors bring their A-game and have their moment in the spotlight. While most reading this review will be fairly familiar with these actors, I think the biggest surprise out of all of them is Keegan Michael Key. I didn’t know that he had such a great singing voice, but I want to see him in more musicals between Jingle Jangle and now this film. Most of Key’s screen time is with the powerhouse known as Meryl Streep, but he makes it look easy. They have wonderful chemistry together, and their relationship is adorable and charming. It is very much what one would picture when it comes to a Hollywood romance, although this time around, it’s an interracial couple, which makes it feel that much more refreshing.
I would certainly be remiss if I did not mention newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman who absolutely steals every scene that she is in. While Pellman is new to the world of film, she has a theater background, which is shown whenever she begins to sing. I can see her becoming a huge star after this film. Her voice is incredible, and she has such a likable on-screen presence where you can’t help but fall in love with her character from the very first moment that she shows up on-screen. The Prom also features another newcomer Ariana DeBose who plays Emma’s girlfriend, Alyssa Green. Like Pellman, DeBose has a bright future ahead of her. Her voice is stunning and considering that she has already been cast to play Anita in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story next year, I think DeBose is a name that you will hear a lot more of in the months ahead.
While I truly loved almost everything about this film, I do have one minor complaint, and that is the film’s runtime. I realize this criticism may upset some, who also adore the Broadway show, but I think the film would have benefited from a little bit of a trim. Without going into too much detail since I know not too many people have seen it, it plays very much like a two-act show. When the first act comes to a close, there is typically a 15-minute intermission before the second act kicks in. This is not always the case, but typically, whenever the second act of a live show begins, there is a bit of a lull that lasts for about 10-15 minutes. This lull is very apparent in the film, especially upon repeat viewings. It’s not the worst thing in the world, but it definitely impacts the film’s pacing. Even the two musical numbers that occur in this period feel less lively than the others. I get why they are there because they do advance the story, but they could have been handled better or cut completely for a film adaptation.
There have been several great films released in 2020, but I don’t know if there has been any other film this year that has made me feel as happy and hopeful as The Prom. This is a feel great musical extravaganza that is exactly what the world needs in 2020. It is a wholly entertaining and hilarious musical about acceptance and inclusion. A film that celebrates being alive and being proud of who you are. It is perfectly cast with terrific performances across the board. The Prom is without question one of the best films 2020 has to offer. I loved it.