Another Ryan Murphy joint, another shitshow. Netflix’s The Prom, adapted from the Broadway musical of the same name, is the latest outrage from writer-director Ryan Murphy, and Sam Brooks has had enough.
I’ll put this up front: I think Ryan Murphy is one of the worst things to happen to television in the past decade. Time after time, Murphy has run a promising concept into the ground, through lack of vision, depth and follow-through. Even when he does make good work – both seasons of American Crime Story are rightly acclaimed, as is Pose – it has the same grubby affect as the rest of his work. Camp is a safe place for Ryan Murphy, because it means his work is relieved from the burden of being actually good.
It’s this success that has given him scope to adapt not only some of the most salacious stories of our time – the OJ Simpson trial, the Gianni Versace murder and, soon, the Monica Lewinsky scandal – but also some of our most important queer texts. In recent years he’s given us his movie-of-the-week adaptation of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, the definitive literary response to the AIDS crisis, and his Netflix version of The Boys in the Band, the first mainstream play that addressed living as a gay man, way back in the ‘60s. These adaptations are aggressively fine: made with zero style or flair, but dotted with recognisable faces giving colourful performances. They are in no way worthy of their source material, and add absolutely nothing to it. They are pale imitations of titanic works of art.
The Prom, a poppy Broadway musical first performed in 2016, is neither The Normal Heart nor The Boys in the Band. It’s not a seminal piece of queer fiction, it’s merely a great show that was critically acclaimed but commercially troubled. But it’s beloved by those who know it, and utterly foreign to those who don’t. Chances are, a vast majority of viewers of Netflix’s adaptation will have never even heard of it.
That this feature film will be their first exposure to The Prom is an atrocity. The sharp and uplifting musical has been put through the classic Murphy process, with pitiful results. Roles originally written for Broadway stalwarts have been handed to stars – Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman and James Corden – who are ill-suited for them. The music, produced by Glee music producer Adam Anders, sounds as though it’s been run through a dishwasher and is so terribly lip-synced that it makes you wonder if anybody actually learned the songs to begin with.
The plot of The Prom is very loosely based on real events. Back in 2010, Constance McMillen planned to bring her girlfriend to her senior prom, but was banned from attending by the school board. Celebrities got wind of it, and helped sponsor another prom, where the couple could attend without prejudice.
The Prom takes the broad arc of this depressing yet ultimately uplifting story and puts a few twists and accessories on it. Instead of Hollywood celebrities coming to the couple’s aid virtually, it’s two reputationally bankrupt Broadway stars, Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and Barry Glickman (James Corden) who arrive in the teen’s small town to save the day in person. Perpetual chorus girl Angie (Nicole Kidman) and former sitcom star Trent (Andrew Rannells) come along for the ride.
You know what happens next: Emma (newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman) finds her confidence, the bigots who oppressed her discover tolerance, and the Broadway stars learn to be a little less craven. It’s an arc that’s hard to mess up, but nearly every aspect of Murphy’s adaptation works against it, draining the plucky soul of the stage musical bit by bit, moment by moment.
This is most obvious in the casting. As a theatre lover, I’ve long become accustomed to the fact that the actor who originates the role in any play or musical is very rarely going to be cast in the film adaptation. The casting in The Prom isn’t the worst example of this – at least everybody involved can hold a tune – but the starfuckery is really hard to ignore. Instead of watching an actor sink into a role, you’re always watching a very famous person sing and dance. As Dee Dee, Meryl Streep does her best Glenn Close impression, glazing every line and glance with a massive dose of ham. Nicole Kidman is uncharacteristically fun and loose as Angie, but she’s neither a belter nor a hoofer, and is never believable as a chorus girl, past, present or future. And, well, if casting the straight James Corden as a gay man isn’t inherently problematic in 2020, then his overly effete, breathily lisping performance is a flat-out hate crime. It’s hard to believe that he was once a beloved thespian, because what he does here is the acting equivalent of a pianist slamming their hands on the keys and hoping that some of the notes are the right ones.
Everybody else is more or less fine, with Kerry Washington a bizarre standout as a bigoted PTA mother, attacking every line with a Scandal-like intensity that nobody else even tries to approach. With the exception of Rannells, not a single person in the cast is a Broadway singer. Which, somewhat ironically, doesn’t much matter given the production slathered over what, in their original form, were great songs. Everybody’s voice is processed and cleaned up to the point where they barely sound like themselves anymore. The songs, whether a heartfelt ballad or a big first-act closer, sound cheap and nasty, as though played on a child’s Casiotone. The Prom takes the strong bones of the original soundtrack and crushes them into mush – it sounds like another episode of Glee, and nobody needs any more fucking Glee.
Ryan Murphy now has 21 directing credits to his name, across both television and film, and it boggles the mind that he still has so little grasp on the basics of his chosen medium. In The Prom, scenes are edited with no sense of rhythm, cohesion, or simple adherence to where people are standing in relation to each other at any given moment. This incompetence renders the emotional crux of the film, a cruel prank on Emma, impossible to follow, either cinematically or emotionally.
The musical numbers are lit with all the garish clumsiness of a first year design student having a hoon on Photoshop, and the choreography and editing might be even worse. These scenes don’t just highlight the main cast’s lack of dancing ability, they make it look like these actors are incapable of any movement whatsoever. If it seems cruel to blame Murphy for everything that goes wrong with this project, I’d point out that each one of his shows have identical flaws: the same messiness, the same gaudiness, the same technical ineptitude. It seems that working with talent does nothing to eclipse his lack of it.
The unfortunate thing about The Prom is that it’s business as usual for television’s most successful charlatan. This year alone, he’s given us an offensively simplistic reimagining of Golden Age Hollywood, a somehow more misogynist take on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’s Nurse Ratched, and a second season of 2019’s worst show, The Politician. He’s a magpie in a jewellery store, plundering the best bits of our history and culture for his own gain, and tainting them with his shit. He reframes stories through his garish lens, making them uglier and shallower as a result. But what makes The Prom unique, and especially sad, is that the musical hasn’t had the chance to become its own cultural artefact yet. And now? Now, it’ll only ever be known as the shit Ryan Murphy musical.
(If you want to see one of the original show’s best songs, performed how it’s meant to be performed, by the singer it was written for, I give you Beth Leavel singing ‘The Lady’s Improving’. Enjoy it, remember it. Forget the piece of trash you’ve just read about.)
The Prom is streaming on Netflix now.