At the beginning of Ryan Murphy’s “The Prom,” a Broadway fan reads reviews of a newly opened show about Eleanor Roosevelt, “Eleanor!” The gang is all here, including self-worshiping stars Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and Barry Glickman (James Corden). The drinks and laughter flow, and everyone is as lit up as their dazzling outfits. And then the black man starts reading the news from the New York Times (hiss, boo). “This isn’t a rating you want if you have crappy pre-sales,” he grumbles. “That will close us.”
In his review of “The Prom” on Broadway, my Times colleague Jesse Green amusingly reassured readers that this was not going to happen and thought it was “a cry of joy.” With the film based on the show, it won’t happen for other reasons. “The Prom” will begin streaming on Netflix on Friday, which means cheers or ridicule doesn’t matter. On Netflix, the film will stand alongside thousands of other titles that are only subject to mysterious algorithms and are protected from both critics and the box office. The nifty mix of nostalgia and idealism, old-fashioned conservatism and new age liberalism will be spot on for some, even if his vision of American unity is currently difficult to see.
Basically, the story – a show people lark married to a moral story about the triumph of a teenage lesbian – seems unchanged. Dubbed the unlikely narcissists (who can’t even get a hit), Dee Dee and Barry decide to rehabilitate their tainted reputations with celebrity activism. With their overripe second bananas, the mischievous Angie Dickinson and Trent Oliver (Nicole Kidman and Andrew Rannells), they travel to a town in Indiana to fight the cause of heroine Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman), a high school girl who is forbidden to do her Bring girlfriend to prom.
The theme and arc of the story emerges when Dee Dee et al. Descend into town, wave posters and trumpet outrage. “We’re here from New York City and we’re going to save you,” announces Barry Emma, who is embedded in a meeting with parents and other students. That joke is soon repeated, as is often the case in this movie, where every lily is gilded and every laugh is squeezed until dry. “Who are you people?” asks the mother (an abused Kerry Washington) who leads the homophobic indictment. “We’re Broadway liberals,” says Trent, assuring that Team New York will fall on their smug faces while securing their own redemption.
The message of tolerance in “The Prom” is sincere, no matter how satirical it is. And it’s easy to imagine that the whole thing looked so charming on stage (as a friend pointed out), a quality that isn’t in Murphy’s paint box. (The charm of his TV series “Glee” came from the youth of his cast and the music genre itself.) Murphy likes going big and easy, and his aesthetic can best be described as showbiz expressionism: it’s bubbly and overtly exaggerated without being threatening. In contrast to the shocks of John Waters, for whom bad taste is a revolt (aesthetically, politically), Murphy’s excesses are tastefully vulgar blows rather than value.
The story ends with histrionics and sermons, jazz hands and sparkling toes, overly busy camera work, and hookless lung burners. (Matthew Sklar wrote the music and Chad Beguelin wrote the lyrics and scripted the script with Bob Martin.) Some of the songs are cheeky (“We’re going to help this little lesbian whether she likes it or not”); others are as serious as a daily affirmation (“life is not a dress rehearsal”). Together they form a parallel narrative that eliminates the need for many dialogues. “When you’re not straight,” Emma sings early, “then guess what will hit the fan.” Later she sings: “Nobody out there can ever define the life I’m supposed to lead.”
Pellman doesn’t look remotely like a teenager, but her melancholy sweetness is appealing and she has a quality of silence that creates a much-needed oasis amid Murphy’s insistent noise. It helps that, unlike her famous co-stars, she wasn’t directed to sell every note, whether musical or emotional. With her open face and her pretty soprano she transforms her character into a recognizable youth and lets you see and feel Emma’s longing, her pain and her belief that something better, more soul-educating is waiting beyond the prejudices and provincialism of her city. Like Dorothy and countless others, Emma dreams of her place above the rainbow.
She gets it with the help of her soon-to-be-humbled, ultimately victorious New York helpers (and the warm presence of Keegan-Michael Key as headmaster). How this all goes is as predictable as expected, except that 2020 is also more awesome than The Wizard of Oz in its most trippy form. All it takes for bigots to embrace Emma and LGBTQ rights is for Trent to call them hypocrites who – in a sublime narcissistic gambit – should be more like their fabulous, righteous invaders. In other words, if the haters opened their tiny, hard hearts, everything would be fine. You don’t have to be a cynic to know this is a pot. You just have to be an American.
Rated PG-13 for who knows? Music theater? Sparkle? Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes. Watch on Netflix.