During the "Golden Age" of Broadway musicals the inevitable film version would arrive on film screens even if it took time to get there. My Fair Lady took eight years from its theater to film debut, The Sound of Music took six years, and West Side Story a mere four.
As a side note, Cats took 37 years. Make of that what you will.
The Prom has them all beat, taking only two years between its stage and screen premieres. Out of that season's Broadway offerings, why The Prom was the one ultimately greenlit for a cinematic treatment will be one of life's great mysteries. To be fair, 2018's theatrical offerings were pretty scarce as Broadway thrilled audiences with musicals built around the song catalogs of Cher, The Go-Go's and The Temptations along with musical adaptations of Pretty Woman, Beetlejuice, Tootsie and King Kong (?!?). The Prom is an absolute nightmare: loud, garish, self-righteous, and so wildly misguided it does the impossible and make you almost root for the "bad guys".
After their latest musical Eleanor!: The Eleanor Roosevelt Musical flops, Broadway diva Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and flamboyant Broadway divo Barry Glickman (James Corden) want to find themselves a cause to up their cred. With help from former TV star/bartender Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells) and chorus girl Angie Dickinson (Nicole Kidman), the erstwhile Franklin & Eleanor find a cause.
Emma from Indiana (Jo Ellen Pellman) wants to go to her Prom wearing a tuxedo and with her secret girlfriend. Rather than let that happen, PTA President Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington) pushes to cancel Prom altogether, much to the distress of James Madison High School principal Tom Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key). Mrs. Greene does not want Emma corrupting the youth, especially her daughter Alyssa (Ariana DeBose). Thus sweep in our fabulous Broadway stars to the backwards backwoods of "Indiana", where among such horrors they must endure for their good cause are hotels that don't have spas or doctors on call and a strange eatery called "Apples & Bees".
Emma would sooner not be their cause du jour but cause du jour she is, igniting a series of events that lead to TWO proms: one for her, one for everyone else. After this debacle our illustrious stars get together to help Emma and her secret girlfriend (one guess as to who that could be), but sometimes a lesbian has to do what a lesbian has to do. With that, all things work out and everyone can Wear Your Crown (the only song written specifically for the film).
Unlike Mr. Hawkins, I cannot afford to take yearly trips to NYC to see the latest Broadway musicals, but if The Prom is the best American musicals can do these days, the artform is on life support if not actually dead. The Prom has ghastly musical numbers that boggle the imagination, so unimaginative and derivative that in some case I think composers Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin could be sued for plagiarism. Almost all the songs are too "Broadway" (big and bombastic) or veer towards generic pop tunes.
Why bother with the deepness of Ol' Man River, the tenderness and hope of Edelweiss or dark cynicism of Cabaret when you can have the frantic, frenetic pop-friendly Barry Is Going to Prom?
Zazz is more than just a horrifying Bob Fosse rip-off that should make Kander & Ebb seek out legal representation. It has the gall to rhyme "bossy" with "Fosse" (a rhyme you could see coming from miles away). I figure Zazz was meant as an "homage" to Fosse, but everything about it was so cringe-inducing that I think director Ryan Murphy should have cut the number out altogether rather than try to out-Fosse Fosse.
Another number that I think should have been removed from this bloated freakshow is We Look to You, the love song/tribute Hawkins sings to Dee Dee. There's something so tonally deaf when it comes to We Look to You (and no, that's not a dig at Key's singing, which I was neither here nor there about). We Look to You is a vain tribute to the importance of actors and entertainers, how they bring joy into our humdrum lives and unite us all by letting us forget our troubles while they entertain us.
Not since Lina Lamont uttered such vapid and pompous thoughts in Singin' in the Rain have actors expressed such inflated opinions of themselves. Moreover, given how this quacking quartet came to Indiana to lecture & enlighten all these yahoos the message of We Look to You is frankly hypocritical. As a side note, given how today so many actors see themselves as "activists" they are doing more to divide people than unite them, but there it is.
Some musical moments are downright satanic. When Dee Dee literally bursts onto an unsuspecting PTA meeting with It's Not About Me, I literally (and yes, I do mean literally) covered my eyes with both hands, horrified at how monstrously over-the-top it all was. When Dee Dee attempts to reconcile with Principal Hawkins by belting out The Lady's Improving, I again literally wrote in my notes STOP! STOP! STOP! (in all caps).
The Lady's Improving, I think, is instructive of where The Prom went wrong. In the film, Dee Dee sing the favorite song of Principal Hawkins (apparently the only straight black Broadway showtunes fan in America) from the fictitious musical Swallow the Moon: The Lady's Improving. Dee Dee and Hawkins know The Lady's Improving is from a musical, but for reasons known only to Murphy and screenwriters Bob Martin and Beguelin they have a group of teen boys who are waiting outside his office suddenly join in the dancing.
Murphy wants to have it both ways: keep the over-the-top manner of a Broadway musical and a more restrained manner of a film musical. The two never blend and soon things stop making sense. On a stage, it's acceptable to have Dee Dee appear in a showstopping number. On the screen, it looks unhinged because Murphy wants us to believe it's simultaneously real and fake.
The Lady's Improving could have worked if the entire Swallow the Moon backstory had been removed and it had been allowed to be an expression of Dee Dee's evolution. Instead, by structuring it as he did (and as I figure how the original stage production had it), the end result looks almost desperate.
The Prom, I figure or hope, wants us to see Dee Dee, Barry, Angie and Trent as the heroes, but they ended up looking so smug, clueless, self-important and self-righteous the film almost goad the audience to turn against them. It's one thing to spoof the pretentiousness of entertainers. It's another to make them loathsome, oozing contempt for those who don't think like they do. They are beyond clueless about "flyover country". They are downright hateful towards it. It makes no sense that Barry for example despite being from Ohio is unaware of what "Kmart" is.
Their efforts to bring tolerance to these hicks is filled with venom. Our Broadway babies are appalled and puzzled at what a monster truck rally is, and Trent's self-penned The Acceptance Song is overtly condescending to the audience it's meant to convince. Again, this can work on stage where things can be outlandish; as presented in the film however I can understand why the audience booed and wanted the frankly more entertaining monster truck show rally to resume.
I would have booed...and I'm on their side! The Acceptance Song plays like a right-wing parody of what showbiz elitists would sing. I can't say that was the intent, but that was the end result.
In all this I haven't touched on the performances. They were almost all universally bad. I have never believed that only openly gay actors should play gay characters, but James Corden is making me rethink that. James Corden's entire career is an absolutely mystifying mystery to me: he is devoid of any actual talent be it singing, acting, dancing, comedy or any other form of entertainment. He camps it up to the Nth degree finding the mincing does all the talking. Given how the openly gay Broadway veteran Rannells is the closest thing to a sane person in this quartet (which is saying a lot), one wonders why he didn't play Barry. He was the best of the lot, though his big number Love Thy Neighbor comes across as smug and overblown.
I figure Streep was meant to be over-the-top as the Diva of All Divas, but I think her reviews for Eleanor! would be closer to how she was. She gave it her best effort, but you don't win people over by telling reporters how there needed to be a musical about Eleanor Roosevelt because as she puts it "nobody had ever heard of her" and thus her story needed to be told. It's too obvious, too forced, this vapidness.
The two thwarted lovers of Pellman and DeBose were the standouts, with their numbers both individually and together working best. I think that has to do with the fact that they were restrained and sincere, not insane and smug.
The Prom is also hampered by loud and garish production design and a never-ending story, one that drags once you hit the half-hour mark, with another hour and a half to go.
I despair for Broadway if The Prom is what is being presented as quality musical work. It's a pity that neither Swallow the Moon or Eleanor! exist in real life. They sound like better shows than The Prom.