“There must be a way to rid this community, and by extension the nation, of this cancer of intolerance.”
I was fortunate to attend a high school in New Jersey (The Peddie School) that strived for inclusivity. I look back at the time I attended (from 1978 to 1982) and there I was – openly gay and latino – and the faculty and student body were – for the most part – all about celebrating individualism and tolerance.
Last Monday, I was heartbroken to see a story in the news about a young teenager – Trevor Wilkinson – who was suspended from his high school in Texas for wearing nail polish. “I have been doing this to express who I am,” Wilkinson told USA Today. “I’ve been trapped in closed-minded people’s minds … I love my nails. I think they’re so cool. I’m definitely using it to express myself and feel everyone should have freedom of expression.”
Ryan Murphy’s “The Prom” (2020) is an irresistible musical that carries this powerful message about self-love and acceptance. The movie is an adaptation of the 2019 Tony-Nominated Broadway musical of the same name that was inspired by true events in Fulton, Mississippi when Constance McMillen – a senior at Iatawamba Agricultural High School – was banned from attending her prom because she was planning to bring her girlfriend. McMillen challenged the restriction and the school board opted to cancel the prom entirely. Celebrities like Lance Bass and members of the band Green Day threw their support behind her cause – and helped organize a Second-Chance Prom that McMillen could attend without fear of homophobia.
The adaptation, with music by Matthew Sklar, lyrics by Chad Beguelin, and a book by Bob Martin and Beguelin –centers on Emma, who is banned from her Indiana school’s year-end rite of passage. Her cause is noticed by four self-involved Broadway stars who decide to come to the rescue of Emma in order to improve their tarnished public images. They storm into the Indiana school announcing that they’re “cultural disruptors.”
In addition to devouring movies with compulsion, I do several pilgrimages to NYC each year to see live theatre. I have been known to see about fifteen productions in a span of a week seeing two shows a day. On Thanksgiving 2018, I found myself with an extra slot and with very low expectations I sat down to watch “The Prom” on Broadway. I was soon won over by the joy, exuberance and scrappiness of this musical. It has these terrific anthems, and incredible athletic dancing conceived by its director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw. It also didn’t take itself seriously. It just wanted to entertain you at whatever cost and it had a heartfelt message about open-mindedness. I recall that by its effervescent closing number when the entire ensemble belts “Build a prom for everyone, show them all it can be done” – I had tears of joy streaming down my cheeks.
Murphy has improved the original material – and then some. He hired the original choreographer. The attention is more evenly distributed between the high school student’s dilemma and the intervening actors’ storylines. He starts the film in Emma’s turf – unlike the Broadway production that opened with the theatre actors.
It is the fact that I’ve been missing live theatre so much that adds an extra layer of poignancy to the film “The Prom.” The opening number takes place in this magical recreation of the glittering lights on Broadway that took my breath away – and watching Manhattan hangouts like “Sardi’s” and theatre marquees and the neon lights of Times Square felt like the next best thing to being there. In one of the most touching moments, the high school principal Mr. Hawkins (played by a terrific Keegan-Michael Key) who is a big fan of the theatre, tells the diva Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep doing a hysterical recreation of Broadway star Beth Leavel’s impersonation of Patt Lupone) the reason why theatre and performers are so important. “We look to you / in good times and bad / The worlds you create / Make the real ones seem less sad,” he movingly sings.
Kudos to Murphy for enlisting the extraordinary cinematographer Matthew Libatique – and his fluid camerawork and glorious rainbow-colored palette. It all looks scrumptious.
The cast is all having a hoot. Special shout-outs to Kerry Washington as the head of the PTA which could have easily become a one note performance. Newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman as Emma is appealing and disarming. But the best in show is Nicole Kidman as Angie Dickinson – the life-long chorus girl who encourages Emma the best way she can – by passing on to her what Fosse taught her – “give it some zazz!” Kidman steals it in “The Prom.”
Angie: “If your hands are shaking, just turn them into jazz hands.”
Available to stream on Netflix
Screenplay by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin
Musical book by Chad Beguelin, Bob Martin and Matthew Sklar
Created by and based on an original concept by Jack Viertel
Directed by Ryan Murphy
Starring Jo Ellen Pellman, Meryl Streep, Ariana DeBose, Nicole Kidman,
Kerry Washington, James Corden, Keegan-Michael Key and Andrew Rannells
Director Ryan Murphy on Bringing “The Prom” From Stage to the Screen
“It was a weird experience that I’ve never really had before where I just went, you know, as fan. I was invited by the producers and I went sort of on a snowy January night, and this was in 2019, right? So, at that point I was just feeling I think like a lot of people were blue about the state of the world, it just seemed like a very hard time, and I walked into that musical and I remember having a moment where I looked around and I saw that people were laughing and crying alternatively, and there were a lot of kids with parents there, which I was very moved by, and of course then I really just deeply related to the idea of Jo Ellen’s character who is in Indiana and just fighting for the right to be seen and to participate in the world like everybody else. So, I just walked out of that theatre that night and I was like I’m going to do this. So, I made an offer and the producers; they really wanted me to do it. So, that was a very easy and quick deal to go.
That was closed in a week, and then the next week I said OK, I’m going to go out to all of the people that I’ve wanted to work with, my first choices. So, I went out to Meryl and Nicole and James [Corden] and Kerry [Washington] I believe, and they all came back instantly and said yes within a week. So, then I had this weird thing of my dream cast just said yes, then I went to Netflix and they greenlit it that day. So, it all happened within like 2 1/2 weeks, and then we started pre-production the next week to shoot in December. I got the rights the first week in February and then we were shooting on December the 2nd I think. So, it was just one of those weird things that you can never really figure out. I was shocked at how quickly it came about, but I was thrilled. We had a very long pre-production process because we had to build Broadway before, but it just felt like kismet. It just felt like a really wonderful, easy experience and the fact everyone saw it in the same way, was so enthusiastic, and everybody wanted to do it. Meryl was the first to say yes and she always sets the tone and she said, ‘You know, I just want to do something that’s joyful. I’m tired of crying all the time. I want to do something that’s celebratory.” I feel like that’s what people want right now, and also the show has such a good, uplifting message of inclusion. So, it just all kind of came together really, really quickly.” (deadline.com)
Director Ryan Murphy on “The Prom”
“My attraction to doing it was that I wanted to do a really big movie musical for everybody that’s in the tradition of the big Hollywood musicals that I grew up on that I loved. Everything from ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ to ‘Chicago’ to ‘Les Mis,’ these big, bold Broadway musicals that you can cast really great stars in and let everybody shine and find new people and show them off to the world. When we were making it I don’t think that we knew that the timing of it would be so great, but I think that what you’re seeing in the country right now is people at least trying to all come together. Enough with the opposite rhetoric, enough with the poisonous discourse. Let’s try and build an America, particularly, and a world for everyone, and that’s what ‘The Prom’ is about. In fact, the main line and the most important line in the whole movie musical is when they sing, “build a prom for everybody,” and I think that’s a metaphor, and the movie is about something that is a feeling that I’m very passionate about right now. So, it feels good, and the marketing tagline of the movie is “Celebrate.” Celebrate love. Celebrate tolerance. Celebrate music. Celebrate dance. So, I think that it hits something. It hits at the moment.”
‘The Prom’ was always an underdog. It was an underdog when it was on Broadway. It was ultimately nominated for many, many Tonys, and I think people who saw it loved it, but this does give it a wider audience, and yeah. I was excited about this year of musicals because you can feel there’s something about them that people love and I’ve always loved them, but I always thought there would be more of them especially after ‘Chicago’ won the Oscar. I thought oh, great. We’re going to have a long line of them, but that didn’t really happen, but now there does seem to be an interest from specific filmmakers to explore that because it’s very embedded that musicals are also about our love of Hollywood. My grandmother exposed me to all of those great, big, star-studded Hollywood musicals that we used to watch on television over and over and over, and I loved them, but they went out of vogue and I hope they’re coming back because at the core of them they’re all about feeling good and spreading a message of joy. I think Meryl when she saw the movie, she said “The Prom is a balm.” It just lets you feel good for a moment. It takes your mind off the darkness of the world right now with the pandemic and the political discourse, and I think that’s right.” (deadline.com)
Murphy on Creating the World of Broadway on the Big Screen
“The great thing about the Netflix world is when they get behind something, they really get behind it, and when it became apparent that we couldn’t shoot in New York on Broadway because we couldn’t shut down eight city blocks, I thought “Well, I don’t know if they’re going to make this,” and they said “No, let’s build Broadway.” So, that’s what we did…You know, what we did is we went to Broadway, you know, those theatres on Broadway, the Broadway theatres, and we took one street in particular and we measured the streets. We measured literally how long, how wide, how high are the buildings, how many light bulbs are in the marquees, how tall is the curb, and then we took over a multi-acre parking lot downtown that was deserted and then we built Broadway. Like, we built those theatres. We built those facades. When you watch it and there’s some digital work done of course, but it was sort of like old-fashioned movie-making in that way. There’s two musical numbers that take place in the streets, and I think for the actors I wanted them to feel like they were really dancing down a deserted late-night Broadway street. I wanted to give them that. When they showed up, the four of them — Nicole and James and Andrew and Meryl — they were drop-jawed at the set because Jamie [Walker McCall], our production designer, did such an amazing job of re-creating that street. It felt just so real, and I think whenever you can do that, particularly for an actor, I just wanted them to feel their characters were supposed to be Broadway veterans. So, I thought well, how fun would it actually be to build Broadway? And also, for me it was just kind of a challenge.” (deadline.com)
About Creator Jack Viertel
Jack Viertel is currently the Senior Vice President of Jujamcyn Theaters, which owns and operates five Broadway Theaters…He was also the Artistic Director of New York City Center’s Encores! series, which presents three less-well-known musicals in concert productions every season. In that capacity he has adapted the scripts for shows as diverse as “Lady, Be Good!” and “It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman!.” He spent two years as Dramaturg of the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, and from 1980 to 1985 was the drama critic and arts editor of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. He was the original conceiver of the Broadway shows “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” and “After Midnight.” He helped shepherd six of August Wilson’s plays to Broadway, as well as Tony Kushner’s “Angles in America,” the original production of “Into the Woods,” “City of Angels,” “Jelly’s Last Jam” and “Hairspray,” among many others. He is an adjunct professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, teaching musical theater structure, and began his career playing National Steel-body guitar behind Bonnie Raitt, Son House and the Pointer Sisters. …(macmillan.com) Viertel was the creator of the 2018 Broadway musical, “The Prom.”
About Director Ryan Murphy
Murphy grew up in Indianapolis, in an era—and in a family—where it wasn’t easy to be a gay kid with an artistic sensibility. His father, in particular, was tough on him: “He would ask me, ‘Why aren’t you like me?’” he remembers. “I was constantly in an existential crisis about who I was.” Although -Murphy reconciled with his father before he died—and has softened now that he has two children of his own, with husband David Miller—that rejection still smarts. “I never got over that,” he says, “and I probably never will.” Yet it may have ended up fueling his ambition. After moving to Los Angeles, he spent his 20s working as a journalist for outlets like the Miami Herald and the Los Angeles Times where, he says, he would churn out three stories a day, sharpening his work ethic. He sold his first show, “Popular,” to the WB in 1999 but butted heads with network executives. “I wasn’t allowed to have a gay character,” he says flatly. “They told me that I didn’t understand the tone of it. I was like, ‘It’s my show!’” And although he worked steadily—creating the cult hit “Nip/Tuck” for FX and adapting and directing best-selling memoirs “Running With Scissors” and “Eat Pray Love” as feature films—he didn’t always feel supported. “All the guys in power were straight white men,” he says. “J.J. Abrams and I came up at the same time, but I never got those calls—because you mentor people who act like you and talk like you, and share your points of reference.” That earned him a reputation. “I was seen as a fighter,” he says. “I wouldn’t take no for an answer.” His creative sensibility was provocative and breakneck, marrying satirical elements with earnest drama, which divided critics. Then came a string of hits, all of which, he says, everyone thought would never work: He created Fox’s prime-time musical “Glee” in 2009, which—with tours, merchandising and a reality-show spin-off—became an asset worth hundreds of millions of dollars. For FX he dreamed up “American Horror Story” in 2011, one of the first series to function as an anthology, reimagining the show anew each season.
For HBO he directed an adaptation of Larry Kramer’s play “The Normal Heart” in 2014, which won him an Emmy and earned eight more nominations. And for FX in 2016, he retold the O.J. Simpson saga in “American Crime Story,” earning the best reviews of his career. “After those four things,” he says, “it was like, Whatever you want to do, you can do.” In his newfound seat of power, he realized he’d derived the most fulfillment from working with people who hadn’t traditionally been in the spotlight—whether that was actresses of a certain age or trans women of color—and decided to double down on this as his ethos. “Everything I’m working on is about one idea—taking marginalized characters and putting them in the leading story,” he says…“I’ll spend hours in negotiations to get actors—especially women and -minorities—more money than they’ve ever had.” Case in point: his collaborator Janet Mock, who wrote, produced and directed episodes of “Pose,” recently signed a multimillion-dollar deal with Netflix, making her the first trans woman with an overall pact at a major media company. “He puts a lot of wind beneath the wings of the people he believes in,” says Paulson. “I don’t think anyone ever did that for Ryan.”…“His work is a reflection of his own interests and sensibilities, but it’s broader than that,” says Cindy Holland, who runs original programming at Netflix. “He’s absorbing influences in pop culture to create these unique collages that appeal to many different groups.” Critics have rallied behind some of his projects while dinging others, but he challenges the narrative that certain shows, like his Emmy–sweeping opus “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” are more restrained on purpose. “That show is outrageous!” he says. “John Travolta’s eyebrows are outrageous! There was a whole makeover episode! I never change.” If he is too much, it has proved to be an asset—too much is exactly what people want. “Call me camp,” Murphy says. “Call me crazy. Call me wild. Call me extreme. Call me erratic. The one thing you can’t say is that I don’t try.” He thinks about it for a second and smiles wickedly. “Actually, I don’t care what you call me,” he says. “As long as you call me.” (time.com) A few of Murphy’s other works include “Scream Queens” (2015-2016), “Feud: Bette and Joan” (2017), “Hollywood” (2020), “The Politician” (2019-2020), “Ratched” (2020), “The Boys in the Band” (2020) and most recently “The Prom” in 2020.