From the filmed version of “Hamilton” to “Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square” to the instant holiday classic “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey” and let’s include the concert films “American Utopia” and “Western Stars” in the mix, it’s been quite the year for streaming musical movies, and the hits just keep on coming with Ryan Murphy’s schmaltzy, colorful, old-fashioned yet modern “The Prom,” which comes loaded with star power and decidedly unsubtle messaging about tolerance and acceptance, all wrapped in a glitzy, glittering bow.
Based on a 2018 stage musical and staged in grand fashion, with eye-popping production design and nearly invisible extras morphing into well-choreographed background dancers on cue, “The Prom” begins with a musical-within-a-musical: the Broadway premiere of “Eleanor!,” with Meryl Streep’s veteran diva Dee Dee Allen as Eleanor Roosevelt and James Corden’s not-quite-a-star Barry Glickman as FDR. In the opening number, “Changing Lives,” Dee and Barry boast about how their transcendent work makes the world a better place — but when the New York Times weighs in with a scathing review, the show closes on the spot. Dee Dee and Barry drown their sorrows, commiserating with Andrew Rannells’ bartender-actor (in that order) Trent and the lifelong chorus girl Angie (Nicole Kidman).
Desperate for a publicity stunt to resuscitate two careers and jump-start the other two, the group makes a pilgrimage to small-town Indiana, where the uptight and hypocritical school board, led by Kerry Washington’s puritanical Mrs. Greene, have banned Jo Ellen Pellman’s Emma from taking a female date to the prom. What is this, the 1950s? Or the 21st century in some unenlightened corners of the world? (“The Prom” is actually inspired by a real-life prom cancellation controversy in Mississippi in 2010.)
We know we’re in for a bevy of condescending gags about these sophisticated East Coast elites flopping about like shiny fish out of water; they’ve never heard of Applebee’s, they try in vain to upgrade to a suite or a cabin in a hotel that obviously does not have suites or cabins. That sort of thing. What makes it fun is “The Prom” makes fun of liberal messaging movies while fully embracing its status as a liberal message movie. In a film filled with rousing musical numbers, the standout is “Love Thy Neighbor,” in which Rannells’ Trent calls out the righteous students for religious hypocrisy: “There’s no way to separate, which rules you can violate, let’s hope you don’t masturbate. … There’s one rule that trumps them all: Love Thy Neighbor …”
Another highlight is Kidman’s rendition of a Bob Fosse tribute number, which she pulls off beautifully. It’s as if she’s telling us that sure, she won the Oscar in 2002 for “The Hours,” but she easily could have performed the lead in that year’s “Chicago” as well. Streep kills each of her numbers (no surprise there), while Jo Ellen Pellman more than holds her own with the big-name stars and gives the story its heart and smile with her empathetic portrayal of Emma.
The theme for “The Prom” this year is, yep, Love Thy Neighbor.