Movie musicals are at their best when they inhabit a feeling of staginess. The classics–My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Singin’ in the Rain–maintain a theatrical, showy sense, even when they’re set in a place we can recognize. Even last year’s Cats, for all its unintentionally terrifying effects and inconsistent sense of scale, understood this, with sets that felt like sets, and performances that matched a similar level of playing to the back of the room.
Unfortunately, this concept isn’t something that Ryan Murphy’s screen adaptation of the Broadway musical The Prom quite grasps. It’s easy to see why this was a success onstage; the script and songs contain sharp, self-aware sarcasm, sweetened with genuine sincerity. Murphy’s film translation, however, lacks the flare and emphasis that obviously play like gangbusters onstage. It feels disappointingly flat.
The Prom follows fading Broadway stars Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and Barry Glickman (James Corden), perpetual chorus girl Angie Dickinson (Nicole Kidman) and fame-hungry Juilliard grad Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells). When the group learns about the plight of gay Indiana teen Emma (newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman), who’s being barred by the PTA from attending her school’s prom, they see an opportunity for an altruistic headline-grab. The Broadway crew’s advocacy ends up doing more harm than good, complicating matters for Emma and her sympathetic principal Mr. Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key).
The script contains plenty of appeal for devoted theater fans, with self-deprecating acknowledgment of the way liberal-minded celebs pour themselves into causes beyond their ken, as well as the particular joys and escapism that musical theater can bring. The songs are similarly playful and bright. One of the musical’s co-writers, Bob Martin, was part of the team behind the delightfully meta Broadway hit The Drowsy Chaperone, and tonally The Prom contains a similar balance of razor wit, musical fan service and heartfelt sweetness.
What’s missing, unfortunately, is that stagey magic. There’s nothing special or interesting about the way Murphy frames his characters or sets–though there is one baffling number, in which Streep’s Dee Dee performs for Key’s Mr. Hawkins, where Murphy and cinematographer Matthew Libatique insist on only shooting Streep from the waist up, keeping us from seeing her choreography. Another scene where Streep and Corden have a serious conversation in their hotel room, shot handheld until it’s time for a dramatic tracking shot, feels like it belongs in a totally different movie.
Given that Murphy’s uninspired directing feels like we might as well be watching an episode of Glee, that leaves only the performances to carry us through. Pellman is sweet as Emma, but of the rest of the main cast, only Key and Rannells seem to understand what kind of movie they’re actually in. Corden is a little too earnest, and Kidman doesn’t get much time to actually develop. Streep occasionally lets loose, but for the most part feels uncommitted, giving us a warmed-over version of the kind of performance she’s become more closely associated with since The Devil Wears Prada.
Ultimately, The Prom is a frustrating viewing experience. The qualities of the musical are obvious, and it’s hard not to wish while you’re watching it that you were seeing the actual stage production rather than what amounts to a poor facsimile in film form. It feels like a wasted opportunity for something that could have potentially had oodles of charm, but settles instead for “fine.”
“The Prom” streams on Netflix starting Friday.