In August 2019, I was fortunate enough to see “The Prom” on Broadway before the show took its final bow. While that was not my first time seeing the show, I was excited to see one of my favorite shows again before it closed.
“The Prom” tells the story of Emma Nolan, a young lesbian whose coming out results in the cancellation of her high school prom. Looking for a burst of good press following a disastrous opening night, four disgraced Broadway stars travel to her town to help restore the prom.
Before the show had even closed on Broadway, it was announced that a movie adaptation was in the works. Ryan Murphy, known for his work on “Glee” and “American Horror Story,” was slated to direct. With a star-studded cast, including Meryl Streep, James Corden, Kerry Washington and more, the film was a highly-anticipated release.
Being a fan of the original Broadway production, I decided to be cautiously optimistic about the adaptation. Despite the large sum of pessimism I had seen online, I wanted to remain hopeful.
Much to my own surprise, I enjoyed the film more than I initially expected. It had the big, dazzling theatrical numbers that any theater fan can’t help but enjoy. The humor from the original production was there.
After seeing “The Prom” on stage, I left the theater inspired and energized. Although I recognize the impact of having a live audience on a body of work, I did not have the same feeling after watching the film. The spirit and heart I felt seeing the show live did not translate through the screen like I had hoped. It got lost underneath all the sparkle.
Similarly, the love story between Emma and her girlfriend, Alyssa, was lost in a sea of new storylines. These were added to the film in order to give more depth to Corden’s character. In the process of doing so, however, Emma and Alyssa appeared to be an afterthought in their own story.
Like a lot of viewers, I was unsettled by Corden’s performance. His initial casting raised some eyebrows, mine included. Not because I thought Corden was incapable, but because of the problematic implications of casting him specifically.
Corden’s casting raised the question regarding heterosexual actors portraying gay characters. For me, the issue is not necessarily Corden playing a gay character, but the type of gay character he is portraying. His role, Barry Glickman, is written as a gay stereotype. He is largely flamboyant, self-involved, and effeminate. With Corden being a heterosexual actor, his portrayal of Glickman felt ingenuine and like mockery.
In contrast to Corden’s performance, though, was the debut performance of Jo Ellen Pellman in the role of Emma Nolan. Pellman, who identifies as queer, offered an alternative to the controversy surrounding Corden. Personally, it was refreshing to see an LGBTQ actress playing an LGBTQ character on screen.
All controversy aside, “The Prom” put a lesbian love story on an international platform. This is something that is becoming increasingly more common in the television and film industry, but there is still progress to be made. “The Prom” was a step in the right direction in that regard.
Still, I wish “The Prom” had released a professionally-shot version of the Broadway production rather than a big budget film. Hearing the audience react and seeing the passion of the actors on stage is not something that is easily recreated. The fan in me is appreciative of Murphy’s adaptation and the platform it gave the story, but simultaneously misses seeing the show on a Broadway stage.
Caitlin Howard can be contacted at: