It’s not every day you find yourself on a Zoom call with the likes of Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman and Kerry Washington… but that’s exactly where we did find ourselves ahead of the release of the star-studded film adaptation of Broadway musical comedy The Prom.
We took part in the global press conference hosted by Jess Cagle to hear from the filmmakers and A-list cast – also including James Corden, Keegan-Michael Key, Andrew Rannells, Ariana DeBose and Jo Ellen Pellman – about the making of the movie.
The story follows a gay teenage girl at a high school in the American Midwest who wants to bring her girlfriend to the prom but is cruelly banned due to pressure from an overly zealous and uber-conservative PTA. Just when things are looking rather bleak for young Emma, a bunch of washed-up, liberal Broadway stars come to her rescue in the hope of convincing the backward rural school the error of its ways – as well as redeem their reputations and careers in the process. Cue sequin-clad choreography and melodrama aplenty and lots of lessons learned along the way.
The screen version of the show is the brainchild of director and producer Ryan Murphy, whose impressive array of credits includes the impeccable American Horror Story and American Crime Story, as well as Glee and Pose. He explained how, when watching the Broadway show, he saw himself in the protagonist, as he was also banned from attending his prom back in high school. And so he was inspired to make it into a film.
He then assembled his dream cast, with Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman (whose musical credentials precede them via Mamma Mia and Moulin Rouge), plus James Corden and Andrew Rannells taking on the roles of the Broadway troupe, Kerry Washington as the bolshy, bigoted mother trying to thwart Emma’s desire to attend the prom, and master of comic timing Keegan-Michael Key, Emma’s earnest principal. He also discovered talented newcomers to play the star-crossed leads of Emma and Alyssa in Jo Ellen Pellman and stage-star Ariana DeBose.
Akin to the wildly successful The Book of Mormon, the musical is simmering with irreverent and dark humour (though toned down here for a more friendly family iteration) alongside some old school glitz, glamour and sing-your-heart out song and dance numbers. And as with series such as American Horror Story, Murphy’s screen take is resplendent with colour and immaculately conceived costumes and sets.
It’s certainly all-out, in-your-face comedy musical theatre (it’s unlikely to convert any doubters), but there is something purely joyful about seeing Hollywood veterans such as Streep and Kidman being brought together and unleashed in full razzle dazzle mode, with dry, cutting lines being dished out in full song by all and sundry. And beneath the unbridled silliness there’s a genuine, heartfelt and pertinent message about acceptance and tolerance that could no doubt do with being beamed into some family living rooms this Christmas. If there was ever a time such a film would make sense, it has to be now. The Prom is the comedy musical we needed to close out 2020.
Here’s what Ryan Murphy and his cast had to say about the film:
Ryan, tell us about when you saw the show on Broadway and what made you want to make this right now.
Ryan Murphy: I remember it very vividly. It was a very snowy night in January of 2019. I went just as a fan – I was invited and I wanted to see it. And I was feeling in my life, as many of us were, a little dark at the time. So I walked into the musical and I saw families in the audience – I saw people laughing and crying and having a very big experience, which I ultimately had. And the thing that was interesting to me was the heroine is from Indiana, where she is denied going to her prom, and halfway through the musical, I realised that was my experience. I’m from Indiana and I was not allowed to go to my prom. So it became a very personal thing for me. And, you know, I just thought it had so much joy and optimism, and it was about something. And yet it was also just fun. And I walked out of there, and I had dinner with the producer. We were friends and we were just talking and I said, “I really think I want to make this movie,” and he said, “Okay, great.” And so it started from there, it was just very quick and spontaneous. But, I just loved how it made me feel, you know, it was very old-fashioned in this way. It was like a Valentine. And I love that about it.
One of the joys of watching this show is seeing the relatively new talent – Jo Ellen, tell us a little bit about yourself and why this story resonates with you.
Jo Ellen Pellman: I’m originally from Cincinnati, Ohio. So I have a strong connection to the Midwest and Indiana. It’s actually where I am right now, Cincinnati, Ohio! And I studied musical theatre in college and I was a huge theatre kid growing up – I am such a lover of the craft of musical theatre. I saw the show on Broadway with my mom. And it is so personal to me, because I’m queer and I came out in high school also in the Midwest, and it’s a wild experience. So being able to tell this story, with this cast, is quite literally my dream come true. Truly every day on set was the best day of my life, and learning from these people who I have looked up to for… it feels like for so long. And learning from them as artists, but also as people. Every single person in this cast is so kind and generous with their time, and I don’t think I have ever laughed as hard as I did when we all film together. They are wonderful people.
Ariana, you’ve actually had a tremendous amount of experience in musicals. You were in the original cast of Hamilton, you’re going to be in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story. Tell us about your experience and why you wanted to work on this story.
Ariana DeBose: I saw The Prom three times on Broadway, and every time I laughed harder, I cried harder. I was just more and more moved by everything I saw, and everything I witnessed. And Ryan’s right in his observations – there are so many different types of people in that audience; I particularly noticed so many young girls and lots of young girls of colour actually. And so when this opportunity came to me, I really thought about it, and I went after it because I know how important it is to see yourself reflected on a screen. Because if you can see it, you can believe that you can do it, and I wanted to be a part of telling this story. And also it was the first time I’d ever seen anything close to even potentially my experience on a Broadway stage. That’s ultimately why I was so honoured when Ryan asked me to do this, and the experience of doing it with all of these incredible people. Just like Jo Ellen said, it’s like we’ve looked up to every single one of them for such a long time, and to have the experience of making work with them and laughing with them and realising that they’re human just like us, and they’re kind and they’re normal and emotional and funny, like it was just it was so heartening to have this be the first one of, hopefully, many experiences for me, so I treasure it very much.
How well did you all take to the choreography? Were there any mishaps?
Meryl Streep: Well, I’m the oldest person in the cast and I have the most dancing, which didn’t make sense to me. When I saw the show, which I had not seen before, Ryan called and said, “Do you want to maybe look at this project?”. I hadn’t seen it because I thought, “Well, I’ll go next week or I’ll go next week,” so I went to the theatre and found out that it was closing. And I couldn’t believe it was closing because it was absolutely packed. I’ve honestly never heard a reaction like that. People were standing on their chairs, on their seats at the curtain call. I mean screaming and crying and laughing. Anyway, I noticed that the leading lady didn’t do a lot of dancing, so I was very encouraged. Then all hell broke loose when I got to Los Angeles and they laid out for me what it was. So it was a lot of dancing. I got in shape, you know, it’s a lot of stamina. And, man, it was hard work. But it was really, really fun.
Nicole Kidman: We actually had six weeks’ rehearsal before. It was six, wasn’t it, guys? Or was it four? But it was a long, long time. These days, a lot of times the rehearsal period just gets shoved aside. But we came in and we diligently just rehearsed and, because I was doing Fosse, I came in thinking, “Oh yeah, I can do this” – it was terrifying because the Fosse dancing is so specific. But I had this amazing group of dancers that just trained me and trained me with the patience of saints. And actually, it was really fun as well. I remember seeing Meryl do her first number on sort of the first week and just going, “Oh my god, this is so, so good.” So, and she knows, I just looked at her and went: “You can do that too?!”
Keegan-Michael, how nervous were you when the day came when you had to kiss Meryl Streep?
Keegan-Michael Key: How nervous was I? Um, I was nervous. Let’s say this: I was nervous with anticipation… Ryan’s a lovely, kind person because he doesn’t make you do it first, right? So Meryl and I had a lot of time to get to know each other and spend time with each other and be comfortable with each other. But I was nervous in that it was exhilarating. I mean, when you’re a kid in theatre school and you’re 22 years old, if your future self came back and said, “I just want you to know that in 2020 you’re going to be kissing Meryl Streep, you’re going to be Meryl Streep’s love interest in a movie,” you’d just be like, “Get out of here, lying demon! You’re not real.” So it was exhilarating. I’m just gonna be honest, it was exhilarating. And I was waiting for it the entire shoot. I think l had an entire tin of Altoids – when you eat them all at once, they’re not curiously strong, they’re just strong! But it was wonderful.
Ryan, you set up a musical boot camp for everybody, right?
RM: It kind of was that, yeah. We took over a very large space at Paramount Pictures and we rehearsed and we trained as much as we could. And that was one of the great things because usually there’s not a lot of rehearsals when you’re doing film or television, but for this we had built it into the schedule. And I think when you’re making a musical, it’s where the cast bonds. And they did become a bit like a Broadway troupe. It was interesting. Everybody cheered each other on and there were injuries and ice and, you know, it became a very great bonding experience. Everybody was free to try things. It was cool.
Kerry, maybe we can call you the villain of this piece?
Kerry Washington: It’s really fun to be the bigot in this one!
Do you feel that culture can educate people and spark a social change?
KW: I think so, I think so. You know, I was talking about this with some friends recently, because there’s all the talk about how, as a culture, we have to sort of heal right now. And this friend of mine was saying, “We all need to be sitting in meditation and sort of getting in touch with that better part of ourselves.” And I said to her, “You know, I think for a lot of people, where they sit in the dark and have transformative thoughts is in movie theatres, or in their living room watching TV.” Like, that’s the stillness that I think so many of us engage in, is when we sit and we watch these stories that aren’t just the ones that play in our mind, but they’re the stories that inform us of who we are as a society and a culture. And we get these moments to look at these characters and say, like, “Oh, I see myself” – to Ariana’s point earlier – like, “I really see myself there,” or “I see who I don’t want to be,” maybe in the case of Mrs Green. And we get to sort of get in touch with our humanity: who we are, who we want to be, who we don’t want to be. I think it’s powerful. It’s not the only way to make change. You know, we need people in the streets, we need people voting, we need people writing legislature, we need all of that. But I do think art has a place in the conversation because it gets to our hearts. It’s so, so powerful this story; it’s such a powerful story about acceptance and the power to create community where you need it. And that when you fight for your own belonging, you create belonging for other people. It’s just such a beautiful, powerful story. And I’m happy to be the bad guy to try to get in the way and be unsuccessful.
Any of the cast have any embarrassing stories from their own prom?
James Corden: I mean, I’ve got a multitude of embarrassing stories but none of them are connected to a prom. We don’t have the prom in Britain. So it was never really a thing for me at all. But I know that Andrew Rannells has got some absolutely cracking stories…
Andrew Rannells: “I went to an all-boys Catholic school, and I took an older woman to my prom. She was 20. And the difference between 17 and 20 at that age is pretty severe. And she wore a black cocktail dress, not a prom dress. And she was just, like, a woman that I took the prom… I think I was overcompensating. It made me very popular for my senior year.
Meryl, what do you like so much in musical films? You’re so great in all of them!
MS: Oh, merci beaucoup! You know, I think more than anything I love the dancing because I’m not a dancer in my actual life. There are numbers in this, in Prom, where the young people get up. And when we were in the rehearsals we’d be struggling with these numbers. And then they would get up and just sort of lift the roof with their exuberance and their joy and their vitality and love of being alive. That’s a thing, it’s the breakout aspect of musicals – the fact that, you know, the lid comes off the pressure of your life, whatever it is, whatever your particular sadness is. It’s irresistible in movie musicals when people start to dance. And the singing is great, too. But that’s what I love about musicals.
James and Nicole, can you talk about the relationship that develops between your characters? And Jo Ellen’s character, Emma?
NK: The wonderful thing for me was that Angie is able to be just incredibly kind and warm to her. And I remember when we were shooting, Ryan said, “I’m gonna write you in a scene,” and it was the scene on the bed where I talk about my life and I share that with her, and then we’re eating the ice cream together… just before the “zazz” number. And I just love that there’s this older woman helping this younger person through by just being there for and saying, “Whatever you need from me, I’m here, and I will help you.” And Jo Ellen and I shared a lot of stories just sitting around on the set and I feel like that about her as well. So it was beautiful to be able to have that scene and therefore have that sort of journey together through it. And watching both Ariana and Jo Ellen just take a huge bite out of the screen like this. They came on set and, as much as they say they were like, “Oh my gosh,” they just stepped in and owned it from the word go. I was so intimidated when I watched them sing and dance. I was like, “Help me, girls, help me.”
And the relationship with Barry also is so sweet.
JC: Yeah, I think it’s a really lovely relationship in the film, because what starts, I think, for Barry and all of the four performers that travel from New York, what starts as, let’s be honest, quite a cynical, self-serving escapade in a way, I think for Barry as soon as he sees Emma he sees himself in her completely. And I think part of him wishes he’d had somebody around in those times, in those moments. And I remember those scenes so vividly. I remember the first time before we started shooting, we actually went to the location to rehearse the scene where Emma says to Barry that she’d like him to go to the prom with her. And I remember saying to Jo, “I’m going to spend the rest of my life telling people that I was in Jo Ellen Perelman’s first ever film… ‘No, no, you weren’t!’ And I’ll go, ‘Yeah.’ And I’ll say, ‘Meryl Streep was in it.’ And they’ll go…”.
MS: Who? [everyone laughs]
JC: Yeah, I was blown away by her. I was blown away by Jo Ellen in pretty much every scene that we were in; I really felt like I was watching the start of a career. I just thought, “Well here’s an actress I’m going to watch for the rest of my life. I will see her on stage. I will see her on screen. I will see her in TV shows.” There’s just no doubt in my mind, if she wants any of those things to happen. I was so taken in every moment that I was in scenes with her. I found it incredibly uplifting actually.
Meryl, were you a Ryan Murphy fan before doing this? And what is your favourite Ryan Murphy show?
MS: Well, yes, I was a Ryan Murphy fan. But I was also terrified of Ryan Murphy. Because of American Horror Story. I mean, I was pulled to it in its scariness and it was beautiful, horrible, grotesque and something very, very true. So I knew he had a sharp eye for what’s really scary and true in life. But I also loved the OJ piece. Love stuff in Glee. But I have to say I was unprepared for the joy he brings to the work and the love and the size of that. I loved this experience making this film. I feel like – the same as James – that we were in on the birth of two gigantic careers with Ariana and Jo Ellen. But I was unprepared for the big-hearted gesture of this piece. It’s how attached he is to trying to get the truth of something, but he’s unafraid of the great big gesture. And that’s what this is: it’s just a big embrace. And, boy do we need it right at this time of the world.
RM: So now I can retire… very kind, thank you. That’s amazing to hear. I mean, my experience with all of these people – Ariana and Jo Ellen were new to me – but everybody else was on my bucket list. So just the very idea that you go after people that you’ve watched and loved and you ask them to the dance and they say yes, was, you know, an amazing experience. I think Meryl’s right, we all approached this with so much love. We loved making it. And I felt that when we were making it, we were excited for people to see it because like Meryl says, I think we need the message of the movie right now. The joy of it and the escapism of it.
By Sarah Bradbury. First published on The Upcoming on 10th December 2020.
Watch the trailer for The Prom here: