AN INVITATION TO ANOTHER PROM By Peter Filichia
There aren’t many people who are able to make the claim that Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin can.
In fewer than two years, this composer-and-lyricist team has been able to boast of having both an original cast album and a soundtrack album of the same show.
THE PROM, which opened at the Longacre in November, 2018, has now been transformed into a 2020 film. You can see it on a big screen (meaning at home, where you of course have one) or on an even bigger one in a movie theater (if indeed your town has a cinema that’s open).
Those of you who have known and loved the original cast album for these last twenty-plus months may have feared that the film would not include one or more of your favorite songs. Such a scenario has happened all too often when a stage show is morphed into a film.
Not this time. In the spirit of if-it-ain’t-broke, every song from the much-acclaimed musical has been retained.
(A couple have been added, too.)
There are, admittedly, a few lyric changes. True PROM fans will immediately see the differences when they reach the second cut: “Changing Lives (Reprise).” Some words have been softened; perhaps a certain slang term that ended the reprise on Broadway annoyed or infuriated enough people that director Ryan Murphy and/or others may have decided to play it safe by choosing a replacement.
Nevertheless, these small excisions on Track Two don’t set the tone for the rest of the recording. Every other frank word and concept remains intact – including “People suck in Indiana.” Here’s hoping that Hoosier film watchers will have the same good humor about being knocked as the members of the Drama Desk Awards did.
What the Golden Globes are to the Oscars, the Drama Desks are to the Tonys. Beguelin, who co-wrote the book with Bob (THE DROWSY CHAPERONE) Martin, mocked the awards’ lesser status. But the voting members of that organization apparently weren’t offended enough to hold it against the show; when the time came to cast their ballots, enough chose THE PROM to anoint it the Best Musical of 2018-2019.
What makes the soundtrack really glorious is the asset the enhanced instrumentation that most stage shows inherit when they become film musicals. The sound of dozens of additional musicians makes the joy in THE PROM’s production numbers that much more exhilarating. That’s especially evident in the additional dance music in “You Happened.”
Although one First Lady was an important component of the original show, the film references three First Ladies. Remember from Broadway that megastar Dee Dee Allen played the title character to minor star Barry Glickman’s F.D.R. in ELEANOR! The Eleanor Roosevelt Musical.
The joke is, of course, that Mrs. R. would make an unlikely musical heroine; who can picture Eleanor Roosevelt singin’ and dancin’? And history is on the writers’ side. Soon after Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields had provided the score to SWEET CHARITY, they wrote an Eleanor Roosevelt musical. Alas, no producer wanted to sponsor it, so they recycled one song – “It’s Not Where You Start (It’s Where You Finish)” – into SEESAW.
After Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford had written I’M GETTING MY ACT TOGETHER AND TAKING IT ON THE ROAD, they created ELEANOR. At least that one was produced in Williamstown.
Yet another one by three writers not as famous landed some regional productions. But they and the pros mentioned above would not want their ELEANOR to be the one cited in THE PROM. Dee Dee and Barry’s show gets mostly rotten reviews and closes on opening night.
A theater critic’s pan also charges the pair for being narcissistic, which rankles these two narcissists. So they, ensemble member Angie Dickinson and friend Trent Oliver, a sometimes-employed actor, decide to do Something Important. Their Big Cause becomes Emma Nolan, who’d planned to take her girlfriend to the prom. That so rankled the powers-that-be that they preferred to cancel the event rather than endure the shock of seeing two girls in love dancing together.
Murphy has followed original director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw’s lead by putting plenty of glee in what could have been an American horror story. Those sophisticated New York actors who fully believe that “People kowtow to the folks in the biz” find that the citizens of Edgewater, Indiana instead get their backs up and aren’t the least excited or swayed by so-called star-power.
There’s one exception: Mr. Hawkins, the principal of the high school Emma attends, is a big fan of Broadway musicals and Dee Dee. He explains to her that song-and-dance shows are an escape from “the soul-crushing jobs and emasculating pay.”
We also see another side of him when he says he’s often “wincing at the grammar written on the bathroom walls.” Chances are that many citizens of Edgewater would not be concerned on whether a subject agreed with a verb but would feel the subject matter would matter.
Dee Dee finds, to her surprise, that she likes and even admires this man. And that brings us to our next First Lady, the actress who plays her: Meryl Streep.
No, Streep has never been a White House resident, but would anyone care to argue that she isn’t The First Lady of Hollywood? Twenty-one Oscar nominations in the last forty years makes the case closed. And some of those nominations came in films in which she sang.
So although Edgewater residents don’t “kowtow to the folks in the biz,” we do to Meryl Streep and others in this picture, including James Corden – Streep’s co-star in the INTO THE WOODS film – who portrays Barry.
On Broadway, where Brooks Ashmanskas played the role, Barry was said to have missed his high school prom twenty-nine years ago; in the film, eight years have been shaved off. That is close to the difference in the ages between Ashmanskas and Corden; did the latter worry that if the original figure had been kept people would assume he’s older than he is?
Nicole Kidman is Angie, who teaches Emma how to have “Zazz.” The word that Angie has coined means “style plus confidence.” On record, Kidman delivers it with both attributes in high gear.
As Trent, Andrew Rannells sings “Love Thy Neighbor,” a rave-up in which he asks Edgewater’s teens why they obey so many of the Bible’s teachings while they casually ignore the others they don’t like. The role is antithetical to the one that made Rannells a star in THE BOOK OF MORMON.
And the third First Lady that is referenced in THE PROM? No less than Michelle Obama whom Streep mentions in “Wear Your Crown,” the new song that’s played over the end credits. Sklar and Beguelin teamed with frequent Murphy collaborators Adam Anders and Peer Astrom to write it. Ms. Obama shows up in the section of the song where Streep raps. (INTO THE WOODS must have been good practice.)
What’s wonderful about THE PROM is that the foursome that arrives in Edgewater carry even more condescension than luggage. In time, however, they genuinely come to care for Emma and her plight as well as for many townspeople they meet.
Another asset occurs when Barry, in his big eleven o’clock number, mentions “And though it’s been years, I might call my mom.” Considering that nearly a quarter of a million theatergoers saw THE PROM on Broadway, perhaps some of them were moved enough by that lyric to actually phone their parents who had long ago disowned them over sexual identity issues. Maybe some of them found that mom and dad were grateful for the call.
In that spirit, the four songwriters added a song for Corden – “Simply Love” – which reiterates the point. No wonder with messages such as these, THE PROM got to be a Broadway musical and a film as well.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He’ll be contributing to the new magazine Encore Monthly starting in January.