A version of this story about Ryan Murphy and “The Prom” first appeared in the December issue of TheWrap magazine.
This was supposed to be a year when the musical part of the Golden Globes Best Musical or Comedy category would really mean something. Three large-scale stage musical adaptations of Broadway shows were due to be released — Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story,” Jon Chu’s “In the Heights” and Ryan Murphy’s “The Prom” — making this the first time in 13 years that musicals might outnumber comedies among the nominees.
But “West Side Story” and “In the Heights” were both moved from their 2020 release dates to 2021 because of pandemic restrictions on the theatrical business. And that means that “The Prom” has to carry the standard for musicals by itself, unless the Disney+ version of “Hamilton” is deemed eligible (likely) or Will Ferrell’s “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” somehow crashes the race (unlikely but not inconceivable).
“I wanted it to be a tribute to all of the big brassy Broadway musicals that we grew up with and loved,” Murphy said. “After ‘Chicago’ won Best Picture (in 2003), I kept thinking, ‘Well, this is great, because musicals are going to come back into vogue again. But sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the case–although this year there was supposed to be ‘In the Heights’ and ‘West Side Story,’ but those two got pushed.”
The film came about quickly after he saw the Broadway play about fading stage stars who travel to Indiana to help a high school girl who’s been prevented from bringing her girlfriend to the prom. “It was one of those weird things where everything fell into place, which has never really happened in my career so far,” he said.
“I went to see ‘The Prom’ in January of 2019, just as a fan. Like many people at the time, the world was feeling dark to me, and I just absolutely fell in love with it. I saw kids there with their families, I saw a lot of gay people, and it just had this sense of joy and optimism. It was really about tolerance and inclusion, and also I was struck by the fact that the lead girl is from Indiana, and that’s where I grew up.
“I walked out of there saying, ‘Wow, I really want to make this.’ I came up with sort of a murderer’s row of people I’ve always wanted to work with — bucket-list people for me, and chief among them was Meryl (Streep). They all said yes within two weeks, and Meryl said yes instantly.
“I think we were all feeling the same way — we had all come off making darker things, and we wanted to make something lighter and happier.”
The film stars Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman and Andrew Rannells as the Broadway actors who head to Indiana for selfish reasons, and newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman as the high school girl who’s been ostracized because of her sexuality. The screenplay by original Broadway writers Chad Beguelin and Bob Martin added what Murphy estimated is 25% to 30% new material to flesh out some characters’ backstories and give Kidman more to do in her role as a disappointed chorus girl.
“We added a lot of heartfelt material to flesh it out because I wanted to make a movie that was for everybody, had a lot of emotion in it that it wasn’t just a musical — that it actually was about something,” Murphy said.
His model, he said, was Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s classic 1952 film “Singin’ in the Rain,” which is admittedly a very lofty goal.
“I could never do Singin’ in the Rain, but it was in that tradition,” he said. “That kind of studio moviemaking where the craftsmanship is impeccable. You used to be able to spend as much money on a musical as you would on a drama, but that’s not the case anymore — but we had a partner in Netflix who understood what the vision was.
“When we couldn’t get the permits to shoot on Broadway, we built Broadway on an abandoned four-acre lot downtown (in Los Angeles). And the actors went to what I call a Broadway boot camp. Meryl Streep trained like an athlete for four months to do the dancing, and to sing that belting kind of Broadway thing.”
For the prom scene that ends the movie, he added, the costume designer had to dress close to 500 extras, many of the Broadway dancers, in complicated costumes that in which they could dance; for the visual design, cinematographer Matthew Libatique went to musical school. “He had just come from doing ‘A Star Is Born,'” Murphy said. “That was a rock ‘n’ roll musical, but he was very obsessed with old Broadway musicals, and what is the vernacular of that and how does the camera move? We really all wanted to make a valentine to old-school movies.”
And while they were making that valentine, he added, “We all felt like, well, who knows when we’ll ever be able to make another Broadway musical into a movie? So let’s really go for it. So we did.”