The Prom has been one of our most anticipated movie releases of the year, and after watching it, we’re already ready to call it one of our favourite musical to movie adaptations.
Ahead of the movie’s December 11th release, I was offered the chance to join a global press conference with Ryan Murphy, Meryl Streep, James Corden, Jo Ellen Pellman, Ariana DeBose, Kerry Washington, Keagan Micheal-Key, and Andrew Rannells. They talked about everything from the musical that inspired the film, to their own personal connections to the story, to fun times on set.
Unsurprisingly, most of the people involved in this movie were fans of the original musical. Director Ryan Murphy says he knew he knew he wanted to make this movie as soon as he walked out of the theatre in January 2019.
“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, and I said, ‘I think I really want to make this a movie.’ And he said ‘great’ and it just started from there. Very quick and spontaneous.
“But I just loved the feeling, how it made me feel, you know? It was very old-fashioned in this way. It was like a valentine. And I loved that about it.”
For many members of the cast, making this movie was an intensely personal experience. Jo Ellen Pellman, who plays the lead role of Emma, says she related a lot to the story.
“I’m originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, so I have strong connections to the Midwest and Indiana. And I studied musical theatre in college – I was a huge theatre kid growing up – and I am such a lover of the craft of musical theatre. I saw this 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.”
Ariana DeBose – who plays opposite Pellman as Emma’s love interest, Alyssa Greene – knows the power stories like this one hold, and knows how important it is for people to see a Black woman in such an important role in a major film.
“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, then 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. So yeah, I cried a lot. Still crying now. That’s ultimately why I was so honoured when Ryan asked me to do this.”
Even director Ryan Murphy has always felt a personal connection to this show about coming out in the Midwest.
“The heroine is from Indiana,” says Murphy, “where she is denied going to her prom, and halfway through the musical, I realized 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.”
According to Kerry Washington, who plays PTA president Mrs. Greene, the power of this movie goes further than just allowing people to see themselves on screen.
“We get these moments to look at these characters and say, like, ‘oh, I see myself!’ to Ariana’s point earlier. Or, ‘I see who I don’t want to be.’ And we get to get in touch with our humanity, who we are, who we want to be, who we don’t want to be. I think that’s powerful. It’s not the only way to make change; 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.
“This story is such a powerful story about acceptance and the power to create community when you need it, and that when you fight for belonging, you create belonging for other people. It’s such a beautiful, powerful story, and I’m happy to be the bad guy to try and get in the way and be unsuccessful.”
The Prom is a beautiful and powerful story about acceptance, but more than anything, it’s fun. I’ve seen both the musical and the movie, and my main takeaway from both of them is that it’s impossible to sit still while watch it. For Meryl Streep, the dancing was a big draw, even if it was a bit difficult to master.
“I think, more than anything, I love the dancing, because I’m not a dancer in my actual life, and I love the feeling of seeing people really dance. There are numbers in The Prom where the young people get up, and when we were in the rehearsals, they would – you know, we’d be struggling with these numbers and they would get up and just sort of lift the roof with their exuberance, their joy and their vitality and love of being alive. That’s the 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.”
Dancing was, however, a bit of a struggle for Streep, who ends up doing the most dancing of any of the main cast members in the movie.
“I’m the oldest person in the cast, and I have the most dancing, and that doesn’t make sense to me!”
As for how well she pulled it off, you can decide for yourself when the movie comes out on December 11th, but I personally believe she killed it, and Nicole Kidman agrees:
“I remember seeing Meryl do her first number on the first week, and just going ‘oh my god, this is so, so good!’ I just looked at her and went ‘what? You can do that too?’”
I think – and it seems like the cast agrees with me here – one of the best things about The Prom is how many relatable experiences it talks about. Most people who grew up in North America remember their prom as an important life event. Andrew Rannells admits he had a slightly unconventional experience.
“I went to an all-boys Catholic school, and I took an older woman to my prom. She was twenty, and the difference between seventeen and twenty at that age is pretty severe. And she wore, like, a black cocktail dress – not a prom dress – and she was just, like, a woman, that I took to prom. I was overcompensating. I wasn’t fully out yet.”
I don’t have anything else to add. I just really wanted to include that quote.
The cast of The Prom includes a wide range of different actors, ranging from established acts like Streep, Rannells, Kidman and Washington, to relative unknowns like Jo Ellen Pellman and Ariana DeBose. According to the cast, their relationship on set mirrored the one their characters develop on screen.
“Truly every day on set was the best day of my life,” says Pellman. “Learning from these people who I have looked up to for so long, and learning from them as artists, but also as people, like, 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 filmed together. They are wonderful people.”
As for the more established actors, they had nothing but nice things to say about the newcomers.
“They (Pellman and DeBose) just stepped in and owned it,” says Kidman. “I was so intimidated when I watched them sing and dance.”
“I remember saying to Jo Ellen ‘I’m going to spend the rest of my life telling people that I was in Jo Ellen Pellman’s first film,’” says James Corden, who plays Barry. “Yeah, I was blown away by Jo Ellen in pretty much every scene.”
The Prom premieres December 11th on Netflix.