Meryl Streep almost missed The Prom on Broadway. It was one of those occasions, she says, where she thought “I’ll go next week” until, finally, the hit show was almost at the end of its run.
“It was absolutely packed out,” recalls Streep. “And honestly, I’ve never heard a reaction like it in a theatre. People were crying. People were laughing. They were standing on the chairs and screaming over the curtain call.”
Ryan Murphy was similarly taken with the musical which concerns a lesbian student banned from bringing her girlfriend to high school prom and the washed-up Broadway stars who jet down to assist her cause (and boost their own profiles).
“I loved that when I looked around there were families there,” he says. “There were parents with their kids. There were gay people there. There were straight women there who had come in groups. It played for everybody. I just loved that people were laughing and crying. And unexpectedly for me, was the idea that the girl who was denied going to the prom because of her sexuality was from Indiana. Which is something that happened to me and I’m from Indiana. There was a personal element there.
“I remember walking out of there thinking ‘Wow, I wish there had been something like this for me to see or watch with my parents when I was younger’. But there wasn’t. So I thought: ‘Well then maybe I should make it.’”
When Ryan Murphy started creating TV shows he was told in no uncertain terms to not write characters for gay people
Happily, Murphy was in a position to do just that. At 54, he has spent much of his career as a writer, director and producer at 21st Century Fox where he presided over a string of hits – including Glee and American Horror Story – before signing a $300 million deal with Netflix in 2018.
His bold, glamorous, outrageous aesthetic has come to define the streaming service and provides a blueprint for what makes a digital hit. The short answer is that bigger is better. Fashion, true crime and A-list celebrities define many Murphy successes: Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon starred as Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in Feud; the star-studded courtroom in The People vs OJ Simpson featured Murphy regular Sarah Paulson, David Schwimmer and John Travolta; Angela Bassett was the world’s glossiest LAPD patrol sergeant in 9-1-1.
Over lockdown – and semi-lockdown – Murphy has unveiled Ratched, a wild, lurid origin story for Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest starring Sarah Paulson; a film adaptation of Mart Crowley’s landmark 1968 play The Boys in the Band; and Hollywood, a glorious miniseries about Tinseltown’s golden age starring Broadway veterans Patti LuPone and Holland Taylor.
Incoming there’s a 10-part series about Andy Warhol; a drama about the designer Halston with Ewan McGregor; a show based on the life of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer; another based on an older Marlene Dietrich in Vegas starring Jessica Lange; and a second Broadway musical, A Chorus Line, which will be extended into a 10-episode season. And then there’s the Murphy regulars, including new seasons of The Politician and American Horror Story.
“I am a Ryan Murphy fan,” says Meryl Streep. “But I was also terrified of Ryan Murphy because of American Horror Story. It had scariness all the way through and it was beautiful and horrible and grotesque. But it also had something that felt very, very true. So I knew he had an eye for what was scary and for what is real. I loved the OJ series, I have to say. But I was unprepared for the joy and love that Ryan brings to the work.”
The Prom casts Meryl Streep as Dee Dee Allen and James Corden as Barry Glickman, two New York stage stars whose latest Broadway show – a Franklin D Roosevelt musical – closes after one hated performance. Drowning their post-curtain sorrows with fellow flops Angie (Nicole Kidman) and Trent (Andrew Rannells), the quartet hatch a plan to seize the limelight by hijacking a good cause.
That cause is Indiana high school student Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman) who – thanks to the busybody local PTA president (Kerry Washington) – has been banned from attending prom with her girlfriend Alyssa (Ariana DeBose). With the support of Emma’s kindly principal (Keegan-Michael Key) and her new celebrity chums, will she get to go to the ball?
Between toe-tapping musical numbers written by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, The Prom manages the neat trick of lightly satirising celebrities who support LGBTQ causes by enlisting a cast of celebrities who support LGBTQ causes.
Hopefully this film makes people pause and think about all of the systems and norms we have inadvertently put in place
“That’s where Ryan Murphy is incredible,” says James Corden. “As a friend, as a director, as a gay man: he supported and guided everyone through the process. That first 20 minutes in the film, I don’t know that it's necessarily a group of narcissists searching for an LGBT cause. I think they are just searching for any cause that will change their own narrative. And that’s the one that they land on.
“Ryan always knew exactly the film he wanted to make tonally. He was very keen to make a film that excluded nobody. He wanted to make a film that kids could watch with their parents and grandparents. And that it would never be too inside baseball. And I think he pulled that off.”
Murphy has found considerable success – and multiple awards – with Pose, a drama set against New York City’s African-American and Latino LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming ballroom scene in the 1980s; and The Normal Heart, a 2014 adaptation of Larry Kramer’s Aids-themed play of the same name. But as Corden notes, when Murphy initially landed in Hollywood his brand of inclusivity was discouraged.
“When Ryan Murphy moved to Los Angeles and started creating television shows he was told in no uncertain terms to not write characters for gay people,” says Corden. “And we’re talking about this in the past tense but it really wasn’t that long ago. I hope more than anything that this film – and this is why it is so great that it’s on Netflix – will beam like a burst of light beamed into households that need to see this story. Whether its young people who need to see themselves. Or their families and their friends.”
Andrew Rannells, an artist who, like Frozen’s Josh Gad, was a breakout star from the original Broadway production of The Book of Mormon, is inclined to agree.
“I get asked the question a lot which, as a gay man, drives me nuts,” says Rannells. “As a gay man who plays mostly gay parts, don’t you feel pigeonholed? My response to that is always no. That implies that there is only one kind of gay character. And I think Ryan does this so well. He is showing that there is diversity within different groups of people.”
This aspect of representation, says Keegan-Michael Key, is a defining characteristic of Ryan Murphy’s oeuvre. Key, who is one half of the comedy duo Key & Peele with Get Out creator, Jordan Peele, has emerged as a most valuable player at Netflix, where he has starred in Jingle Jangle, All the Bright Places, Dr Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham, Dolemite Is My Name and The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.
What Andrew just said about the gay community also plays the African-American community or the black community, whether they’re in Sierra Leone or Swaziland or Kansas,” says Key. “The gay community is not a monolith. The black community is not a monolith. Women are not a monolith. And as long as people at the top, people like Ryan, are the showrunners, are the people with authority, then we can see the multiplicity of these cultures.
“That’s the most important thing. That we keep allowing different kinds of people to be the head of the ship. Because they’re going to share special and unique stories.”
The Prom may wear its politics on its sleeve, but it does go some way to questioning the meaning of the event of the title and its place in American life.
“The prom is a big party and a celebration,” says Kerry Washington. “But it’s also a way for a lot of adolescents in the United States to perform adulthood. It’s a rite of passage and it happens at a crossroads in your development because proms happen at the end of your high school years. But there’s still a pressure to fit in and to meet the norms.
“The fact that some people don’t realise that others didn’t feel like they belonged at the prom – that’s what privilege looks like. Hopefully this film makes people pause and think about all of the systems and norms and cultural practices we have inadvertently put in place.”
The Prom is in selected cinemas now and on Netflix from December 11th