Director Ryan Murphy isn’t known for understatement, but at least here he’s on turf closer to “Glee” than “American Horror Story.” Perhaps foremost, he has provided a best-seat-in-the-house view of the 2018 Tony-nominated musical, blowing it up to levels that wouldn’t be possible on stage and can barely be accommodated on a TV screen.
The hook of Chad Beguelin, Bob Martin and Matthew Sklar’s production hinges on a group of self-involved Broadway performers who descend on a small Indiana town, looking for an activist cause and “some little injustice” to address — seeking the good publicity that might save their show after a disastrous opening. They settle on helping Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman), whose announcement that she wanted to bring another girl to the prom as her date prompted the homophobic PTA president (Kerry Washington) to cancel the event entirely.
Ellen’s uninvited benefactors, however, have trouble initially putting the girl’s interests first, while providing a virtual clinic on showbiz insecurities and self-obsession. The brightest light among them, naturally, is Meryl Streep’s Dee Dee, an imperious star with a touch of Norma Desmond in her, who tries to upgrade her three-star hotel room by brandishing one of her conveniently-packed Tonys.
The show features some beautiful and buoyant songs — “It’s Time to Dance” among the latter — but “The Prom” really sparkles with its show-business-insider touches and theater references. Those range from Streep’s preening star (her singing voice has never sounded better, incidentally) to Rannells announcing, “We are liberals from Broadway,” which the locals treat like the arrival of flying monkeys in “The Wizard of Oz.”
“We’re still celebrities,” Barry says reassuringly as those crushing early reviews pour in. “We still have power.”
“The Prom” is indeed a demonstration of star power at work, but it’s mostly a valentine to theater — at a time when theaters are closed — coupled with an overt message about LGBTQ acceptance and inclusion. All of that comes wrapped in a big neon bow, a joyous holiday gift for fans of musical theater, made by people who love the medium every bit as much as they do.
“The Prom” premieres Dec. 11 on Netflix.