In 2010, a Mississippi school called off its prom because a female student decided to wear a tuxedo and bring her girlfriend to prom. This real-life incident eventually became the inspiration for Broadway musical The Prom, and the subsequent Netflix screen adaptation.
The story for both Broadway and the Netflix follows the same beats. A group of four Broadway actors attempt to revive their flagging careers with a publicity stunt when they hear about a school in a small town who cancelled its prom after a student wanted to bring her girlfriend along as a date. They head down to the small town to bludgeon their way into helping said student. Their misguided and egotistical attempt results in hijinks and assorted mishaps. However, they soon find love and acceptance in the most unlikely places — and a little humility as well.
The Broadway production ran from October 2018 to August 2019, with impressive song-and-dance numbers befitting a musical with such a premise. The Netflix film adaptation was dropped this month, giving life to the story on screen and bringing over most of the songs unchanged from the original. Although watching the Broadway production is no longer an option, which format wore The Prom better – stage or screen?
There's no denying the colourful magic and sparkly glory of the show in both formats. Both the Broadway and Netflix versions weave a tale in which a harassed underdog, whose only crime is wanting to be herself, finds love amidst song and dance — and through her journey, brings joy and acceptance to all those around her. Both versions feature narcissistic actors who can barely clamber over their own ego to see what's happening and help. Both versions feature an incredibly high level of self-awareness and intertextual references, resulting in comedy on multiple levels.
But there's an infectious energy that the Netflix version just can't replicate (by dint of the fact that it isn't a live show) on screen. It's not for lack of trying and the film certainly tries its best to bring that enthusiasm and love into the show. However, without the feedback of a live audience (vital to the performance of any stage actor, as they will tell you) there's nothing to bounce off on. It's a matter of the medium, though, rather than the production quality.
And that's where the Netflix version shines. With more control over the sets (again, due to the nature of a feature film production), there's more time to jazz everything up and give it more "zazz". It's bigger, sparklier, and of course, more polished. It has to be. It's easier on the eyes, with near-perfect takes and editing to cover over any flaws. While some scenes in the theatre production were a little vague in where exactly they took place, the Netflix version had to be specific about those scenes were (resulting in some dialogue changes to accommodate the scenes). But overall the sets in the Netflix version are fun and fabulous to look at.
The adaptation keeps most of the songs intact — those that it changes are to enhance the plot. However, musical number The Acceptance Song is notably truncated starting from Dee Dee's segment (probably for censorship reasons, since the wordplay involves bigotry and bigamy), even though it's probably the most hilarious of the songs. Then again, it does make light of topics that would be palatable in a transient theatre context, but not in a more persistent format (like on-demand streaming). The musical numbers are accompanied by dance sequences on a far larger scale than would be possible on a theatre stage, so that is a consolation.
In terms of casting, the Netflix version is mostly spot-on, with Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman bringing star power to an already star-studded cast that also includes James Corden, Kerry Washington and Keegan Michael-Key. In particular, Washington's Mrs Greene is much less grating than the Broadway version (performed by the slightly nasal Courtenay Collins), but this could also be the result of direction — the Broadway version painted her more as a villain, while the Netflix one makes her a bit more sympathetic.
So which is better? It's a moot point, since only the Netflix version is available currently, since the Broadway musical had ended its run. The Netflix one definitely looks more fabulous. But if you love the thrill of a live show, then The Prom will begin a national tour in America starting in Rhode Island on February 2021 (not that we’ll be able to travel to the US soon, with the pandemic going on.)