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The Prom: the challenges of adapting the stage to the screen

Meryl Streep and James Corden singing on a table.
Meryl Streep and James Corden in The Prom. MELINDA SUE GORDON/NETFLIX

There is growing excitement for the star-studded release of the Netflix film adaptation of the award-winning musical, The Prom. Inspired by a true story, the musical comedy follows a group of out-of-work Broadway actors who fight for lesbian teenager Emma Nolan to bring her closeted girlfriend Alyssa Greene to her high school prom.

From The Jazz Singer (1927) to Kander and Ebb’s Chicago (2002), performers playing performers is a familiar ploy in film musicals. But it’s a formula that doesn’t always work. Marvin Hamlisch’s 1975 backstage musical A Chorus Line was a phenomenal success at the box office, running for 15 years on Broadway (far surpassing the record for longest-running Broadway musical previously set by Grease), yet the 1985 film adaptation bombed.

A different beast

One of the most significant challenges in reimagining a stage musical for film is that of condensing a longer theatre work into the more modest proportions (with no interval) afforded by cinema. This inevitably means sacrificing some of the material of the original for the sake of shape and flow.

Certain songs are streamlined or cut altogether. Often at least one new song is added. More spoken dialogue is incorporated, as well as greater attention given to the show’s visual dimension. Actors, typically lip-synching to a “perfect” studio-recorded track, need only play to the camera right in front of them, not to the extremities of the theatre audience, facilitating more intimate and nuanced performances.

Film is also much more sensitive than stage musicals to the need for A-list stars. The Prom, which boasts a glittering line-up led by Meryl Streep, James Corden and Nicole Kidman, is certainly no exception. The larger casts and manifold possibilities for expansive on-location filming beyond the “three-sided box” of theatre will also help to bring to life pivotal scenes in Netflix’s musical adaptation, not least that of the titular prom itself.

A heavy investment

In recent years, Hollywood has recognised the powerful hit-making potential of major musicals on the big screen.

Some have been adaptations of blockbuster stage shows, including ABBA jukebox musical Mamma mia! (2008), which was the fifth highest-grossing film that year and was so popular it inspired an original sequel, Mamma mia! Here We Go Again (2018). There have also been financially and critically successful adaptations of Les Misérables (2012) and Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods (2014).

An anomaly here would be the adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats (2019), which, despite its all-star cast and big budget, tanked. That said, it is potentially already on its way to becoming a cult film as it teeters on the line of so bad it’s potentially good.

Despite the failure of Cats, Hollywood has a series of film adaptations of stage musicals in the pipeline. Some of these are contemporary musicals, such as Everybody’s Talking About Jamie and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights.

There’s also a series of planned remakes of classic film musical adaptations, including Guys and Dolls, Fiddler on the Roof and Little Shop of Horrors.

The biggest of these, however, is the remake of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story with Steven Spielberg in the director’s chair. This could be considered a particularly brave move since the original is much-loved and netted a total of ten academy awards. To mess with perfection, as many perceive the original, could be dangerous – even 60 years later.

We’ll have to wait until winter 2021 to see whether it succeeds though, as West Side Story’s debut has been pushed back along with many other films set for December release.

With many cinemas and theatres still closed, The Prom going to straight to Netflix next month will be a welcome addition to festive watching for many. Following the success of Netflix’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga earlier this year, as well as the video of the stage version of the critically acclaimed Hamilton on Disney+, there is a certainly a healthy appetite for movie musicals and The Prom is sure to do well for Netflix.

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