Reviews: Would “The Boys in the Band” go to “The Prom”?

I spent the weekend catching up on two high-profile, gay-themed streaming productions – Netflix’s The Boys in the Band and The Prom. The former is a star-studded remount of Mart Crowley’s ground-breaking 1968 Off-Broadway production (and William Friedkin’s 1970 film adaptation) directed by Joe Mantello with the latter being a star-studded remounting of the 2018 Broadway musical production (that closed in less-than-a-year despite receiving good reviews and six Tony nominations) directed by Ryan Murphy.

One wouldn’t think there are any similarities between a 50-year-old, small-scale dramatic production and a modern-day, big-budget Broadway musical, but there are a few. They share thematic elements (acceptance and self-acceptance), music plays a role in the two shows, and actor Andrew Rannells appears in both productions.

It’s in the shows’ casting that the real similarity (and issue for me) between the two arises. In both cases, roles that originated with no-name performers were recast with some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. To a certain degree, it’s understandable. The revival of The Boys in the Band would probably never have occurred had actors like Jim Parsons and Zachary Quinto not signed on and many attribute The Prom’s relatively short Broadway run to its lack of star-power. That being said, the stars’ power to get the one show produced and the other a mainstream audience – while admirable – led to casting that diminished the shows a bit in my eyes.

As a young gay man growing up in the 1970’s, The Boys in the Band was the only representation I saw of people who felt like I felt on screen (at least until Billy Crystal’s character on Soap, but I’m not even going to go there.) I don’t remember how I knew that the play and movie existed, but I do know that when I saw that the film was going to run at 1 am on a school night on a New York TV station that I plotted to watch it. I set my alarm, got out of bed, dragged myself down to the family TV, turned the TV on, turned the screen brightness down and the volume to a whisper, and spent the next two-plus hours with a group of gay men celebrating a birthday.

The actors’ anonymity allowed me to just be a fly on the wall at the party as they drank, ate cracked crab (or didn’t), danced, insulted each other, and welcomed an unexpected guest. Then they played a game – a devastating game – which ended when birthday-boy Harold (Leonard Frey in the original, Quinto in the remount) played his own version of the game and destroyed his host Michael (Kenneth Nelson in the original, Parsons in the remount) with a few short words. Those words were burned into my brain that early morning and have remained with me to this day.

As powerful as those words remain, I have to wonder if they are less powerful today coming from new Spock to Sheldon Cooper. It’s not that I don’t like the actors or that their performances are lacking, it’s that the characters bear the burden of the weight of the audiences’ preconceptions.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had an advantage not knowing anything about the actors (or their sexuality) that early weekday morning as I stared at a 19-inch TV tube. The media-saturated world of today means that current audiences have to get past their initial levels-of-awareness (I love The Big Bang Theory! He was great in Book of Mormon! I read they’re all gay in real life, too!) before they can surrender to the story and maybe begin to heed the show’s final words:

“If we could just not hate ourselves so much,” says Michael, “if we could just learn not to hate ourselves quite so very much.”

Hearing those words helped me to start the long process of not hating myself quite so very much.

A lot of hate is being directed toward The Prom, with James Corden’s performance in particular the target of a lot of vitriol. Corden plays Barry Glickman, a Drama Desk Award-winning Broadway actor who’s unabashedly gay. Corden’s performance has a lot of people gnashing their teeth, but I gotta say that Corden’s not doing anything that Eric Stonestreet didn’t do for eleven years on Modern Family and he won an Emmy award for it.

The show itself is a cotton-candy-like confection of a musical. Alternately sweet and messy, it also suffers from a bit of “star-itis”. Four semi-has-been, semi-never-was Broadway performers (Corden, Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, and the afore-mention Rannells) head for the heartland as they seek a cause to redeem themselves in the eyes of I-don’t-know-who after appearing in a flop, being reduced to bar tending, and losing the role of Roxie Hart in Chicago to Gilligan’s Island’s Tina Louise.

The cause they happen upon is the cause of Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman), an Indiana student who wants to go to her high school prom with her girlfriend Alyssa (Ariana BeBose). The community is in an uproar so it’s New York-elites to the rescue!

The show is colorful, bouncy, and not the least bit grounded in reality. It’s kind of a throw-back to a time when musicals were just meant to entertain with maybe a smidgeon of “message” At the very least it’s a gay version of Disney’s High School Musical – if that isn’t redundant. It is exceedingly simplistic in its approach – in both story and music – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t enjoyable, especially for theatre people who LOVE theatre shows about theatre people.

Some will be offended by the subject matter, some have been offended by the performances, but the only thing that really offended me in this production was its approach to dance.

When did the most mobile thing in a film musical become the camera? How about letting the dancers dance and you just setup the camera and film them? Why does every number these days look like it’s being filmed from a camera atop a drone? Can I just watch the dancers dance without having to take a Dramamine? Here’s a thought – if the shot doesn’t contain the dancers’ legs, don’t use it!

Pellman and DeBose bring genuine heart to the only roles that really require it. Everyone else is a cartoon character of varying degree. The New York-contingent is there to poke fun at New York theatre-types with Streep sending herself up without ever disappearing into the character. Rannells pokes fun at Broadway “TV stars”, and Nicole Kidman… well, I’m not quite sure why she’s in it. She doesn’t have that much to do. Corden is there to represent the older gay generation (See how far we’ve come!) and to have a heart-warming reconciliation with his estranged mother (Tracey Ullman). I found Keegan-Michael Key quite appealing as the theatre-loving and overwhelming supportive school Principal though his relationship with Streep’s character is one of the show’s least-grounded, least-real bits.

You’ll probably enjoy The Prom more if you look at it as fantasy, or as yet another entry in director Ryan Murphy’s camp-filled canon.

It was interesting watching both these productions back-to-back and thinking of how far we had come in fifty years and how much further we have to go. Truth be told, I’d love to hear what the characters from The Boys in the Band have to say about The Prom.

Fan-fiction writers?

The Boys in the Band and The Prom are streaming exclusively on Netflix.

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