EXCLUSIVE: When I saw The Prom early in its run on Broadway a couple of years ago, I was blown away. Pure delight and a real crowd-pleaser. The plot revolved around a group of flamboyant, self-obsessed Broadway actors, badly in need of good publicity after a huge flop, who converge on a small, conservative town in Indiana to help a high school girl who is being denied the opportunity to take her girlfriend to the prom. It was not only relevant, but also full of old fashioned high-energy song and dance and lots of laughs with heart.
Why it played less than a year is a mystery to me, but before a planned national tour could even get off the ground before the coronavirus pandemic hit, producer-director Ryan Murphy swooped in and saved the day by scooping up rights for a film version, attaching major names to star like Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman for starters, and quickly getting Netflix (where he has a major producing deal) on board to back it. All of this was done in record time, almost a land-speed record for an undertaking like this, and now the finished product will be a holiday gift to world when Netflix begins streaming it December 11.
I got the opportunity to see the film version a few weeks ago just as Murphy was finishing it, and it not only matches the stage show for pure entertainment, it tops it. This is a return to musicals the way Hollywood used to regularly turn them out in its Golden Era, and with a name cast at the very height of their games it will put a smile on a lot of faces this season, just as it is needed most. If you ask me it also is a real awards contender, not just at the Golden Globes where it could dominate its Comedy/Musical category, but also at the Oscarswhere voters just might have had enough of dark stories or molasses-paced indies, and want to see something instead that might light up their spirits in these dreary times. It is too bad it can’t be widely seen in theaters, because this is the kind of film that would be a blast to share with a big crowd. Nevertheless, this is likely to be a huge hit for Netflix, no question.
I hopped on the phone with Murphy to talk about it, and other plans he has to continue his love affair with Broadway including a new reboot of A Chorus Line for which he recently acquired rights to do as a Netflix limited series.
DEADLINE: What was it about The Prom, seeing it so early, that made you want to immediately get rolling on a film version? Things don’t usually happen this fast in Hollywood.
RYAN MURPHY: Yeah. It was a weird experience that I’ve never really had before where I just went, you know, as fan. I was invited by the producers and I went sort of on a snowy January night, and this was in 2019, right? So, at that point I was just feeling I think like a lot of people were blue about the state of the world, it just seemed like a very hard time, and I walked into that musical and I remember having a moment where I looked around and I saw that people were laughing and crying alternatively, and there were a lot of kids with parents there, which I was very moved by, and of course then I really just deeply related to the idea of Jo Ellen’s character who is in Indiana and just fighting for the right to be seen and to participate in the world like everybody else.
So, I just walked out of that theatre that night and I was like I’m going to do this. So, I made an offer and the producers; they really wanted me to do it. So, that was a very easy and quick deal to go. That was closed in a week, and then the next week I said OK, I’m going to go out to all of the people that I’ve wanted to work with, my first choices. So, I went out to Meryl and Nicole and James [Corden] and Kerry [Washington] I believe, and they all came back instantly and said yes within a week. So, then I had this weird thing of my dream cast just said yes, then I went to Netflix and they greenlit it that day.
So, it all happened within like 2 1/2 weeks, and then we started pre-production the next week to shoot in December. I got the rights the first week in February and then we were shooting on December the 2nd I think. So, it was just one of those weird things that you can never really figure out. I was shocked at how quickly it came about, but I was thrilled. We had a very long pre-production process because we had to build Broadway before, but it just felt like kismet. It just felt like a really wonderful, easy experience and the fact everyone saw it in the same way, was so enthusiastic, and everybody wanted to do it. Meryl was the first to say yes and she always sets the tone and she said, ‘You know, I just want to do something that’s joyful. I’m tired of crying all the time. I want to do something that’s celebratory.” I feel like that’s what people want right now, and also the show has such a good, uplifting message of inclusion. So, it just all kind of came together really, really quickly.
DEADLINE: It is usually years before big Broadway musicals finally make their way to the screen. Look at Wicked which is still in development at Universal after all this time. Does your Netflix deal help you in that regard that you can just go to them and they listen?
MURPHY: Yeah. I think it does. I mean you have Scott Stuber, who is the head of film. o his credit, when I was going out to all the stars, Scott and Ted [Sarandos] went to the show and they saw it, and they saw it with an audience and just instantly understood what it was. So, when I got that cast they said “Yes, let’s go.” So, there was really no developmental process on it. The guys who wrote the Broadway book worked with me and we did the movie script.
I think that you’re right that it’s an easier place to navigate when you have a deal like mine because they signed me up to follow my passion. I think also when I explained to them that it was a family event, a holiday event kind of deal, that it was a mainstream four-quadrant thing, that that’s what I was interested in, and then I got Meryl Streep to say yes, and then they saw it and they listened to the music and they loved the role of the two young girls that we had not cast, but they knew that I would find two great young women to play those parts. You are able to cut through the clutter there.
And it’s the kind of thing that both Ted and Scott like to make, which is sort of bold yet accessible entertainment. I mean, that’s the reason I went there. That’s all the stuff that I was loving that they were doing. This is not to say that they don’t want me to do sort of smaller things because I certainly have those in my development, but I mean I was literally there for not even six months when I saw this and they were like yes, greenlit, go. So, it happened quickly. I think everybody at Netflix just loved what it was about and they wanted to put that out into the world. So, that’s probably why we’re here.
DEADLINE: Why do you think the time is right now for this?
MURPHY: My attraction to doing it was that I wanted to do a really big movie musical for everybody that’s in the tradition of the big Hollywood musicals that I grew up on that I loved. Everything from Singin’ in the Rain to Chicago to Les Mis, these big, bold Broadway musicals that you can cast really great stars in and let everybody shine and find new people and show them off to the world. When we were making it I don’t think that we knew that the timing of it would be so great, but I think that what you’re seeing in the country right now is people at least trying to all come together. Enough with the opposite rhetoric, enough with the poisonous discourse. Let’s try and build an America, particularly, and a world for everyone, and that’s what The Prom is about. In fact, the main line and the most important line in the whole movie musical is when they sing, “build a prom for everybody,” and I think that’s a metaphor, and the movie is about something that is a feeling that I’m very passionate about right now. So, it feels good, and the marketing tagline of the movie is “Celebrate.” Celebrate love. Celebrate tolerance. Celebrate music. Celebrate dance. So, I think that it hits something. It hits at the moment.
DEADLINE: This year, before COVID derailed the plans, there were supposed to be a number of Broadway musical movie adaptations like West Side Story and In The Heights. But they have been pushed to next year, so you are the first one up as it turns out.
MURPHY: The Prom was always an underdog. It was an underdog when it was on Broadway. It was ultimately nominated for many, many Tonys, and I think people who saw it loved it, but this does give it a wider audience, and yeah. I was excited about this year of musicals because you can feel there’s something about them that people love and I’ve always loved them, but I always thought there would be more of them especially after Chicago won the Oscar. I thought oh, great. We’re going to have a long line of them, but that didn’t really happen, but now there does seem to be an interest from specific filmmakers to explore that because it’s very embedded that musicals are also about our love of Hollywood. My grandmother exposed me to all of those great, big, star-studded Hollywood musicals that we used to watch on television over and over and over, and I loved them, but they went out of vogue and I hope they’re coming back because at the core of them they’re all about feeling good and spreading a message of joy. I think Meryl when she saw the movie, she said “The Prom is a balm.” It just lets you feel good for a moment. It takes your mind off the darkness of the world right now with the pandemic and the political discourse, and I think that’s right.
DEADLINE: This is your first time directing a musical. What was it like steering this starry cast?
MURPHY: So, there was this idea like wow, we get to make a really big-budget Hollywood musical. When is that going to ever happen for us? This is fun, and you know, you couldn’t pull them apart. The thing that I marveled at is they showed up to watch other people’s work. Usually everybody wants to go to their trailers. They never did this. Every day there was a gaggle of them. Meryl and James and Keegan [-MIchael Key] and Kerry and the two young girls [Jo Ellen Pellman, Ariana DeBose] and Nicole, they were all sitting together, and Andrew [Rannells], and they just became like a real Broadway show.
They became a company and they hung out like a company and we had dinners like a company and they rooted for other people’s numbers, and it was fun. Nearly everybody had just come from doing something very heavy or dark or dramatic, and so I think the fact that the musical was fun and had a really good message and was uplifting, you know, just the laughing and the joy and I think the chemistry that the cast has, they had from day one because they were just so thrilled to do it, but they rooted for each other. They had been working on these numbers for months, and we took over a dance studio at Paramount Pictures. So, they were really working, they had injuries and then people would be icing each other’s knees, and it was very charming and great to see.
DEADLINE: And then the pandemic hits and you almost didn’t get to finish this movie, right?
MURPHY: That was really scary because we’d been shooting for almost four months and we had three days left to shoot. We were supposed to shoot on a Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and then I went home on Wednesday night and Wednesday we had just finished wrapping Nicole. We were shooting Zazz when news broke of Tom Hanks catching the coronavirus — he was doing the Baz Luhrmann movie — and then everybody was like “Oh, OK. This is scary,” and then the next day they shut us down.
So another thing that I was really proud of is that Ted and Scott particularly wanted, and I did also, to find a way forward because people hadn’t worked in four months, and a lot of people wanted to work and needed to feed their families. We didn’t know how we were going to do it. So, we worked with a group of epidemiologists and we kind of put together a protocol, a get-back-to-work protocol that people are really using around town, and we were one of the first, if not the first in L.A., to shoot, and we got to finish the movie at the end of July. So, that was a really joyous thing, and then we kept on track with our editing and we were able to make our release date. I never thought that we’d finish it because it just seemed like “Wow, how are we going to get back to work?” But we did. We finished it. You roll up your sleeves and how do we do this? How do we get this thing made? How do we get this thing done? And I was proud of the fact that we could do that.
DEADLINE: From the cinematography to the production design this really looked first-rate all the way.
MURPHY: The great thing about the Netflix world is when they get behind something, they really get behind it, and when it became apparent that we couldn’t shoot in New York on Broadway because we couldn’t shut down eight city blocks, I thought “Well, I don’t know if they’re going to make this,” and they said “No, let’s build Broadway.” So, that’s what we did.
DEADLINE: You re-created Broadway in downtown Los Angeles?
MURPHY: Yeah. You know, what we did is we went to Broadway, you know, those theatres on Broadway, the Broadway theatres, and we took one street in particular and we measured the streets. We measured literally how long, how wide, how high are the buildings, how many light bulbs are in the marquees, how tall is the curb, and then we took over a multi-acre parking lot downtown that was deserted and then we built Broadway. Like, we built those theatres. We built those facades. When you watch it and there’s some digital work done of course, but it was sort of like old-fashioned movie-making in that way.
There’s two musical numbers that take place in the streets, and I think for the actors I wanted them to feel like they were really dancing down a deserted late-night Broadway street. I wanted to give them that. When they showed up, the four of them — Nicole and James and Andrew and Meryl — they were drop-jawed at the set because Jamie [Walker McCall], our production designer, did such an amazing job of re-creating that street. It felt just so real, and I think whenever you can do that, particularly for an actor, I just wanted them to feel their characters were supposed to be Broadway veterans. So, I thought well, how fun would it actually be to build Broadway? And also, for me it was just kind of a challenge.
DEADLINE: This isn’t your only Broadway adaptation this year. You revived The Boys in the Band and then turned it into a new film version after the New York run that is also on Netflix right now. You seem to be a big believer in bringing Broadway back to the movies.
MURPHY: Yeah. You know, it happened to me in a very interesting way. I’ve always been a fan of Broadway, and then what happened was I was working with Jessica Lange and I said to her one day what have you always wanted to do that you haven’t done? And she said well, I’ve always wanted to do Long Day’s Journey Into Night on Broadway, and I said, “Well, why don’t we do that?” So, I called, I got the rights, and we did it and I produced it and it won a Tony. She won the Tony for Best Actress. I had never thought that I could do it because I always felt like it’s such a closed-off community and I had never done it before, but then I kind of got the bug with that, and then I went after Boys in the Band, and then I got The Prom, and I also just got the rights to do A Chorus Line. So, I have a great passion for it. I believe in it. I think that it’s something that I loved.
DEADLINE: Did you say you are doing a new film version of A Chorus Line? The original movie was not a critical or commercial hit.
MURPHY: Yeah. We’re trying a different approach with that, which we’re trying to do A Chorus Line as a limited series for Netflix. My favorite Broadway director of all time, producer, whatever, is Michael Bennett. So, it’s going to be A Chorus Line with all that wonderful music, but also the idea of how did he make A Chorus Line? And the thing that I was always very fascinated by, he did it for the love of the craft, and he took out a little office in Times Square and he took gypsies into those rooms and said tell me about your lives, and from those interview sessions came the music, and so I got the rights to all of those interviews. I have all of those tapes. I have all of that material about how was “What I Did For Love,” what is that about? How was “Dance: Ten, Looks: Three?” So that’s a very interesting process that I’m going to start working on next year. I haven’t started that one yet but you know, I want to keep doing it. I’m doing another musical called The Legend of Georgia McBride, also for Netflix, which is written by Matthew Lopez, who just wrote The Inheritance, and I’m producing that with Jim Parsons. So I have a passion for it, and I think people love musicals. I love that phrase “if you can’t say it, sing it’.” I think there’s something very magical about that.