How Did Netflix’s ‘The Prom’ Musical—and James Corden’s Performance—Become a Big Gay Crisis?
The feel-good musical was supposed to be a heartwarming balm, yet there’s outrage over James Corden’s “offensive” turn as a flamboyant, gay theatre star. What went wrong?
It’s not a memorable prom unless there’s a little scandal.
Of course, scandal might have been the last thing on Netflix and Ryan Murphy’s minds when the streamer and content mogul fast-tracked the feel-good, queer-positive Broadway musical The Prom from stage to screen in record time.
The Prom puts to zippy music and quippy dialogue the story of an Indiana teen who is banned from her conservative high school’s prom when it comes to light that she planned to attend with her girlfriend. The story goes viral and captures the attention of a group of Broadway veterans in need of a PR boost, so they pack up their jazz shoes and make a pilgrimage to the Midwest to help the devastated girl—and repair their reputations.
As the lore goes, Murphy had seen the production in New York one night in January 2019 and was so moved by it that, by April, he announced that he was making it into a movie. Two months later, he had secured a starry cast including Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman, Andrew Rannells, and Kerry Washington.
The Broadway show had already closed by the time shooting began, but Murphy was still eager to bring the film version to Netflix. After COVID halted filming with key scenes still left to capture, the A-listers channeled their characters’ “the show must go on!” gumption and devised protocols that allowed The Prom to be among the first films to resume production after the pandemic shutdown.
And with good reason. The source material on its own is emotional manna at a time starved for its kind of heart-bursting positivity, hope, and humor.
Tears flow freely and often, what with the high stakes of teenage emotions and the sheer cruelty behind the community’s intolerance. You also have Meryl Streep in a Liza Minnelli wig sauntering through torch ballads, tongue-in-cheek one-liners that lovingly skewer Broadway, and Nicole Kidman as a Fosse chorus girl seemingly having the time of her life as she implores through song to “give it some zazz.”
Meryl belting, Nicole shimmying, crying about lesbians: What a delight! It’s all meant to be innocent, inspirational fun. So why has the film already been marked for controversy?
While it’s hard to imagine The Prom being anything but a crowd-pleasing hit with the Netflix crowd when it hits the streamer on Friday, it seems to have alienated a core base of its intended audience.
At the center of the criticism, though not the limit of it, is the casting of and performance by James Corden, a straight man, as flamboyant Broadway leading man Barry Glickman, a character who self-describes as “gay as a bucket of wigs… a BUCKET of them!”
Barry and Dee Dee Allen, the two-time Tony winner played by Streep, are branded as toxic megalomaniacs after their mounting of Eleanor: The Musical flops with critics. “What didn’t they like?” Barry wonders. “Was it the hip-hop?”
They enlist friends Angie (Kidman), who quit the Chicago ensemble after being passed over as Roxie Hart for 20 years running, and Trent (Rannells), who is between gigs despite his oft-mentioned Juilliard training, to help transform their reputations as celebrity narcissists into celebrity activists.
They storm small-town Indiana like it’s the barricade in the Les Miz act closer, Trent proudly announcing, “We are liberals from Broadway!” Despite their selfish intentions, they all are instantly touched by the plight of Emma (newcomer Jo Ellen Pelman), disturbed once outside their Broadway bubble to see how much intolerance still exists.
Barry, who was shunned by his own parents after coming out as gay, takes a particular shine to Emma, suggesting “you be Elphie, I’m Galinda” as he takes her shopping for prom dresses and coaches her through the self-loathing and heartbreak of rejection purely because of your sexuality.
Corden’s Barry is very gay. He is limp-wrists, slight-lisp, gasping-with-excitement gay. It’s faithful to how Brooks Ashmanskas, who was nominated for a Tony Award—and is an out gay man—played the role on Broadway. It’s how the role is written. Yet, in the year 2020, there is something that can be triggering about watching a straight actor like Corden perform flaming-queer drag, whether or not that’s what the role requires.
Erik Anderson, founder of AwardsWatch, labeled Corden’s campy performance “gross and offensive, the worst gay-face in a long, long time. It’s horrifically bad.” Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson ruled that with his “insulting” performance, Corden, “flitting and lisping around in the most uninspired of caricatures, misses all potential for nuance.” Digital Spy’s Ian Sandwell decried that Corden dialed the flamboyance up “to the point of being regressive and offensive, hitting every gay stereotype along the way.”
Not every critic who screened The Prom in advance of Friday’s Netflix debut was turned off by Corden’s performance. One could reasonably expect a broader audience might even adore the “Carpool Karaoke” driver’s sashay to this particular brand of broad comedy song-and-dance.
For every colleague of mine who found his work “abominable,” another was amused and moved. In his Variety review, Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Corden may be attacked in some quarters for portraying Barry as a gay stereotype, but like Christopher Guest in Waiting for Guffman he burrows so deeply into the character that he gives him a three-dimensional essence. He’s soulfully funny and touching.”
I personally think the criticism is overly harsh, perhaps primed by sight-unseen exasperation that Corden, a straight actor, was cast in the first place. I’m of many complicated minds when it comes to that debate, but Corden’s performance didn’t offend me. He was perfectly enjoyable acting a character as it was meant to be played. Whether he should be playing it at all is its own, separate issue, which speaks to what Ben Lee posited in The Guardian: “James Corden proves why straight actors should think twice before playing gay.”
There’s no good answer to the “should straight actors play gay?” debate.
They shouldn’t, unless it’s Timothée Chalamet giving a tender approximation of queer longing and disappointment, Trevante Rhodes shattering your heart, or Stanley Tucci being irresistibly charming, in which case they should. Unless, of course, there have recently been too many straight actors playing major gay roles in a row, in which case they still shouldn’t. Unless it’s Stanley Tucci being unfathomably devastating in a same-sex Alzheimer’s romantic drama, in which case he gets a pass.
A straight actor's campy take on a gay role can still be groundbreaking, like Robin Williams helping The Birdcage become a box-office smash. Or Eric Stonestreet and the ways in which Modern Family’s Mitch and Cam helped move the mainstream world forward in terms of not just gay acceptance, but also the acceptance of gay love. Unless, however, that performance remains the biggest gay representation for so long that it somehow becomes both shrill and stale at the same time.
The camp and clichés are fun when you're laughing, like if you find James Corden hilarious in The Prom. And it’s offensive and damaging if you find his flamboyance to be a pandering marginalization.
So hire gay actors for gay roles—though that too often siloes them into one kind of performance and career. So don’t think about sexuality when you’re casting gay roles—though that is a negligence of storytelling responsibility and the cultural imperative for representation and opportunity.
It’s clearly a landmine issue. And some wondered why Netflix and Murphy, specifically, who has a groundbreaking track record of inclusive casting, would wade into it all. Critics’ and fans’ resounding alternative choice for Corden’s role is Nathan Lane—and pretty much only Nathan Lane, which speaks a bit to why casting like this is so important: There are far too few “big names” that come to mind to play a larger-than-life, openly gay role.
Then there’s the fact that Ashmanskas, who played Barry on Broadway, is, you know, still alive. In fact, the entire original Broadway cast has, um, not died. Though its run was criminally short, it was beloved by those who had a chance to see it. Even Murphy himself was moved enough to put a movie version into light-speed production. Wouldn’t allowing the Broadway cast to reprise their roles have prevented this entire issue?
That’s another debate to be of two minds about. Woven into the fabric of the show itself is the idea of Broadway hoofers struggling for relevance in an industry constantly slighting them for movie stars. (Kidman’s Angie is aghast that Chicago’s producers have ruled Gilligan’s Island star Tina Louise a bigger draw as Roxie than her, a seasoned musical performer.) The star casting arguably betrays that ethos of the show.
Yet on the other hand, at least part of the fun of a splashy movie musical is getting excited over the utterly random roster of movie stars brought in to warble and stumble through the roles. That may even be inherent to the genre of movie musicals itself. By that token, you can see why Corden might seem a natural choice to play a lead in The Prom.
Having starred in Into the Woods and Cats, not to mention having hosted the Tony Awards and featured musical theater almost constantly on The Late Late Show, Corden would feasibly top a list of “big names” for a show that boasts an unabashed embrace of Broadway as a major plot. That’s not to say he should or shouldn’t have been chosen over a theater star or an out gay actor. It’s just to illustrate how circuitous and nuanced this conversation can be.
I’d venture that most people who hit play on The Prom this weekend will be wholly ignorant of this entire debate, and will just find it to be a fun and heartwarming musical with a topical message about love. And that’s what it is. It’s no masterpiece of the canon, but the songs are catchy, the LGBT inclusivity is a treat, Streep is giving one of her most energetic performances in years, and there’s just no underselling the delight of Kidman doing a Fosse number about “zazz.”
But that’s why these conversations are important, even if there are no clear answers, and even if they are exhausting or steal some of the fun. It’s valid that there are people turned off by Corden’s performance, or by the fact that he was cast at all. Will you share that opinion? You might. You might not. You might be so enraged you’ll want to burn your own bucket of wigs in a bonfire. Or you won’t notice there is an issue at all.
There’s an almost outrageous dissonance between the well-intentioned Hollywood stars setting out to make an innocent, fun musical about queer acceptance, and the grenades that are now exploding around it. But the discourse matters, and every once in a while there's a lightning-rod project or performance like this that electrifies that energy right back into the zeitgeist. That, if you will, “gives it some zazz.”