The Prom broadway big number sequence "Time to Dance" with Emma, Alyssa, Company

Let’s Talk About Emma in Ryan Murphy’s Adaptation of The Prom

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Flawed as it may be, I enjoyed the 2018 musical The Prom and though it did not last long on Broadway, it still managed to get multiple Tony nominations, including Best Actress for Caitlin Kinnunen, who played Emma. This is why the Ryan Murphy adaptation which aired on Netflix is such a disappointment for how they treated Emma.

The Prom is a 2018 Broadway musical loosely based on the 2010 incident where Constance McMillen, a senior in Mississippi, was banned from attending prom because she wanted to bring her girlfriend and wear a tuxedo. Instead of Constance McMillen we have Emma Nolan, a lesbian who wants to bring her girlfriend to prom, only to have the school board and her fellow students turn against her when the prom is canceled.

Four Broadway talents then decide to appropriate Emma’s struggle as a way to fix their own image and eventually, along the way, they learn to be less narcissistic, self-involved figures.

The Prom Netflix adaptation dealt with a lot of casting scrutiny following news that Meryl Streep and others were cast rather than people with Broadway backgrounds or the original cast themselves. After that feedback, it was announced that two queer actresses, Jo Ellen Pellman and Ariana DeBose, had been cast in the main teenager roles, the latter of whom also has a Broadway background.

With Pellman as Emma Nolan, the problem isn’t Pellman. She’s a great singer, but somewhere along the line, she was told that expressing any emotion except placid joy was the way to go. Emma in the live-show was a curvier, definitely more of a butch, sarcastic character with short hair, quips for days, and a personality that made her easy to root for by the end of “Just Breathe.”

In the very first scene where we meet Emma properly in the 2020 film, she is being the victim of a hate crime, but her smiley Pollyanna-like expressions never fade to the point where I had to scroll back to make sure I didn’t miss anything. I choose to believe that this was a directional choice and not the fault of Pellman herself as she now has the character looking strangely at easy with every hate crime and traumatic incident she is forced to suffer. I’ve seen Disney Princesses be more actively unhappy.

A scene from Netlfix's the Prom

Caitlin Kinnunen has been very frank about the fact that she was pretty much passed over for this role and while Hollywood can be weird about casting stage actors for film performances, it still feels like at every turn with Murphy’s The Prom, very clear choices were made. They made this version of Emma much more “femme”: she is more petite, no glasses, and that feels like a very pointed choice to make your lesbian female lead more … acceptable rather than allowing the aspects of her that were interesting in the show to shine.

“I think the Broadway cast is phenomenal and wonderful, and we acknowledge and appreciate their hard work,” said Murphy, according to an article from the L.A. Times. “We are indebted to them, of course, as we are to any show that becomes a movie musical.”

Yet no one from the original cast was monetarily compensated for the film or was mentioned in its credits sequence, either by name or as a collective. The producers, however, were mentioned.

The Prom was a very sweet musical that meant a lot to me and there are a lot of problems with the transition from stage to film, especially who gets the focus on certain shots and scenes. But for me, the moment I knew that I wasn’t going to enjoy The Prom (2020) was when a line that Emma says in the musical sarcastically was played 100% straight in the film. Her teeth were pulled and since the heart of The Prom is Emma, that made the whole production hard to watch.

I hope that other people—especially the young people who need The Prom—will find something in it. I think there is good stuff there, but I am disappointed that when the movie had a chance to make some really good choices to improve the source material they only made one.

And yes, that’s the casting of Kerry Washington as Mrs. Greene.

(image: Broadway/Screengrab)

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Princess Weekes
Princess (she/her-bisexual) is a Brooklyn born Megan Fox truther, who loves Sailor Moon, mythology, and diversity within sci-fi/fantasy. Still lives in Brooklyn with her over 500 Pokémon that she has Eevee trained into a mighty army. Team Zutara forever.