I never had heard of ‘The Prom’ Netflix film until watching it a few weeks prior. Netflix has been hit or miss recently, but I was hopeful regardless. As someone who is a musician and performs on a regular basis, and was a classic ‘theater kid’ in middle and early high school, I can’t pass up a chance to watch people randomly burst into song and dance.
However, when I read the synopsis of ‘The Prom’ before pressing play, I genuinely became excited. The film’s main characters and plot line featured two lesbians–one of them open and the other closeted and one of them fighting for them to go to prom together. As someone who identifies as bisexual and a member of the LGBTQ+ community, this would be the first time I’d really seen people like me in the major key role. It also offered a different perspective for me personally. I was never ‘out’ in high school. The crushes and little love tales came and went for me in high school and I decided it would be best for me to simply keep my mouth shut. ‘Who needs love anyway!?’ Was what I would tell myself. The world, my own personal world rather, was not ready. It was better that way.
So, I sat myself down and got to relish in my old memories of high school while the movie started to move forward. Of course, it did not start with Emma right away. We are first whisked to New York where the likes of Dee Dee Allen (Maryl Streep) and Barry Glickman (James Cordon) take the center stage and mooch off each other’s massive Ego. In a rash decision to prove to the world that they are good people, they hear about Emma’s story through Twitter, their two friends, Angie Dickinson and Trent Oliver join them, and they run off to Indiana in an attempt to ‘help’ Emma with her dilemma.
And then we get to hear Emma sing for the first time. Her wonderful soprano voice soars above the bullying and harassment made from her small-town classmates. She is caught in the whimsical, upbeat song of ‘Just Breathe’. The song is joyful, the point is that everything is going to be okay, just take a deep breathe and all the unjustly words said to you will evaporate. Kind of reminds me of songs in other musicals when the main character arrive in the ~Big City~ for the first time and the song is mostly just about how big and wonderful everything is going to be now that they are in the ~Big City~.
But…that’s not really how it feels being gay? Or at least, it sure didn’t feel whimsical when I realized I wasn’t like everybody else. Now, perhaps I’m interpreting the song differently. Because while ‘Just Breathe’ is about taking a deep breathe and the butterflies go away, it also begins with the line, ‘Don’t be gay in Indiana’ and throughout the piece Emma continually mentions trying to leave as fast as she can in ‘leave today, pray the greyhound isn’t full’ and how badly she feels like she’s screwed up by mentioning her severed relationship with her parents and ‘then guess what’s about to hit the fan?’ if you’re out. The song’s lyrics overarch a duality of how she is feeling, trying to relax and stay calm about being the true person she is, even though it is completely rejected by the society around her. However, the way the instrumental line moves doesn’t necessarily match the lyrics. It’s fast, upbeat, and overall joyful. The backing track has spunk to it and the musical line travels upward musically when Emma sings, ‘Just breathe, Emma’. I think this is when the musical first started to confuse me a little. Because I personally couldn’t really identify with the overall joyful theme of the music when half of the song’s lyrics is joyful and whimsical and the other half is Emma proclaiming: I have severed every known relationship I have here because I chose to openly be my true self.
If I came out in high school, perhaps my friends would have understood, but there still would have been snide remarks and jokes that overall, would make me feel hurt. My family, forever and always traditional, would have not believed me, blamed the ‘liberal’ high school ideas for the ‘influence’, and many tears later, I probably would have ended up in some type of therapy or gone off to some type of camp. I have memories of my Dad saying multiple times to my brothers “Remember, you can’t be gay in this household.” Well, little did he know he was talking to wrong kid(s). My Mom told me if I was queer she would stop paying my tuition for college when I was Freshman. Well, guess I’m waiting until after graduation to let her know. I have a distinctive memory of my Mom reading a book entitled ‘The Homosexual Agenda’ during the supreme court rulings in 2015; a book about how members of the LGBTQ+ community are attempting to ‘destroy traditional marriage’. Sometimes she would try and discuss it with me, but I had nothing to say to her. There wasn’t really room for discussion.
In the end, when I hear this song, I want to enjoy it, I really do, but I can’t find myself identifying with Emma as much as I’d hoped. While I believe there is nothing wrong with being hopeful, I feel like the character was written to blindly miss the reality of the situation. It is not a happy life she is living; it is a hurtful one. I don’t believe many people in her position would have this overall cheery disposition; especially when a spotlight is put on you during your teenaged years. Maybe certain types of people loved to be in the spotlight, but in high school, I could not WAIT to get out of it. I enjoyed being put in the back (I am tall), I could love what I got to do when I performed and at the same time, no one got to stare at me while I did it.
I continued to watch the musical, pondering the different songs that came on and the morally ambiguous choices that the Broadway squad make in their’ humble’ efforts to help Emma. They go through the motions of protesting and failing at it horrendously. Emma’s classmates continue to be rude and misunderstand her until Trent Oliver meets up with them at the mall and a musical number ensues called ‘Love Thy Neighbor.’ It was this musical number where I finally understood why this musical was written the way it was. The Prom is a gay musical for straight people. Because straight people aren’t ever going to fully understand or identify with Emma’s character. They are not going to understand the fear and reality of getting thrown out of your own house like Emma, or the unnecessary mockery and hate Emma receives from her classmates. Or the fear of the possibility that is what could happen if you chose a path similar to Emma’s; a fear that constantly drives Alyssa Greene, Emma’s girlfriend, further into the closet. Straight cis people can empathize and educate and help, but they never have to fear being in the same position as our main character.
Enter the Broadway squad to steal the show constantly with their over the top musical numbers, glitter, and sparkling lights. This is something everyone can get behind and easy for everyone to understand and accept. Like in the song ‘Just breathe’, there’s almost two stories happening at the same time in ‘The Prom’ and gap is bridged with the song, ‘Love Thy Neighbor’. The number is an ensemble piece, but with the mean high schoolers and not the Broadway stars, it starts with them talking and discussing the current events of the terrible prom that was given only to Emma in the high school gym. Trent Oliver is by himself with the students and begins singing about the different types of ‘sins’ each of the kids has committed that would cause them to ‘burn in hell’ if they treated those action the same way they treat homosexuality. He goes through pre-marital sex, getting tattoos, and someone’s Mother getting a divorce. Eventually the cast of the touring musical, Godspell, joins Oliver for support and the song ends when the high school kids also decide to join in the song and dance. They determine that Emma did not turn gay, she was in fact, always gay and that doesn’t make any better/worse than they themselves.
The musical, in short, is for people like the high school kids that do not understand. Because at the end of the musical when the lies have been revealed and settled and Emma’s partner shows her true self to the world and her mother, there is another prom. And it is not a prom specifically for members of the LGBTQ+ community, it is a prom for everyone. A prom where Alyssa Greene’s mother shows up and decides to love and accept her daughter even though it goes against everything else her character has done throughout the film. The musical is for the broad spectrum of people and the reality is, it is for straight people to get an inner glimpse of what being different might be like. Of what being different was/is and probably will always be like; specifically in terms of sexuality. It doesn’t really try to make you fully understand what being gay is like; Emma is after all, only a character and while she is the main character she only takes center stage briefly. The Broadway wannabe mega-stars are the true spotlight with all of the glitter and show. It’s an introduction to life within the gay community. The musical plays it safe, has many character stereotypes and tropes, and doesn’t veer too far from the typical structure of what makes a musical a musical.
So at the end, when I had finally finished watching, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little hurt. It would’ve been a little nice for Emma to be a bit more realistic and for her story to be more personal. It would have been nice to see her as the full person she is, her fears and loss and all to get her to become the person we see her as. I know I am fully a person and have a story to tell with being in the closet and slowly coming out to trusted friends one at a time as my years in college wore on. However, I still enjoy musicals and the song dance and well the overarching message of the film: “Love Thy Neighbor.” When it all comes down to it, there is nothing morally wrong with the film because that is the message that it wanted to portray. I still enjoyed the musical and the journey it took me on even if it wasn’t completely realistic. While the film may not be specifically for me, I still chose to enjoy it, because at the end of the day, the most important thing I can do is ‘Love Thy Neighbor.’