Prom: Musical Starring Meryl Streep

“It was hard for me, my knees hurt, they bothered me for five months after we wrapped up,” says Meryl Streep, who’s 71, about the making of her latest film, musical comedy The Prom.
“If you’re doing a real stage musical, you do it for two hours at night and that’s it,” says the star, who started her career on the stage in the 1970s. “But we were shooting eight hours a day, and rehearsing the numbers over and over again.”
In order to build stamina and strength, the actress took to the pool. “I swam a mile every day, five days a week, and it really helped, just breathing in and out, getting those lungs to be able to take in big breaths of air.”
Directed by Ryan Murphy, The Prom has been adapted for the Netflix screen by Chad Beguelin and Bob Martin, from the Broadway show they created with composer Matthew Sklar. Streep plays Dee Dee Allen, a New York stage star, who, along with her friend and colleague Barry Glickman (James Corden), is facing a career crisis after the flop of their latest show.
Cut to small-town Indiana, where high-school student Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman) is facing another kind of crisis: conservative PTA head Mrs Greene (Kerry Washington) has forbidden her from attending the prom with her girlfriend, Alyssa (Ariana DeBose). When they get wind of Emma’s woes, Dee Dee and Barry decide that this is just the cause for them to champion and restore their own tarnished public images in the process. However, their shameless self-interest backfires and events take unexpected turns from there, with Nicole Kidman and Keegan-Michael Key also along for the ride.
Streep says that her own first prom wasn’t particularly pleasant either: “I was 14 years old, and I was going with a boy who was 18. I was very excited, and I had a pretty dress that my mother made for me. It had what they call spaghetti straps.” All went smoothly until she and her date entered the prom hall. “I sat down real hard, and both straps popped off,” Streep recalls. “I had nothing to keep the dress up. So I tucked myself in and I danced like that all night, which was awful.”
It was with great relish that she took on the role of Dee Dee, the sort of self-possessed diva she admits she has sometimes wished to be in real-life: “I always wanted to walk into a room and feel like I owned it, but I don’t have that thing, so it’s really a lot of fun to play.”
Streep, who has previously shown off her musical-comedy chops in 2008’s Abba jukebox movie Mamma Mia! and as the tuneless titular singer in 2016’s Florence Foster Jenkins, enjoys puncturing pomposity: “It’s easy to make fun of narcissistic people who have inflated sense of themselves, because it’s so transparent, and it’s always hilarious. A lot of comedies are built on pricking those bloated egos.” Without mentioning names, she adds: “We have such a good template for narcissism in our political life – you don’t have to go far for inspiration.”
 
“Ryan has enormous amount of power right now, he can pretty much do what he wants.  But even given that, he’s only doing things that are meaningful to him. This piece is very personal, based on something that happened to him as a young boy. He was growing up in Indiana, and he was unable to go to the prom with the person he liked. I just love that he wants to deliver a story full of hope and joy out of a thing that caused him so much pain.”
She emphasizes that the film has a positive message at its heart that is fitting for the season of goodwill: one of acceptance. “Everything is pulling towards the moment where Mrs Greene and her daughter reconcile. It made me cry the day we shot it, and I’m proud to be in a film that will give heart to a lot of families. Both the children who feel alienated, and the parents who might see a way through to lead with love, as opposed to intolerance.”
Liza with a Z
Throughout her career, Streep has been inspired by the great ladies of the stage, and one in particular. “When I was a student at Yale, I went down to see Liza with a Z at the Winter Garden. I sat in the cheapest seats, but I felt that Liza Minnelli delivered a personal performance to me in the very back row.” While noting that it was a far cry from her Yale studies at the Yale school of drama, this was a different kind of education. “It taught me something about theatre, about acting, about performance – you can’t just replicate real life, it isn’t enough. There’s got to be an element of generosity and propulsion of what it is you’re giving out to the audience. Liza’s performance was seminal for me as an actor.”
 
Streep related to The Prom’s themes of sexual and gender identity in a personal way. “When I was in the sixth grade in a little school in New Jersey, my music teacher Paul Grossman was very influential. And when he became a woman, he was fired from our school.” Grossman remained with his wife and children, but the experience made a profound impression on the young Meryl, or Mary Louise, as she was then. “It was really seismic, the fact that he would be punished. He was one of the most wonderful teachers I’ve ever had, so all these issues entered my life as a child.”
Although Streep is the most acclaimed actress of her generation, with a record 21 Oscar nominations and three wins (two lead, one supporting), Streep says the lure of awards has not lost its lustre. “You never get tired of being rewarded for your work, of feeling that what you’re trying to do has been seen and appreciated. When I look at the two young performers in our film, Ariana DeBose and Jo Ellen Pellman, and I see all that nascent beautiful budding talent, and I know that the awards that will come their way are going to mean something huge in their lives, and I can’t wait for them to feel that appreciation.”
Yet despite all the adulation, her self-perception has not changed: “I don’t think I’ve ever stopped thinking of myself as anything other than a working actor.  I don’t know why that is, perhaps because I don’t believe my own press,” she says, even if those around her are starstruck. “I do feel that some directors are very apprehensive around me. But it’s just something that you have to get through quickly, in the first couple of days, because the essence of acting is really listening and feeling. That’s the only way performance gets done.”  Currently, the indefatigable actress is in Boston, shooting Don’t Look Up, a political satire written and directed by Adam McKay and starring Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio.
 
Like many others, she doesn’t know what her Christmas will look like this year: “I think I’ll be spending it in a hotel in Boston quarantining, because I am shooting a film. I might be able to drive to my home, which is in the countryside near there. Two of my daughters are in New York shows, so they are tested regularly. The three of us can get together, but the rest of the family is in California.” She has another son and daughter, all of them with sculptor Don Gummer, to whom she has been married since 1978.
Regarding recent political upheavals, Streep, who has been outspoken in her criticism of Donald Trump, observes: “We’ve been waiting a long time for all kinds of liberation and tolerance. At the end of the 20th century, things started to open up for all sorts of reasons. And now maybe we’re experiencing backlash, because the arc of justice is long, and the arc of history is long, but it tends and bends towards justice. We’ll get there, but it’s a constant battle.”
Now she is optimistic and cannot wait for the country “to go back to fact-based, science-based friendly time, to being respectful of expertise, things that have been missing over the past four years.”
Among other things lost to the pandemic, she misses singing with other people: “That’s something that’s gone away in this horrible moment of Covid-19, the joy that you get singing with other people in the same room.” She can’t wait for live theatres to come back, “because losing that is like losing our lifeblood. And when it will come back, we will appreciate it so much more, just like we appreciate spring after winter.”
Our Movie is not Just Froth, it has Intent
For this reason, the message of tolerance and acceptance in Prom, delivered with the joy of music and dance, could not be more timely: “It’s just what we need right now,” says Streep. “While the great movie musicals were born during the Depression, people gravitated towards them out of a hunger for escapism. But with Prom, you’re not going to escape its meaning. You just cannot. Our movie is not just froth, it has intent, and that’s its greatest merit.”
The Prom is in movie theaters now and on Netflix from December 11

Credits:

Directed by Ryan Murphy
Produced by Adam Anders, Dori Berinstein, Chad Beguelin, Bill Damaschke, Bob Martin, Ryan Murphy, Scott Robertson, Matthew Sklar, Alexis Martin Woodall

Screenplay by Chad Beguelin, Bob Martin, based on The Prom by Chad Beguelin, Bob Martin, Matthew Sklar

Music by Matthew Sklar

Cinematography Matthew Libatique
Edited by Peggy Tachdjian, Danielle Wang

Production company: Ryan Murphy Productions

Distributed by Netflix

Release date: December 4, 2020

Running time: 131 minutes