An early musical number in Ryan Murphy’s big-screen adaptation of the 2018 smash Broadway musical The Prom features the central couple singing a love song to one another. It’s a kind of number that brims with love and desire and is familiar to fans of the American musical film dating back to the heyday of romantic pairings played by the likes of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers or Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. Except instead of a romance between white heterosexual characters, the core love story of The Prom centers on teen girls, one of whom is a woman of color. And that first number, “Dance With You,” performed by out actors Ariana DeBose (Hamilton, Summer, A Bronx Tale) as Alyssa Green and newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman as Emma Nolan, is a tearjerker for queer girls (for anyone, really) who’ve never seen or imagined themselves as the romantic leads in a movie musical.
The Prom is inspired in part by the 2010 saga of a Mississippi teen, Constance McMillen, who was thwarted from going to her prom because she simply desired to wear a tux and attend with the person she loved — her girlfriend. Murphy’s film, adapted to the screen by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin (the authors of the book of the play), with lyrics by Beguelin and music by Matthew Sklar, tells the story of Indiana teens Emma and Alyssa, a couple who’ve been together secretly for some time and, like any other teen couple, just want to have a proper prom. But Alyssa’s perfectionist mother, also a powerful figure of the PTA, Mrs. Green (Kerry Washington playing against type), opts to cancel the teen rite of passage altogether rather than to allow Emma to enjoy prom with the person she loves. All the while, Mrs. Green is wholly unaware of her daughter's sexuality and of the harm she causes her.
As the story goes, a group of has-been theater divas played by Meryl Streep, James Corden, Andrew Rannells, and Nicole Kidman arrives in town looking to rehab their image, and they find a cause célèbre in Emma’s plight.
Recently, De Bose, whose follow-up to The Prom is an even bigger star-making role as Anita in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, and Washington spoke candidly with The Advocate about the power of visibility for all marginalized people. Washington, a longtime ally who’s played queer in Spike Lee’s She Hate Me and recently in Little Fires Everywhere, shared how she managed to find humanity in a character who is outwardly a bigot.
“It was a really beautiful challenge for me to have to figure out how to play this bigot and to try to not judge her,” Washington said about finding her way into Mrs. Green. “In order to be her, I can’t hate her. I have to have a deep, compassionate, empathetic understanding for who she is and why she feels the way she does.
“What’s the fear? I know Mrs. Green loves Alyssa. She’s just not loving Alyssa the way Alyssa needs to be loved. And so there are tools missing in her toolbox. How can I wrap my head around that and try to bring that forward?”
With The Prom premiering Friday on Netflix, one of the largest, most accessible platforms on the planet, its story will wend its way into many households, all with the opportunity to help change hearts and minds.
“There are going to be people who watch The Prom who struggle with acceptance and who are struggling to accept these girls and to feel like it’s OK, and who don’t feel like they know the right thing to say,” Washington said. “To be able to give parents a blueprint and to be able to say, ‘It’s OK. You don’t have to do it perfectly. You don’t have to feel comfortable. You don’t have to not have fear. You just have to show up and love your child unconditionally no matter what,’ that’s such a gift.”
Another gift of The Prom is the casting of queer women to play the lead roles of the central couple. DeBose spoke about what it means to her that director Murphy cast her and Pellman to carry the mantle of visibility for The Prom’s fictional queer couple, who are sure to be meaningful for LGBTQ+ people all over the world.
“It’s a tremendous privilege and honor to bring Alyssa to life. Members of our community are very aware that our stories are not often told in this way. We do not see young queer women in this way, almost ever, especially not women of color,” DeBose said. “To be able to finally reflect that to young people all over the world, it’s a breath of fresh air. And I feel like we’re moving in the right direction.”
“We’ve done a good job about normalizing, seeing stories about white men coming out … more often than you see stories about two young queer women or queer girls. I just … I can’t talk about it too much because I will lose it,” DeBose said, on the verge of choking up.
To be sure, musicals have featured love stories between women before; Rent has Maureen and Joanne and the great number “Take Me or Leave Me.” Fun Home was created by queer women and is about a real-life lesbian Alison Bechdel, and “Ring of Keys” and “Changing My Major” are showstoppers. In Falsettos the “lesbians from next door” share some comical moments and also heartrending harmonies in “Unlikely Lovers.” But The Prom’s “Dance With You,” “You Happened,” and “Build a Prom,” in which Alyssa and Emma are without a doubt the show’s central couple, are truly groundbreaking.
“In this case, Jo Ellen and I have such beautiful chemistry, in my opinion. It’s because of how we identify in our real lives and because we know what it’s like to walk in these girls’ shoes. When you can bring that type of authenticity to the table, it just makes the material that much more rich and layered,” DeBose said. “If I didn’t identify as LGBTQ, I don’t know if Kerry and I would have made some of the discoveries that we made about Alyssa and Mrs. Green’s relationship. It does make a difference.”
“We will become role models for so many young queer kids out there, and it’s a huge responsibility. I’m so honored to have a partner in Jo Ellen Pellman,” DeBose added. “Together, I’m really excited to see what we’re able to create and how we can continue to advocate for our queer brothers and sisters no matter how they identify. Because I think that representation does matter and I think it’s a beautiful gift to be given The Prom at this time that we are living in.”
The notion that the couple and what they represent will be meaningful to LGBTQ+ people of all ages who’ve never dared to imagine themselves as the romantic lead in a musical resonated with Washington.
“I almost burst into tears when you said, ‘Somebody like me who’s never seen myself as a lead in a big movie musical,’ Washington told The Advocate in the interview. “Because you and I are not the same. I have often thought, I don’t see myself as the lead because I’m a Black woman. I don’t factor in the sexuality part.
“When you say that, it just was like, there are so many of us that don’t feel seen. There are so many of us that struggle to feel like we belong. This work is so important, this work of centering ourselves and centering marginalized stories is so necessary.
“That healing is still unfolding. The narrative still has the opportunity to heal the places that society didn’t show up for you,” Washington said.
Watch the full interview with DeBose and Washington above. And watch The Prom on Netflix beginning Friday.