When Ryan Murphy called Broadway choreographer Casey Nicholaw to oversee the dance numbers on his film adaptation of “The Prom,” about a group of self-absorbed theater actors who go to a conservative Indiana town to support a lesbian high school student’s dating choice, it was a sort of return engagement. After all, Nicholaw, whose credits include “Mean Girls,” “The Book of Mormon” and “Aladdin,” served as choreographer on the 2018 Broadway production of “The Prom.” And when he walked onto what had been an empty lot in downtown L.A., he got a familiar thrill — the sight of the New York Theater District.
“They built a replica of 44th Street,” he marvels, for the film’s opening number, “Changing Lives,” which sees Meryl Streep’s Dee Dee Allen and James Corden’s Barry Glickman inside Sardi’s as they await reviews of their new Broadway show. Murphy told Nicholaw he was aiming to tap into the energetic vibe of Broadway. “He wanted it to feel like an old MGM musical, so it was about re-creating that in the contemporary world and have it be an ode to an opening night that would happen today.”
The number features 10 waiters and 35 party guests as well as Nicole Kidman (as Angie, a lifelong chorus performer who wants to be a star) and Andrew Rannells (as Trent, a down-on-his-luck New York actor). Nicholaw explains he put the number together like a jigsaw puzzle. “I worked with the waiters first and taught them their part of things, then we worked with the party guests, and finally, we taught Meryl and James their parts and we put it all together.”
For the number “Love Thy Neighbor,” which sees Rannells’ Trent preaching to Indiana teens about their lack of empathy for Emma, who just wants to go to prom with her girlfriend, Nicholaw first mapped out the moves in the studio by using props from other sets as stand-ins.
All the filming was done in L.A., with the Northridge Fashion Center doubling as the Indiana town’s mall. Incorporating the Fashion Center’s signature circular fountain, Nicholaw added steppingstones for Rannells so he could dance his way into the middle for his grand finale. “We didn’t close the mall down, either, so people were really watching as we filmed,” Nicholaw says of the production, which shot in 2019.
For Streep’s “The Lady’s Improving,” in which Dee Dee attempts to win back the respect of Principal Hawkins (played by Keegan-Michael Key) after he learns she had only come to Indiana to help her career, the Oscar-winning actor needed to learn the moves as two separate numbers. Since Hawkins is a fan of Dee Dee’s Broadway persona, Murphy wanted to be able to cut between Dee Dee wooing Hawkins in his office and a flashback to Dee Dee performing the song on a stage, since that was where Hawkins became enamored of her.
And while the number ultimately includes only a glimpse of the flashback on-screen, Nicholaw says it was still a lot of fun to film the dual versions. Streep, he adds, was a great collaborator, and when it came time to shoot the dance in the office, it was she who suggested using four students to dance around her as she performed the routine on a desk.
“The cast was just the best professionals, and they were game for everything,” Nicholaw says.