Ryan Murphy on Why ‘The Prom’ Is Perfect for Our Time and Meryl Streep Rapping

The Emmy-winning director talks about shooting during the pandemic and discovering Jo Ellen Pellman and Ariana DeBose.

The Prom
Melinda Sue Gordon/NETFLIX

Ryan Murphy saw a January 2019 Broadway production of “The Prom” at the Longacre Theatre, and he knew right away that he wanted to make a film adaptation under his production deal at Netflix. Very quickly, it received the green light. By early February he had all the actors, producers and a plan to begin filming in December. By shooting time, the Broadway production had already closed, not recouping its investment of $13.5 million, but still, Murphy wanted to bring its positive message to the Netflix global community. In an interview with Variety, Murphy spoke about the journey of getting the musical adaptation to the screen.

I was fortunate enough to see the film a few weeks ago while Murphy put the final touches. Normally when I sit to watch a movie, my wife Jessica, an elementary special education teacher, will partake depending on how much grading or planning needs to be done. During the pandemic, she will often work while half-watching it alongside me. Within the first 10 minutes of the film’s opening moments, she closed her laptop and snuggled up to take in the magic with our 9-year-old daughter Sophia in tow. In a time where the world, Broadway and Hollywood have been crippled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, “The Prom” brought some very poignant positivity to the household.

In his third directorial feature, Murphy, a six-time Emmy winner, has found the perfect vehicle that marries all his creative expressions with this musically moving material. After he saw the Broadway show, Murphy reached out to his first choices, which included James Corden, Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep and Kerry Washington, and pitched the idea to them. Within one week, the four actors were on board.

There’s a line in the movie that says, “Let’s build a prom for everyone” and that’s what Murphy was most connected to. “The theme of the movie is fighting intolerance, and I think we were all feeling that way in our lives,” he says. “Every day, making it was a joy.”

When there were three days left in shooting, Nicole Kidman’s standout number “Zazz” will always stand out to the “American Horror Story” creator. “We had just finished shooting Nicole doing ‘Zazz,’ and that was the night we found out that Tom Hanks had coronavirus,” Murphy says. With significant scenes still left to film, the entire country went into lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The possibility of completing production and making its planned holiday release were both in flux.

Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s co-CEO and chief content officer, Scott Stuber, head of original films, and Murphy all wanted the film to be released during Christmas. Murphy says, “At that point, people hadn’t worked in four months, and we knew people were hurting and needed to work for their families to put food on the table.”

With a group of epidemiologists, Netflix and Murphy created an industry protocol to go back to production and film the final final scenes. All of those protocols that were designed are still being used by Murphy as he shoots the upcoming limited series “American Crime Story: Impeachment” about the Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Read more from Murphy’s interview below:

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Jo Ellen Pellman and Ariana DeBose in “The Prom” MELINDA SUE GORDON/NETFLIX

Why did you choose to direct “The Prom,” and what were you most excited about?

There is so much passion and warmth in the movie. I think the reason everyone said “Yes” so quickly was because of the message. The passionate idea at the core of the movie is “Everyone should be able to have a place at the table.” The movie’s theme is fighting intolerance, and I think we were all feeling that in our lives.

We kept saying this is an old-fashioned movie musical. This is a love letter to Hollywood musicals that we all grew up on. Movies like “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Chicago” and “An American in Paris” that were similar love letters to the medium and the magic of movie musicals. I’ve never done something so old-fashioned. My work tends to be a little bit edgier. I really set out to make something that was for everyone, something that parents can watch with their kids. I was excited about the discipline of making an old-fashioned movie that is a Valentine to an industry that has gone away.

When we found out that we couldn’t shoot on Broadway, I thought, “Well that’s it, we can’t make the movie,” and Netflix was like, “We’ll build Broadway.” We were able to take over a multi-acre slot downtown and we built this set. It took almost six months to make. We were so specific about everything. We measured the real street on Broadway and then just replicated it.

How did you relate to the film’s message?

There’s a line in the movie that says, “Build a prom for everyone,” and that’s a holistic idea about the world. I was excited about that.

It was a bucket list experience to get to work with Meryl, Nicole, James, Kerry, all people I love. And then finding Jo Ellen and Ariana, these two young ladies. I really wanted a discovery, and we found it. Jo Ellen had never been in front of a camera before and on her second day, she had a scene with Meryl Streep. Everyone loved her and took care of her. Ariana is amazing and a star.

It’s not a preachy movie. The idea that this movie can make kids who feel alone or rejected a part of the community. People in Russia or Ukraine, where you can be killed for being gay, young people can find this movie and find hope. I was excited we were able to finish it and get it out.

How did you end up settling on the original song “Wear Your Crown?”

We wrote a song that was a sad song, but it didn’t fit with the tone of the movie. And then we got to the end of the movie, with the end-credit design sequence. When I saw that, I think we needed an end-credit song that’s about the women. It’s about the female power in the film. I told the songwriting team and the composer, “Let’s do something upbeat, that we can send people out in a celebratory fashion, and let’s have all the women do the vocal tracks. Furthermore, let’s have Meryl Streep rap.” They were like “What?” I said, “I want her to rap. I need her to rap.” They laughed, and they went off and wrote the song “Wear Your Crown,” and it’s optimistic and makes you feel good. It has a message of fighting intolerance and being proud of who you are. We wanted to leave young people with that feeling.

So you wanted Meryl Streep to rap?

I think Meryl fans are going to go crazy for it. I have a video of Meryl rapping. She was so good that we used her first take, which just goes to show you there’s nothing that Meryl Streep cannot do.

What does this film say to Broadway, a community that is in incredible pain at the moment?

It’s heartbreaking. Broadway is very important to me. One of the things that we’re doing is holding a benefit in late November/early December. We’re going to show the movie to the Broadway community and raise funds. We’re going to give money to the Actors Fund because there are so many actors, some of which were in our movie, that aren’t working. Meryl and I are going to be co-chairs of that screening and that event.

I also love the timing of this movie because people who love Broadway and musicals can’t get them right now. This will hopefully remind people of that joy they get at a Broadway show.

Ariana DeBose as Alyssa Greene is one of the few, if not the only, Latinx actors in a major film role this year. Firstly, thank you for Ariana’s casting, and secondly, what does her inclusion mean for the movie?

She’s a star and a Broadway veteran, even though she’s young. She was a great collaborator, and both of those young women have really strong ideas about scenes. They knew this movie would be on Netflix and seen all over the world. Ariana’s going to be an important cultural figure. She’s one of the leads in “West Side Story” next year, and she’s a powerhouse. She has very strong opinions, and I loved working with her because she knows how hard it is and how we should be expanding who is available and who gets to play what roles.

“The Prom” will be released on Netflix on Dec. 11.