Once again, a fictional Indiana town provides the backdrop for a highly promoted Netflix-original with a cast that has Hollywood holiday blockbuster slathered all over it.
Walking in the footsteps of megahit “Stranger Things,” Netflix’s “The Prom” is poised to follow up its Dec. 4 limited theatrical release with its debut on the streaming platform Friday.
The musical tells the story of Emma Nolan, played by newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman. Nolan is a student at fictitious James Madison High School who’s banned from her prom because she wants to attend with her girlfriend.
It also follows a group of Broadway stars making the trip from Manhattan to middle-America to help Emma go to prom in a thinly veiled PR stunt on the heels of a bad review in The New York Times.
But unlike the warm, nostalgic vibes emanating from Hawkins, Indiana, there is very little warmth coming from or directed to Edgewater, Indiana, where much of the Broadway-adaptation takes place. At least throughout Act 1.
Take this onslaught of digs at Indiana sung by stars Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman and Andrew Rannells just 13 minutes into the film.
“Those fist-pumping, Bible-thumping, Spam-eating, cousin-loving, cow-tipping, shoulder-slumping, finger-wagging, Hoosier-humping losers and their homely wives. They’ll learn compassion, and better fashion, once we at last start changing lives.”
Shots fired. A full clip. But the roots for this animosity are based on real events.
“The Prom” is based on an original concept by Jack Viertel with a book by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin, music by Matthew Sklar and lyrics by Beguelin.
In a 2018 interview with NBC News, Beguelin said “The Prom” was inspired in part by Mike Pence, as well as the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, better known as RFRA. He also invited Pence to the show.
RFRA legislation crafted during Pence’s time as governor sparked controversy and protests because of its potential erosion of LGBTQ protections. State lawmakers passed an amendment intended to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination, which was signed into law on April 2, 2015. “The Prom” made its world premiere at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta the next year.
Pence’s office did not immediately respond to IndyStar’s response for comment on the musical. But the Indiana ties extend beyond Pence.
West Lafayette native Ted Arthur serves as associate music director for the Broadway production.
In a November 2018 interview with The Lafayette Journal & Courier, Arthur talked about the story’s setting.
“The writers really took care to get details right about Indiana,” Arthur said. “In the beginning, the show took place in another state, but after the uproar over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 2015, the writers thought it would be more timely to change the setting to the fictitious town of Edgewater, Indiana.”
The Netflix film is directed by Ryan Murphy, who grew up in Indianapolis and graduated from Warren Central High School and Indiana University. The multi-time Emmy winner previously told IndyStar he had a similar experience when Warren Central advised him not to bring his boyfriend to prom in the early 1980s.
So naturally, Indiana doesn’t come off as the most tolerant place in the world when the movie gets rolling.
‘This is Indiana’
Take the first big solo number from Emma. It begins as she walks through the halls after her classmates continue to be consistently awful to her.
“Note to self, don’t be gay in Indiana. Big heads up, that’s a really stupid plan,” she sings. “There are places where it’s in to be out, maybe San Francisco or thereabout, but in Indiana without a doubt, if you’re not straight then guess what’s bound to hit the fan.”
Emma is interrupted by two boys during swim practice. They ask Emma who her girlfriend is. She says they don’t know her because she’s new, kind of like an exchange student.
One of the boys then jokes that Emma should exchange her girlfriend for a guy. They high five and dive into the pool.
Our leading lady rolls right into verse two.
“Note to self, people suck in Indiana,” she sings.
Kerry Washington sheds Olivia Pope’s name but keeps her wardrobe for her turn as the primary antagonist and PTA leader. She also quickly cranks her villain-meter up from “unlikable” to “mustache-twirling.”
It’s her character that opens the film and proclaims the entire James Madison prom will be canceled in order to keep Emma from bringing her girlfriend.
When the school principal, played by Keegan Michael-Key, tells Washington’s character at a public meeting that the state’s attorney wants the school to have an inclusive prom because that’s what they feel best reflects America’s values, she responds with:
“Well this isn’t America. This is Indiana.” Her statement draws wild applause from the crowd.
One part pickup trucks, one part pristine Hamilton County
Indiana’s role in the film is largely to be a punching bag, capable of sprinkling down-home charm between spoken and sung insults. And while there are no direct references to RFRA, there are plenty of allusions to the rhetoric and arguments that supported it.
At the same meeting where Washington proclaimed “This is Indiana” with the same energy Gerard Butler carried for Sparta before delivering a chest kick, she shuts down a slight bubbling of support among students with a statement about government overreach.
“This is about government tearing our community apart. It’s about big government taking away our freedom of choice,” she said.
Give up any hope of trying to figure out exactly where in Indiana this is supposed to be.
Indianapolis-area? Southern Indiana? The Region? Your guess is as good as mine. Edgewater manages to be one part pickup trucks and monster truck rallies, and one part pristine Hamilton County subdivisions with white limousines that fill the streets.
And despite all the insisting that “this is Indiana!,” there is nothing visually distinct about Edgewater that says Indiana at all. It could be any city with an Applebee’s.
It is also hard to nail down a community that would be so fiercely opposed to even the smallest of LGBTQ+ rights while also having a Black woman as head of the PTA and a Black man as the high school principal.
The good news for those unable to roll with the punches thrown at the state is that the writers begin to pull them a bit in Act 2. No spoilers here, but spoiler alert, not everyone in Indiana is full of hatred after all!
And anyone tuning in to see James Corden eating a tenderloin will be disappointed. Not a single fried pork sandwich appears in “The Prom,” but there is a blink-and-you-might-miss-it reference to Hoosier Pie.
“The Prom” begins streaming on Netflix Friday, Dec. 11. It is also playing locally in theaters at Landmark Keystone Art Cinema in Indianapolis, and Studio 10 Cinemas in Shelbyville.
Call IndyStar reporter Justin L. Mack at 317-444-6138. Follow him on Twitter: @justinlmack.