Netflix's musical comedy — about a group of self-centered actors who descend upon small-town Indiana to support a teenager banned from bringing her girlfriend to the dance — required its A-list stars to step out of their comfort zones.
Nicole Kidman is no stranger to musicals, having won a Golden Globe for her star-making performance in 2001's Moulin Rouge! and later appearing in Rob Marshall's 2009 adaptation of the Broadway musical Nine. Angie, Kidman's character in The Prom, is a seasoned Broadway chorus girl, the type whose hope of catching a big break may have dimmed, but who still relishes a career hoofing in the footlights. It's this spirit of perseverance and wonder that drives Kidman's big solo, in which she encourages young Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman) to put some pep in her step and ultimately triumph over the bullies at school (and in the PTA) with a song titled "Zazz."
" 'Zazz' is all about the style," says the film's choreographer, Casey Nicholaw, the Tony-award winning director of The Book of Mormon who also helmed the 2019 Broadway production of The Prom. "So it's not giant moves, it's smaller moves" like flicks of the wrists and hips, in the manner of Bob Fosse. While Fosse's signature choreography has a dry quality to it, Kidman's moves in the film are "a little bit more buoyant" than your typical Chicago chorus girl, Nicholaw says, because she's teaching them to Emma and demonstrating for her. The number finds Kidman performing in Emma's living room and eventually leading her in a mini kick-line down the stairs.
"We did it in pieces," Nicholaw says of teaching choreography to Kidman, who insisted on drilling the moves again and again to get them into her body. "No one worked harder than Nicole did on trying to get all those steps," Nicholaw says. "She was just relentless. She didn't stop until she got it right."
Emma eventually catches on, and the lesson lends her the confidence to carry forward. As Angie, Kidman is tasked with playing a showbiz veteran who still feels butterflies backstage. "Nicole's energy in the movie is just fantastic," Nicholaw says. Angie's "been around, but she's not beat yet."
Meryl Streep has proven her talents at leading a movie musical, with two Mamma Mia! films and Into the Woods under her belt, but the Oscar winner has always said she’s an actress first. Her many musical performances onscreen, including as lousy aspiring opera singer Florence Foster Jenkins and the hammy Broadway diva Madeline Ashton in Death Becomes Her, stem naturally from her mastery of a specific character.
As Dee Dee Allen in The Prom, Streep plays another Broadway diva looking to revamp her public image after starring in a flop musical about Eleanor Roosevelt. Being a diva onstage often means being surrounded by dancers doing elaborate moves so you don’t have to, says choreographer Nicholaw. "The steps are all made to do as much or as little as you want with them," he says, "because a star doesn’t have to dance nearly as hard as everybody else." While Streep performs playful, Broadway-style choreography in each of her solo numbers, her character isn’t expected to be a dance phenom.
What makes Dee Dee a star is her powerhouse vocals, which meant plenty of preparation behind the scenes. "It’s kind of like a basketball player who’s training and getting into shape," says Keith Harrison Dworkin, Streep’s vocal coach for the film. You know what the play is going to be and the demands of the game, "but when you’re on the court, the moment is always going to throw something new at you," Dworkin says. The goal was to help Streep become familiar and confident enough with the music "to be able to pivot as she needs to and get to the basket in some new and exciting way that people are going to cheer for," Dworkin says.
Playing a character who’s known for her belt, a strong part of the voice generally higher than one’s speaking voice, was a challenge, as it’s not the sort of vocal performance Streep is generally known for. "We knew we wanted to approach our work with respect and diligence, and find that part of her voice in the most healthy way possible," Dworkin says. "Ultimately, she sang the music the way it’s meant to be sung and brought it to the next level."
Keegan-Michael Key is known as a high-energy performer willing to go the distance for a laugh. But in The Prom, his character, Tom Hawkins, is more often the calm voice of reason — as a high school principal, it comes with the territory. One thing that does rouse his excitement, though, is the arrival in town of Streep’s Dee Dee Allen. He’s a big fan, and eventually the two fall for each other.
Key’s big solo in the film, "We Look to You," is an ode to the magic of theater from the perspective of a devoted audience member. "This character is obviously quite different from most everything [Key] is typically known for," says Key’s vocal coach, Liz Caplan, who also worked with him on Netflix’s holiday film Jingle Jangle. "We did a lot of physically grounding him into his body with his breath, and containing his very outgoing energy into a piece that was very stable and reflective and introspective," she says.
She describes Key as a consummate performer, pointing out that his work on Key and Peele often included musical comedy sketches. "The singing voice is always there; he’s a natural," she says. Their work focused on how Key’s performance of the song would provide insight into his character. "We talked a lot about his character and what he wanted to accomplish with it on film," Caplan says. "In musicals, a song is where you find the character’s main expression. It really gives you an embodied sense of who this person is."
Much like his character, Key is also a big fan of Broadway, where he appeared in Steve Martin’s comedy Meteor Shower in 2018. "He came in moved by having seen the Broadway production of The Prom," Caplan says. And the actor finished their work together “truly grateful and enthusiastic about bringing this character to life onscreen."
This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.