James Corden isn’t that bad in The Prom. Based on the accusations of “gayface” in the early reviews of Netflix’s adaptation of the Broadway musical, I had expected a full-blown, out-of-control, caricature of the role that Brooks Ashmanskas had originated first in Atlanta in 2016, and then on Broadway two years later.
But for the most part, Corden offered a toned-down version of the over-the-top role I remember seeing on stage. He was… fine. It’s certainly not the best performance I’ve ever seen, but I was expecting something much worse. Yet I have no trouble understanding why so many found the performance offensive. There’s no way that Corden, a straight man, could have taken on the role of Barry Glickman successfully. Barry Glickman is a ridiculous, over-the-top, and yes, stereotypical character; but he’s also heartfelt, nuanced, and sincere. That was in large part thanks to Brooks Ashmanskas, whose name should be at the forefront of this conversation. It’s not that James Corden sucks, it’s just that Ashmanskas was perfect. And he was right there. It’s a glaring casting blunder, and director Ryan Murphy did both men a disservice by using Corden over Ashmanskas.
Composed by Matthew Sklar, with lyrics by Chad Beguelin who also co-wrote the book by Bob Martin, The Prom tells the story of four Broadway actors who travel to a small town in Indiana to help a high school lesbian who was banned from attending prom with her date. Though the stars—Barry, Dee Dee, Angie, and Trent—claim to be acting out of the goodness of their hearts, really they hope to rehabilitate their image after Barry and Dee Dee’s critically-panned Eleanor Roosevelt musical. As you might expect, much fun is poked at these “liberal elite” characters. Everyone, and I do mean everyone, is dialed up to 11. Dee Dee—played by Meryl Streep in the film and Beth Leavel on Broadway—is an aging diva with two Tonys and a major ego problem. Barry is only marginally better as a self-obsessed queen with unresolved trauma and anger for how he was treated by family and friends for coming out in his youth.
Ashmanskas, who is openly gay, never held back on prancing around the stage for laughs. Nor did he hold back when it came time to peel back Barry’s layers of trauma. Night after night, Ashmanskas would masterfully build from “funny gay uncle” to raw, emotional honesty, all while crushing his solos and dance numbers along the way. It’s no surprise the role earned him a Tony nomination. (It’s still a crime that he lost to Santino Fontana in Tootsie that year.)
“The character is very much a turned-up version of me,” Ashmanskas said in a 2018 interview with Backstage Magazine. “It’s really challenged me to just embrace being as honest as possible. I’m usually out to be just a funny guy, which is fine; I love making people laugh. But there are layers to this character. It’s really refreshing, honestly.”
Corden, who hosted the Tonys the year Ashmanskas was nominated and saw The Prom on Broadway himself, clearly attempted to emulate Ashmanskas’s mannerisms in the 2020 film, by flitting and gasping around, though with considerably less finesse than Ashmanskas. One could even argue he scales it back. The best line in the Broadway show is a kicker sung by Barry—”Now let’s go help that dyke!”—just after he and his actor pals have sung a number about teaching the backward folks of Indiana how to be politically correct in “Changing Lives (Reprise). But in the movie, it’s been cut.
Instead, Corden sings, “Now let’s go start a fight,” which has none of the irony, hilarity, or punch of the original. Perhaps that was to keep the PG-13 rating, but perhaps it’s because Murphy, Corden, and others were painfully aware just how wrong that would sound coming from a straight man’s mouth.
The half-hearted lisp that Corden does in The Prom is, admittedly, baffling. The real Corden does not have a lisp, and neither did Ashmanskas’s version of Barry on Broadway, so why do it? But mostly, it’s merely an attempt to stay faithful to the character. But he never had a hope of recreating the honesty that Ashmanskas brought—the kind of honesty that makes a stereotypical character like Barry Glickman feel OK. When Corden sings about going to the prom or breaks down crying in his mother’s arms, it’s fine, because Corden is a capable actor. He hits his notes, because Corden is a good singer. But you don’t feel it, the way you did with Ashmanskas. Corden is a pale imitation at best, and this whole thing could have been avoided if Ashmanskas had been allowed to play the role he was born to play on screen.
With the exception of the lisp (again, why) the blame here is not so much on Corden as a performer, but on Murphy as a director. Ashmanskas was the obvious choice. He proved as much in over 300 performances. He would have been as outrageous, ostentatious, and flamboyant on screen as he was on stage, and audiences would have loved it. Also, we could have kept the dyke line. Just sayin’!
Watch The Prom on Netflix