This show faced some challenges from day one because a better musical with the exact same base premise (a gay teenager being banned from their school’s prom) opened in London a year before The Prom ever made it to a major venue. As it happened, The Prom closed before Everybody’s Talking About Jamie could arrive on Broadway, but if their runs had overlapped, the comparison could not have been flattering, and everyone involved in the show must have known that was an imminent possibility.
However, to be fair, the shows take entirely different approaches to their concept. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is an emotional musical drama in the Dear Evan Hansen mold, while this show is a biting and ruthless satire that somehow seamlessly melts into an inspirational heartwarmer by the final curtain. The fact that it makes that transition in tone so smoothly is by far the most impressive thing about the show, actually, and one of the biggest reasons why, despite the fact that it has no shortage of flaws, I thoroughly enjoyed this musical when I saw it.
One thing I appreciate about this show is its willingness to satirize people on both sides of the political aisle: it makes fun of small-minded conservative bigots (even including a song called “Love Thy Neighbor” in which a gay Broadway performer schools them on their own ignorance of the Bible), but also of “limousine liberals” who co-opt important causes purely as a means to get attention for themselves. Indeed, the four has-been Broadway performers who decide to “help” a Lesbian teenage girl banned from attending her Prom in order to revive their own flagging careers are mocked much more harshly and ruthlessly than the homophobic small-town P.T.A. members they’re opposing. Indeed, the school’s open-minded and level-headed principal seemed to be well on his way to talking the P.T.A. down when these self-described “Liberal democrats from New York City” showed up and unnecessarily escalated the conflict.
Granted, there is some excessive use of stereotypes…it was probably somewhat necessary for the characters who were the target of the satire, given that both the opportunistic Broadway “activists” and the small-town bigots they were opposing needed to be drawn as caricatures at least initially for the show’s central joke to work. That said, did they really have to dress the Lesbian teenager at the story’s center exclusively in flannel shirts or make mention of the fact that she drives a pickup truck? She is, in every other respect, the show’s most human and relatable character and its emotional center, so this employment of tired stereotypes weakens rather than enhances the show’s point.
Ultimately, for all its satire, the show is optimistic about human nature—the homophobic teens come around pretty quickly after “Love Thy Neighbor”, and even the P.T.A. ringleader ultimately turns out to be a well-meaning if overbearing mother trying to protect her own daughter from the hardships that come with being gay in our culture. The Broadway quartet, on the other hand, start out as genuine narcissists but are gradually redeemed as they try to repair the damage they caused, ultimately learning what it really means to put someone else’s needs ahead of their own.
However, the optimism might have gone too far with the show’s portrayal of the internet as a solution to all of life’s problems. When the young protagonist puts her sad story and her song “This Unruly Heart of Mine” on Youtube, she is portrayed as getting nothing but positive and affirming feedback, and it essentially serves as a magical panacea for everything going wrong in the story at that point. This is in stark contrast to the much more honest and brutal way that more serious teen-focused musicals like Dear Evan Hansen deal with the internet and social media, and it constitutes the one glaring flaw in this otherwise spot-on satire.
The score is by the songwriters who wrote a good score for a dud show in The Wedding Singer, and a less interesting score for an even worse show in Elf. Finally given material worthy of their talents, they turn out their best score to date here. Granted, the numbers for the Broadway quartet are essentially clichés…certainly the Fosse pastiche “Zazz” isn’t going to blow anyone way with its originality…but they’re still often excellent as numbers, with “The Lady’s Improving” being a bona fide showstopper. The folksy ballads for the teen at the center of the story’s conflict, like “Dance with You” and “This Unruly Heart of Mine” are the highlights, partly because they have the touching humanity that’s sometimes missing from the rest of the score.
Ultimately, while this show definitely had its flaws, its sharp, across-the-board satire, tuneful score and surprising amount of heart made it a surprisingly hard-to-resist experience in the theater. It isn’t a masterpiece, but it played extremely well, and I am not really surprised that even after its brief run on Broadway, preparations are already being made for a film version.
I am, however, rather alarmed that said film version is being turned over to Glee creator Ryan Murphy. This show does bear a superficial resemblance to Glee in its subject matter and tone, but for the most part it manages to avoid the pitfalls of tone and characterization that Glee routinely fell into, and handing it over to a hack like Murphy seems liable to undo all that success. Also, the proposed casting seems iffy: Meryl Streep will presumably be wonderful (she always is), but James Corden is not right for any of the parts in this show, and in any case is so overexposed right now that most people never want to see him again. Still, however this film version turns out (and I will admit I’m not especially optimistic about it), the very existence of the project does indicate continued interest in this show, and indicates that, despite its short run on Broadway, it is unlikely to disappear from the scene any time soon.