Ryan Murphy Revisits His Indiana Roots With “The Prom”

With a blockbuster cast that includes Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, James Corden, and Kerry Washington, Ryan Murphy’s “The Prom” tells the story of a few self-involved stage stars from New York who try to burnish their images by standing up for a lesbian high schooler in Indiana barred from attending her prom. It premieres on Netflix December 11 as part of Murphy’s well-publicized five-year, $300 million deal with the streaming service.

Murphy, who was born and raised in Indy, saw his struggles at Warren Central High School reflected in the play. The producer has spoken about the difficulties of growing up gay in Indiana in the late ’70s and early ’80s, saying he was raised in a repressive culture, beaten and despised for his sexual orientation, but also popular for it. He told The Hollywood Reporter that he had his own prom confrontation with his high school. “I wasn’t allowed to bring my date to the prom, so this was personal to me,” Murphy said. “I ended up taking my best girlfriend.”

The Broadway play is set in fictional Edgewater, Indiana, but the incidents that inspired it took place in many locations. Creators of the stage show say they drew from several events, including the story of Constance McMillen in Fulton, Mississippi. McMillen wanted to bring her girlfriend to the senior prom, but was banned from the dance. When she enlisted the aid of the American Civil Liberties Union, the school board canceled the prom entirely. Celebrities like Green Day and NSYNC alum Lance Bass supported McMillen and helped fund a Second Chance Prom, which drew students from all over the state.

The stage show was also intended as a message to former Indiana governor and current vice president Mike Pence, who signed a religious freedom law that was widely criticized as anti-gay. Chad Beguelin, the musical’s co-writer, told NBC News, “Our show isn’t about ostracizing people. Our show is not about telling people, ‘You are wrong.’ It’s about listening and empathy and accepting. So my invite to Pence would just be like, ‘Listen to our show. It’s about love.’”

Murphy convinced some of the film’s big stars to play parts at odds with their real-life images. As a producer of shows such as “Glee” and “Ratched,” Murphy is known for creating great roles for female actors. In The Prom, superstars Streep and Kidman play two struggling Broadway divas hoping to revitalize their careers by latching onto an attention-getting controversy. Washington, an activist who once received the Media Vanguard Award from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, plays the conservative head of the Parent Teacher Association who gets the teen banned from the prom in the first place.

Murphy didn’t want to craft a movie that insulted people like his conservative relatives in Indiana. The Broadway version of The Prom relies heavily on the show’s liberal characters making fun of conservatives, but Murphy told The Hollywood Reporter that the film version will soften those blows. “We tried to build a prom for everyone … and that includes my relatives in Indiana who do not like to be lectured to, or to be made to feel like their choices are stupid,” he said. “When you’re an artist, sometimes you’re repeating a narrative that you, yourself, are trying to figure out. It’s my childhood. The thing that I wanted. How am I going to get out of there? All of this is embedded in this piece for me.”