Hosted and executive produced by Kristen Bell, the Disney+ reality series was inspired, in part, by Cohen’s lifelong love of musical theater. “Up until high school, I was in a lot of camp productions. Then, in high school, I wasn’t actually on stage, but I was a musician who played for some performances,” the director and EP notes. “So, the chance to be able to highlight [the high school musical experience] was appealing.”
Beginning her career in stage productions at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Bell shared Cohen’s love of theater, as well as his sense of the importance it plays in many people’s lives, whether they end up pursuing the craft professionally or not. “She is a musical theater nerd, and she just had such fond memories of her high school musical experience that she came on board as an executive producer from the get-go,” Cohen says. “She talked a lot about how for her, that stage was the only place where you had the jocks and the nerds and the alternative kids, and everybody could come together. It drew from all these different cliques.”
For Cohen, this understanding of theater, as a means to create a powerfully bonded community, was at the core of what Encore! hoped to explore. While everyone involved with the series shared a love of the performing arts, it was always more about giving adults a chance to reconvene—and to meditate, for a moment, on their lives.
“Obviously, looking at who we were in high school is something that a large majority of us all experienced and can relate to, but we all have different experiences,” Cohen says. “So, [it was] really giving people a chance to look back and reflect on who they were then, who they are now—how they’ve changed, or maybe not changed—and just seeing how people react when they’re brought back together with those who they shared some of these moments with back in their youth.”
In putting together each episode of Encore!, one of Cohen’s primary challenges was to get six to eight adults back to their high school, to reprise their performance. “These are people with regular jobs, or commitments to their kid, who needed to leave their normal lives for a week. Some people still lived in the town where we were shooting, some had to be brought back in. Some lived internationally, where people had to fly in,” the EP says. “Then, we were dealing with summer break, or spring break, and vacations and things like that. It was a lot of moving pieces.”
Fortunately, in the process of casting, most people jumped at the opportunity the show was presenting. “They certainly jumped some hurdles to figure out how to make it work for us, and we really, truly appreciated that,” Cohen says. “We were not able to get everybody back that we wanted sometimes, but we were able to usually get a core group of that cast back. Then, we had the opportunity to let some people audition, and take a bigger role than they might’ve had originally, because one of those roles hadn’t been filled.”
In its first season, Encore!’s subjects put on renditions of many iconic shows, including Annie, Ragtime and Grease, as well as lesser-known titles, like Pippin. That being said, in looking at prospective participants (and their schools), Cohen wasn’t trying to shoehorn any particular production into the show. “When we were looking, we didn’t say, ‘We want to do this show. Did you do this show? Please tell us.’ It really was based first on, ‘Did you do a show? Tell us your story, and then tell us what the show was,’” the EP explains. “So, it was sort of reverse engineering the casting that way.”
What Cohen kept coming back to in the casting process was his desire to tell the stories of the people up on stage, pertaining either to their high school experience or later moments in their lives. “I like to say the production is the destination, but the journey is where the show lies,” he says, “where we’re following these people and getting to know them, and understanding who they are, and understanding about past relationships, and things they’d gone through since high school that they’re now able to bring back to the table, and express to these people that were their close confidants in high school.”
When each episode’s cast was brought back together, they would have just five days to put together a full-fledged performance for an audience. For Cohen, the logistics of orchestrating these productions were a different animal altogether. “The logistics were really something we knew was going to be tough from the get-go, with everything from sets and costumes, to hair and makeup, and figuring out how to produce the show, and which songs, and the musical director who we had to bring in,” he says, “and then filming a documentary for the week, while that is all going on.”
Needing to limit the core casts of each musical to six or eight people, for the sake of clear story arcs, Cohen and his team brought in professional actors to round out each ensemble. “That was part of the original concept, and they were great in supporting our amateur cast who came back,” the EP says. “Some hadn’t performed in 20, 30, 40 years, and they’re getting back up on stage for the first time, so I think it was nice for them to have a little bit of a security blanket.”
Bringing in Broadway directors, choreographers and voice coaches to guide the cast’s transition back to the stage, Encore! also featured a number of special guests that shared an association with a particular musical. “We did an episode of ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ and we were really lucky to have Susan Egan, who was the original Belle on Broadway, come in and do an amazing mentoring session,” Cohen notes, “both with Belle and with some of the other cast of that show.”
Even under the tutelage of Broadway’s best, Cohen knew that in the case of each performance, the cast would make mistakes, either in their singing or in their choreography. From the EP’s perspective, this was never a concern, but rather, something to embrace. “We knew when you bring back somebody who hasn’t been on stage for 20, 30 or 40 years, there’s going to be some humor. No one was trying to put on the perfect performance,” he says. “We all laughed together, and it was a joy to watch people appreciate that, and understand that this is not about that.”
Looking back on Season 1 now, the director and EP says that some were skeptical, initially, of the team’s ability to pull productions together, in less than a week. “We knew we were sort of blindly jumping into this with our fingers crossed, but in the end, we did get into a rhythm,” he says. “It was not easy, but we did figure out a way to pull out all these factors, and the production itself is sort of the culmination.”
While Cohen won a DGA Award earlier this year for his work on Encore!, one of the greatest aspects of his experience with the series was seeing each show come together, one way or another. “I have to be honest. Speaking on behalf of the producing team, for all of us that were in that control room, it was more emotional for us than we thought it was going to be, when these people finally hit the stage,” he admits. “A lot of these casts that we brought back have children or grandchildren who got to watch their parents perform for the first time, and see them in a different light. I think that was really fulfilling, and it did bring about a lot of emotion for all of us, as we watched this.”
Given the way it’s been embraced by both critics and Disney+ viewers, will Encore! be back for another season? “Right now, it’s a little too soon to say,” Cohen shares. “Obviously, things right now are a little bit funky, with the coronavirus, and things have been thrown into flux a bit. But we are hoping we can do more.”
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