With Encore!, Kristen Bell is hoping to create a “self-esteem-building exercise for all of us” in these divided times.
The new ABC special, which she’s executive producing alongside Jason Cohen and Will Gluck (Easy A), premieres this Sunday and features former high school classmates reprising their roles from their original production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. This time, however, they’re under the guidance of Broadway directors, choreographers, and voice coaches. Bell is also set to appear in the special, which is being billed as a one-time event.
The actress, who has appeared in The Crucible and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer on Broadway, played Dorothy in her high school production of The Wizard of Oz and says the experience was transformative for her in the way she thought of herself and the arts — and a big reason why she got behind Encore! in the first place.
In a recent interview with EW, Bell conveyed her passion for the project and her hopes that it ends up being a continuing series for ABC, with casts of different backgrounds and experiences reuniting to stage old classics. She views Encore! as less about fame and fortune and more about high school, with people who had old flings or rivalries coming back together and sharing a stage once more.
Read on for more of Bell’s thoughts on Encore! and why she feels it’s the perfect TV program for these anxious times.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you get involved in Encore?
KRISTEN BELL: I was approached by Will Gluck and Jason Cohen because they know I’m a theater junkie. They had this idea that reuniting high school musical theater casts would be something fun to watch. I immediately wanted to come on board, help them develop the idea. There were many different versions of this show: In comparison to other music-related contest shows, should we fit into that box? Should there be a prize? Or is this show a little bit more sincere and more about high school? There were many different versions, so Will, Jason, and I worked together on it a few months before pitching ABC.
For you, what is the show about?
The show has the backdrop of reuniting a high school cast but is truly about getting a chance to relive something from high school. It’s about reuniting people that may or may not have had old flames with each other. That may or may not need to make amends with one another. That may or may not need to stand up for themselves once and for all. To really interact with one another in their present-day circumstances. It’s inherently interesting because the cast that we chose has not really pursued theater. It’s not about fame, it’s not about fortune, it’s not about wanting to get their big break. It’s about wanting to relive the passion and creativity and community they felt on that high school theater stage.
What kind of dynamics do we see within this cast, these former classmates?
It’s all about the glory and difficulty of high school. The characters we’re exploring — we were excited because one of them was eight months pregnant and was willing to get on stage again and relearn a Sondheim show! Two used to date. One is finally honest about who he is to the rest of the group. It’s nothing negative or catty; it’s about reliving that nostalgia. For a lot of people, those are fond memories, and having the chance to go back just once and relive it is very exciting. And I’ve gotta say, it’s very exciting to watch.
How did they come back together as performers?
A lot of the comedy comes from the fact that they don’t know they have to perform this show within seven days. Sondheim is difficult to learn in seven months, so to give them seven days was almost impossible. But we had a variety of Broadway coaches, choreographers, directors that are helping them throughout the process. It’s very interesting to see who they were in high school and who they are now, and seeing how they fall back into old patterns. That’s incredibly relatable.
How did you find this Into the Woods-performing group, and what drew you to them?
We knew that for the one-hour special, we needed something in California, just logistically. This cast provided us with the right high school balance, of the fact that two of them were exes — and some of them didn’t speak in high school. It was a typical high school dynamic. It was the perfect way to converge paths, experiences, and dreams onstage with present circumstances. Because the ideal situation is that none of them would have actually wanted to pursue this as a career. It’s not about fame and fortune. It’s about getting to go back to high school just for one night.
You’ve spoken about how special your own high school musical experiences were for you. How did they influence you?
It’s when I defined passion for myself, I think. When you’re an adolescent, you are trudging through life, and you’re like, “What is Earth? How do I make sense of all this? I have to do all this stuff: homework, showering, getting along with my siblings, listening to my parents.” It’s a lot, trying to grow up. When I was onstage, I was free of all that. I was just a creative spirit. Even in all of the small parts I played, it’s not about the big parts. My first show I was a banana in a tree. I didn’t even have any lines, but I loved it. I loved standing in that costume, paying attention to what was happening onstage, and being a part of an entertaining story. And then as I continued to do theater, I began to love musicals and I began to not just find passion but find confidence — which is something that is deeply, deeply hidden when you are in high school. True confidence is almost impossible to find in high school. You don’t find it until your mid-20s — at least I didn’t.
Is Encore! something you want to continue beyond this special?
In my mind this is not a one-hour special. This is something that brings everyone together in a way we need right now. We are currently in a world that is very divided. Everyone can look back at high school and be interested in spending one more day there. I would like to see this as a full series. I would like to see much more diversity in the casts that we’re able to explore — I would like to see different states, different socioeconomic backgrounds, and how that affected their situations. I would like to see the comedy that comes out of shows that were edited for high school. I read something on Twitter the other day about how someone had done Rent in high school, but the high school did not want to say “AIDS” so they said “diabetes.” That all the characters had diabetes — that’s hilarious! That’s interesting to watch. I would love to give people the opportunity to reunite with some of their high school companions on the stage and rediscover themselves. It’s a self-esteem-building exercise for all of us.
Encore! premieres Sunday, Dec. 10, at 10 p.m. EST on ABC.