It’s strange for an Emmy honor to have been handed out for almost 20 years and still be under the radar but that’s pretty much the case for the Outstanding Structured Reality Program category. Part of the lack of attention is because it’s often been handed out during the Creative Arts Emmys ceremonies and so many repetitive winners. Netflix’s “Queer Eye” has won the past two years and ABC’s “Shark Tank” won four straight previously. There’s also been a perception that there’s been a lack of competition in the field, but that might change this season with new players such as HBO’s “We’re Here,” Disney Plus’ “The World According to Jeff Goldblum” and “Encore!” And the later might just put a little fear into Netflix’s gay baby champ.
Originally an ABC one-shot special in 2017, “Encore!” returned with 12 episodes in 2019. The program reunites former members of high school musicals as far back as 1975. Key members of the original shows return to re-stage the same shows for families and friends who were often unaware of their musical or theatrical talents. And these are familiar musicals such as “The Sound of Music,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Oklahoma!” Executive Producer Kristen Bell is the host (although she only introduces some of the episodes) and it earned pretty strong reviews upon its debut in November.
Earlier this month, Jason Cohen, the show’s co-creator, executive producer and DGA Award-winning director jumped on the phone to discuss the show’s launch, the reaction from fans and whether a second season is truly in the cards.
The Playlist: Where did the concept for “Encore!” even come from?
Jason Cohen: The idea for the show came from a few different places. I’m certainly a fan of musical theater and always have been. I was a musician in high school, I wasn’t usually up on the stage, but something I’ve always been fond of. Also, just through my work as a documentary filmmaker and looking at people and transformation and this idea of looking at who we are and who we were then, who we are now. The idea was just a melding of those two things, of being able to bring people together to look back at their lives, but sort of having this theatrical performance as the vehicle to kind of drive them through this reunion over what turned out to be the course of a week.
Your team traveled all over the country putting this series together. How did you recruit? It just seems like such a logistical nightmare compared to traditional reality shows or even reality competition shows. How did you even find these “classes”?*
When we went out and pitched this show, we knew that it was a big undertaking. But we felt like it could be done. But in reality, yes, we are bringing back somewhere between six to eight main cast members each week who have normal lives, normal jobs and bringing them back to put this on. But within that, we’re filming a documentary for a week, following them with multiple cameras as they get to know each other again and reminisce and obviously rehearse and go through all the practice and what can be sort of rigorous, especially if you haven’t done it in a while. And then within all of that, we are at the same time producing and staging a production, and we’re trying to elevate that production from what most of these people did in high school. So we are bringing in costumes, hair and makeup and sets that are pretty professional quality and, again, trying to raise the bar. Bringing in our professional directors, choreographers, musical directors to really mentor these people. What I’ve called it is a traveling circus and every week we’re in a different city with this huge crew who are all doing their different parts of producing a TV show and a documentary, as well as putting on a huge stage production every week of a different show in a different city with a different cast every week.
*He sort of answers the question later in the interview.
This was originally a special made in 2017. What did you learn from that experience that helped the extended series?
We loved the show that we did and, obviously, we were able to focus all of our resources into one episode. But we always had the vision of it being a series. My original concept with the idea was that the show will vary so much weekend and week out because each week we will go to a different part of the country, a different demographic, a different musical and a different age group. Because certainly, these stories are very different for the 30-year-olds versus the 60-year-old who’s coming back to do this production and see these people they haven’t seen in 40 years. So, that was always the vision, was to really be able to diversify this and do a different range of shows with different themes, different demographics, different socioeconomic, different age groups. We have one school that’s a performing arts school, so you have different levels of talent. We stuck with that and fortunately, Disney Plus was launching and knew about the ABC show and obviously it’s all in the family and we were able to talk to them about it and they gave us the go-ahead to go out and do 12 episodes and they saw the vision even though they knew it would be difficult to do, they left that to us but they did see the vision and how the show would look and have this diversity going week to week.
From a production standpoint, how did you guys pull it off? Were you filming some episodes at the same time in different parts of the country or did you just transition from one location to another?
We never had two going at once. We had one core team and then we had a couple of [producers] that did hop over to another show to prep a week ahead But for the most part it was the same crew week to week. And we never shot two episodes at once, no. We did have a casting team that did a lot of hard work to kind of put us in a good place to start out where we canvassed the country to find casts that were interested in coming back and you know, trying to find different shows. But again, for us, the show is about the subjects and the people that are coming back and their stories as opposed to just being about the performance. So it was finding those stories and we found some amazing stories of people who had either overcome things in their life or who felt like they needed a second shot at this or who never got a chance to shine or just wanted to see those people that they had lived some of their greatest moments with. And relive those experiences.
Was securing the rights to any of the musicals performed in the series difficult?
I think some were trickier than others just because of other properties and other productions that were being done. When they heard what we were doing, I think most of the people involved with these shows understood that one of the big pushes that we’re making with this show is to put a spotlight on funding for the arts in schools. And we were very frank about that with everyone we approached, that we want people to understand what this theatrical experience means to kids in school. And when you’re looking at these 30, 40, 50, 60-year-olds who still carry this with them and talk about what it meant to them and how it gave them confidence or put them on the right track in life. That is something that we definitely wanted to make sure was pervasive in everything that we did and people understood that.
Were there any of the episodes that personally meant something to you or that when you started thinking about the show, you might immediately think of that experience?
It’s sort of like having children and you don’t want to have a favorite, because I truly do love all 12 episodes we did and a lot of that is because of what I referenced earlier, which is that they are all so different because we’re dealing with such different circumstances and different people in different shows. So there’s that. And I did love all of them. There were certainly some that maybe jumped out. I grew up in New Jersey and we were able to go back [there] and [reunite] a cast that was about 15 minutes from where I grew up and they were actually the same graduation years as I was so that was certainly interesting for me to be able to do that. Our premiere episode was “Annie” and I had performed in “Annie” as a kid in a camp production and actually I played Daddy Warbucks. So, that was fun for me just because I knew the show so well and it was fun for me to be able to do that. But again, all the shows brought something different. I could pick something from every show that stuck with us. We had a cast that was an “Anything Goes” cast from 1975 and we had these amazing 62-year-olds back on stage just loving life and reliving these moments that really shaped them. The list goes on and on. We had some shows that might’ve been more obscure to people who were not big theater buffs like Pippin and again the stories just shine through and really carried them and people got to understand who these people were and what they’ve been through.
You were part of the initial launch for Disney Plus. What was it like watching an audience discover the show? What sort of feedback did you get?
Honestly, we were pretty blown away by what we were seeing from people and the reactions we got. I mean just a lot of people who sort of got it and who understood what the show was about and understood that the show was not about being famous, which was sort of the last thing in our minds when we made the show. But people just understanding what it means to be able to get up and perform again for people that had done it and who it meant so much to, and some who hadn’t been able to do it in 10, 20, 30 years and what that meant to them. And then, of course, there was a lot of people on social media offering up themselves and their own shows and wanting to jump back in there. And we’ve seen people reaching out to their own cast members and just doing their own reunions and we’re so happy to see that. And again, I think that idea of looking at how important the arts and drama, but not just drama, music, visual arts and everything else are to our youth and what that looks like in schools. And how important that is and how important funding is for that.
One of the things that stood out for the show is that it never intentionally focuses on one of the participants screwing up. You’re always attempting to show them in the best possible light. Where did that perspective come from?
I think one thing with our show is it’s not mean spirited. We’re not there to humiliate people. We know that people are coming back who haven’t danced, having sung in years in some cases. And they’re not going to hit every note and they’re not going to hit every step and they’re going to trip, and they’re going to stumble. And we include a lot of that because I think they understood that they can laugh at themselves just as we can laugh at them. And it wasn’t a mean-spirited way. We did include plenty of moments where people couldn’t quite hit a note or tripped and fell and dropped. We did “Fiddler On The Roof” and they’re dropping bottles during the bottle dance and things like that. We had somebody whose pants fall down during production and we kept that in there. We definitely wanted that to be part of this show. And there are some laugh-out-loud moments and we wanted that. And again as people, we know that everyone is laughing at it and we’re laughing with them, we’re not laughing at them. But that being said, there were also some amazing performances and we certainly highlighted those because there were some people that blew us away who really can sing and dance and they might not do it professionally but it’s still there and it stuck with them and we certainly wanted to highlight those as well. The show, again, is not about stardom, so there was always a balance and even if somebody had a small part they might’ve had a story to tell that was so impactful that they ended up being more of a star than the star of the show, the lead of the show. Even if they were in the ensemble, they might’ve had an amazing story to tell that really struck us and struck audiences.
I haven’t seen an official green light for a second season announced yet, but I’m assuming it’s going to go forward. I mean you did win the first Guild award for Disney+ they should give you a second season. But if it does go forward, have you thought about where you want to take it?
Things are sort of in flux right now with everything that’s going on [with the coronavirus pandemic] but for a second season what we hope to do is continue a lot of what we did but I think we do have some ideas to kind of change it up a little bit, some I don’t want to give away. I will say is there are some [musicals] that we didn’t get to do in the first season that we would definitely love to try to do. Some that were maybe up to possibly be done in the first season, but for some reason or another, we couldn’t pull it off or couldn’t get the cast together. There are definitely some shows that we know people love and will connect to that we would love to try to do. We certainly loved hitting different parts of the country and we hope to be able to do that again in the second season.
“Encore!’ season one is available on Disney Plus.
Emmy Season Prediction Pages*
*Assuming more programs don’t change their premiere dates