The best Disney+ show that isn't The Mandalorian
If you like musical theater and are also wondering if life has more to offer, this is the show for you
When Thomas Wolfe wrote, in 1940, that you can't go home again, he clearly had never heard of high school reunions. For some, there is no greater nightmare than being reminded of those formative teenage years; for others, high school stands out as a bright spot, when life was still so full of possibility. "I just feel like we shouldn't have gone home again," is how one participant in the new reality show Encore! sums it up during a tearful confessional. "You have a memory of something, and it should stay that way."
Encore! — one of several original shows not called The Mandalorian that debuted on Disney+ Tuesday morning — is all about the painful emotions that arise when you try to relive the past. Based off of a 2017 ABC special of the same name, the newly serialized program returns adults to their hometowns to recreate their high school musicals, sometimes decades after the final curtain call. But what, from the premise, might sound like the kind of feel-good sentimentality that is network TV's bread-and-butter, Encore! is a much more complicated, dark, and compelling show than the elevator pitch might suggest.
Each hour-long episode of Encore! focuses on a different school and musical, the first being California's Santana High School, which put on Annie in 1996. (Encore! dovetails nicely with Disney+'s other High School Musical content; apparently the 10th episode of Encore!'s 12-episode season will even be a restaging of, well, High School Musical). With less than a week to put on the production, Encore! brings in theater professionals to help polish off the actors' inevitable rust. The premise of the show, of course, wouldn't be so much fun if the high school thespians had all gone on to have successful careers on Broadway; the bulk of the tension comes from wondering how on Earth the ragtag trope is going to put on something semi-watchable in just five days.
What I hadn't braced myself for was just how bruising a portrait Encore! is of the state of the arts in America. In the pilot, the participants include a police officer, several teachers and stay-at-home moms, and a warehouse manager — none of the cast went on to work in the arts. "I miss performing everyday," confesses Annie, who plays, yes, Annie. We learn, as the episode goes on, that Annie had even moved to New York after high school to pursue an acting career, only to eventually move back to California. "Life just kind of happened," the mom of two explains, adding that her dreams of performing are "kind of on the back burner. But I'll get there."
In Encore!'s second episode, which will be available to stream on Friday and centers on the 2007 production of Beauty and the Beast at Ft. Worth's Saginaw High School, a handful of the participants did find ways to continue to work in the arts. Brittany, who plays Mrs. Potts, does small voice acting roles; Brad, a former Gaston, is a "mentalist," performing magic tricks. But it is Desiree who is the most surprising; cast as Belle, and known in her teens as "the girl with the voice," she ultimately dropped out of college after getting pregnant and now works as a "music marketer," although her job is never fully explained. Still, when asked to respond to her teenage-self's question to her future-self of "are we happy?" during a sort of group therapy session, Desiree shakily replies "happy? We're learning."
It is more than a little bit crushing, particularly when the participants start excavating their pasts further. Encore!'s best moments come not during the rehearsals, but the lunch breaks and heart-to-hearts at the bar. There, an unassuming loner kid can come into relief; unbeknownst to the others, he'd grown up Jehovah's Witness, and his isolation in high school hadn't been voluntary. Another actor had cancer in high school, and survival had been far from certain; someone recalls a rumor that he'd once had to run offstage and vomit in the wings. Another participant delicately brings up "gay bashings," confessing that he'd once had a full soda can lobbed at his head from a moving car.
In this way, Encore! is guilty of orbiting the cliches of theater as an accepting "family," and that as painful as high school is, it all gets better eventually. But it also subverts its own messaging; while the adults generally seem to be living happy lives, having watched the first two episodes, I can't help but feel grim about the future of today's bright-eyed, bushy-tailed theater kids. According to recent research by the National Endowment of the Arts, attendance of musicals is facing the steepest drop of all the arts. And, in a ranking of the worst college majors for a lucrative career earlier this year, Kiplinger put "theater" as #5, noting the job's median salary of $32,011 and recommending the pursuit of "speech communication" instead. It's painful to see adults reflecting on their unfulfilled aspirations in the show, and realizing how many more teens are out there right now, dreaming those same dreams.
Curiously, Encore! seems to have little interest in fleshing out the professionals who are brought in to help. It would have been worthwhile to have explored how the hired choreographers, backup actors, and directors compared, or contrasted, with their students. In the pilot episode, for example, Kristen Bell speaks glowingly of her own participation in high school theater, but it is hard to ignore how different her life has turned out from those she's addressing. (Fans ought to be warned that although Bell's name is attached, it is primarily in an executive producing role; her actual on-screen participation is minimal to the point of nonexistence.)
Still, naturally, not everyone who participates in their high school musical even wants to go on to be a performer. For most in Encore!, I can only imagine that the final bow at the end of the episode will also mark the conclusion of their acting careers. "Do I go home now, do I just sleep and pretend this was a big dream and move forward?" one participant asks the camera, bewildered, after the curtain goes down for the last time on Beauty and the Beast.
Encore! doesn't wait to find out what he decides; the following week will feature a whole new cast, from Michigan's Flint Central High School, returning to perform The Sound of Music 27 years later. But here I am, still thinking about his question — for even if Encore! doesn't intend it, you realize that after the final chorus and the bows and the flowers, there is nothing left for anyone but to go home.
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