High school musical theater is a bizarrely magical thing. Drawing kids from across the spectrum of popularity to recreate a Broadway production shouldn’t work. Yet high school theater has changed millions of kids’ lives for the better. Friendships are forged, passions are discovered, and a community gets built that often transcends cliques and class. The productions may end, but the memories last forever.
‘Encore!’ is a love letter to high school theater, full of heart, humor, and tears.
Now, thanks to Disney+’s Encore!, these high school musicals are no longer just memories. They’re making a return, for one night only, complete with their original high school casts. Decades later, we get to meet these students as adults taking one last crack at their glory days. After watching the first two episodes of Encore!, one thing is abundantly clear: Disney has a tear-jerking blast of family-friendly fun on its hands.
Encore!’s standout feature is how it cleverly blends the drama unfolding during rehearsals with the drama of everyday life. After all, while these actors haven’t been onstage since high school, their lives kept moving. There’s an element of high school reunion to these episodes: former crushes catch up, old grudges are forgiven, and lives that didn’t turn out as expected are revealed. It adds an extra layer of drama and self-examination to the proceedings, leading to a few beautiful character moments. People you’ll start off hating will move you to tears with their growth.
Each episode only gives the cast around a week to stage a new production of a show they performed in high school. They have a few advantages, like assistance from professional Broadway directors and choreographers. Watching them shake the rust off their talents is often as inspiring as it is hilarious. But then they’ll nail a note you didn’t expect, and suddenly, you’re rooting for everyone onstage.
Encore! works in two different ways, depending on your experience with musical theater. If you spent your formative years doing budget productions of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, brace yourself for some tears. Even guarding my heart for what was in store, I didn’t expect to be so emotional while watching Encore! It brought back memories from my high school theater days and made me wish I still had recordings of those old shows. It also made me want to take a voice lesson again, as if years of smoking haven’t decimated my range. That’s the thing about theater: It’s easy to walk away, but when the bug bites you, you’re never really free of its spell.
Viewers who never participated in high school theater will still be charmed by Encore!’s blend of inspirational storytelling and good-natured reality show. It inspired some unexpected conversations with my wife about why doing theater in high school rooted itself so deeply in my psyche. Even though I’m a theater nerd and she’s only seen The Phantom of the Opera and The Book of Mormon, Encore! enthralled us both.
The show’s only real weakness is just how little of it exists. Each episode runs less than 60 minutes. In that time, Encore! has to pack in the original show, rehearsals for the new show, personal drama, and the new stage production. This robs some of Encore!’s best moments of their power, like the realization of why a jerk cop doesn’t want to shave his head for a production of Annie. The show could have stretched each production across two episodes instead of cramming them into one rushed episode apiece.
You also don’t get to see much of the new productions. Look, Disney, if you want to own every major property on Earth, that’s your business prerogative. But when you’re reportedly spending millions per episode on Marvel TV shows, can’t you shell out for the rights to the full productions as a bonus for each episode? I’d kill to watch the productions of Annie and Beauty and the Beast each episode centers around. Instead, we get brief clips and comparisons, teasing what might have been. Forget #ReleaseTheSnyderCut. I want the full version of Saginaw, Texas’ Beauty and the Beast.
Encore! occasionally feels rushed, which makes sense. After all, these crews have less than a week to stage their new production, and all the professional help in the world can’t sand off all the rough edges. But the rough edges make these diamonds sparkle. Seeing a Broadway legend hit a note you’ve never heard is inspiring, but it’s got nothing on seeing a 4-year-old watch their daddy sing a Beauty and the Beast song for the first time.
High school theater—and community theater, for that matter—work because they give people a chance to be a bigger version of themselves. For high school kids, it’s an incredible character-building exercise, but I never anticipated how much the adults would need it, too. Seeing grown men and women brought to tears by art or a kind, mentoring word from a Broadway professional is special.
These days, we have more amateur content than ever thanks to YouTube, but it’s hardly all wholesome or positive. Encore! is often silly, rushed, and imperfect, but it’s also genuine. There’s no cynicism or cruel laughter at the heart of the show; just a group of adults setting aside their pride to relive their glory days. Encore! has room to grow, but this former theater kid will tune in each week as long as they keep making it.
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