‘Encore!’: an oddly heartwarming and emotional trip down memory lane

Former high school musical casts reunite years later to remount their last glorious foray into the spotlight in just one week with the help of theatre professionals.

The birth of Disney+ was aggressively promoted, in the hopes of attracting as many subscribers as possible, with the promise of franchises such as Star Wars, pretty much the entire Disney vault, National Geographic, Marvel Cinematic Universe (including the ‘90s X-Men cartoon) and (perhaps most surprisingly) The Simpsons. Among the Disney+ original content – which is by no means the most advertised draw to sign up – is The Mandalorian, which UK Star Wars fans have been eager to get their hands on since it premiered Stateside late last year. However, buried in amongst the massive amounts of content, lies an entirely original and different concept, full to the brim of humour and joy.

Being part of a show is a truly unique brand of crazy. All rules and norms of social etiquette are chucked to the wind, as you run backstage declaring, “Where the fuck is my fucking vest?!” in suitably hushed tones such that you can’t be heard by the audience. You’ll find yourself hanging around semi-public spaces just humming through a particular harmony or trotting through a number, murmuring “Swim swim, swipe swipe, foot foot pivot KICK” in a desperate bid to commit the moves to memory before opening night, before looking around and noticing pretty much the entire company following along with you, similarly tearing their hair out. There will always be that one thing that you get wrong night after night after night, and will continue to get wrong regardless of how many notes you receive from the director or how many times you rehearse it in the mirror, mentally tattooing it onto the fabric of your very being and questioning every single life decision that you have ever made that led you to this particular low point. You’ll often find yourself murmuring your lines to yourself at various only slightly differing cadences, in a vein highly similar to this:

If you’ve ever been around an actor, then this is uncanny

So, I feel like it’s almost like a reassuring hug to us poor thespians to have such a programme as Encore! exist. The premise is wonderfully simple: the cast of a high school musical production are brought back many years later to restage their high school glory but as adults.

The results are often heartwarming. People who haven’t sung in years belt out classic show stopping numbers while their relatives dissolve in tears in the audience. Those who have retreated from the spotlight put themselves back in it and rediscover their passion and love of the theatre once more. Friendships that have been put to one side for decades while they have gone their separate ways are rekindled, and past traumas shared. You truly root for the participants throughout the hour instalment, even when they slightly flub their lines or find a dance routine especially challenging. It is beautifully endearing to watch.

It’s far from free of drama, however. In each episode, the cast is tasked with putting on a new version of their production but only within the course of a week, which as anybody with half a brain will work out is the most ridiculous of feats with a group of professionals, let alone a group of people who haven’t put on a production since their school days. With time as a factor, the casts are pushed together in a way that pulls all of them slightly back towards their high school mentalities. Old insecurities resurface, as well as reopening of old wounds in the form of failed relationships even within the casts involved. It’s compelling watching, for sure. However, if I have to see them do the “you’re facing your high school self. What would you say to them?” when you have to put on a show in the next four days, Coy, is ridiculous. We all know they’re going to cry and say that they should have been more sure of themselves so that they could achieve their dreams, let’s just move on, shall we? My all-time favourite nuggets of drama, however, is when people return to the programme and then try to steal the lead role away from whoever else has returned, which is always handled very nicely and everybody is super considerate about it, I have to say. All in all, for reality television, there is very little drama between the people involved, merely intense introspection on all fronts.

The professionals brought on board each week are often quite entertaining. A particular highlight is musical director Adam Wachter, who crops up in six episodes, and is wonderfully down to earth. It’s truly hilarious to watch him respond to some of the scenarios that he’s put in and encourages a hearty chuckle regardless of how many times I view him.

One criticism that I would have against the show is that some of the episodes do not feel long enough. What with introducing the entire new cast of performers, rehearsing and then actually putting on the show, we are often completely fleeced on the performance aspect. For sure, as most people involved in a show will attest, the actual performance is often the least memorable part, but I could happily watch the entire performance go by so that I could see the product of all the hard work that they have put in up until that point.

As heartwarming as the whole series is, it is not without its emotional moments. With going back on stage, many of the participants are reminded of the joy of their youth and the unexpected paths that it has taken them down. Many feel like they’ve let themselves down and not got to the place where they imagined that they might have been. One member is triggered by memories of his brush with cancer while he did the production the last time, brought on by the task of having to go from his (barely noticeable) buzz cut to fully bald. Another performer cannot let go of a high school romance that ended badly and is determined to confront the other performer for this slight.

But overall, it’s just great wholesome fun. Within each episode, there is always an emotional beat as one of the performers uncovers something particularly tricky in their past that the experience has brought up, but there are also glorious, soaring moments where ordinary people achieve extraordinary things, and it’s just beautiful. A particular highlight that springs to mind is Susan Egan (yes, the Susan Egan) mentoring in the second episode, in which she is passionately coaching the woman playing Belle in how to perform Home. It’s truly a magical moment that brought a lump to my throat, and continues to, regardless of how many times I watch it.

So, if living vicariously through other people performing is your thing; if you want to relive your own musical theatre days from school; or indeed if you just love musical theatre – as many of us do – then Encore! is for you! Wholesome joy awaits you inside.

Encore! is streaming now on Disney+.

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