'Encore!': Kristen Bell Previews Heartwarming & Triumphant 'Oklahoma' Episode

Jim Halterman
Q&A Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Disney+

"It's a time machine," says Kristen Bell of her new unscripted series, Encore!. The Disney+ show, airing a new episode every Friday on the new streamer, gets high school theater troupes back together to do a reunion performance of their high school musical.

Bell serves as an executive producer and frequently appears on the heartfelt series, though she'll be the first to tell you she's not the star of this show. "It's about real human beings who haven't gotten on stage in a while and giving them that chance," she explains.

So far in the first season, high school troupes have gotten back together to perform musicals like Annie Get Your Gun, Beauty and the Beast, The Sound of Music and, in the Friday, December 13 episode, Oklahoma. And while seeing the reunions themselves is heartwarming, the show really clicks when you hear about what's happened to the troupe members in the years since high school.

In Friday's episode, one former student, who played the charismatic lead role of Oklahoma's Curly, is now in a wheelchair and the group he reunites with wants him to still play the very physical, demanding role. (Yes, keep tissues close by!) TV Insider sat down with Bell recently to talk about this moving episode and the first season of the series.

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The time machine element is a great way to sell the show, so to speak, since it’s what really draws you in as a viewer.  

Kristen Bell: Yes, it is time travel and it’s the one unifying thing we all have ... We all remember high school — the good, the bad, and the ugly. [So] what if you had a do over? What if you could see those people again and experience that teamwork again? Also, it couldn't be a better backdrop than theater because it's such an emotional place to be. It's different than a football team or a sports team where it's mainly physical. This is mental and emotional. Theater kids get vulnerable with each other, I believe more than any other group in high school. But, I don't know, maybe the chess club has super deep convos but I don't know but I know theater people definitely do.

Where did the concept for the show begin?

This began in the noggin of Jason Cohen, who brought it to Olive Bridge, Will Gluck's company. Will approached me saying there was an idea about reuniting musical theater casts and it was almost an immediate yes. Initially, we didn't know what the show would actually be. We just knew that there would be a show in having people experience identity this way — where who they used to be, who they are now, friends reintroducing themselves to each other.

Ultimately we decided we don't want any competition in the show. We want it to be 100 percent positive about rediscovery and going back, making amends, saying things you didn't say, taking back the things you did. It's a fun romp of a couple days trying to fit back in your costume and re-memorize your lines while getting to know your friends again.

One thing I really responded to is just that moment when the people see each other again, sometimes after many years have passed.

It's real. There are real emotional stories in this show, and every time I see a new cut [of an episode], I'm crying. I have watched some with my kids and they tear up and they don't even know why they're tearing up. I think we've made something that really will span a huge demographic because a lot of these songs, it's the only set of songs that both the parents and the kids know, the songs from these famous musicals.

Before I watched, I wasn't sure how hands on you would be in the process but these people are really the stars of this show, aren’t they?

That was a priority. I wanted to be involved, I want to tell people about the show, but the show is about real people. It's about real human beings who haven't gotten on stage in a while and giving them that chance. It is not about being a professional performer in any way, shape, or form. There are a couple episodes where I pop in and either give a little class or some notes or watch a run through or performance but we wanted it to be focused on people. It's about their reunification.

Tell me about the Oklahoma episode.

So, we have a cast who did Oklahoma in Georgia in the '90s. The man who played the lead was a great dancer and in his 30s, he became paraplegic. He wanted more than anything to redo his part and dance in his chair. And he did! It's breathtaking. Overall I knew that there would be a lot of good-hearted humor and good stress involved because I know what it's like to put on a production. I've done those Hollywood Bowl productions in 11 days and that's double the time we're giving them on this show. I also knew it would be funny because it's funny to watch people memorize lines and try to remember their cues.

But I don't think I realized how deeply connected I would feel to the people and the emotions they were going through. I don't think I realized how universal some of those emotions that are. Like [in the Annie episode] when the actor playing Daddy Warbucks does not want to shave his head and how profound of a moment that was for me. One thing I connected to more than anything throughout was this feeling. You'll know this, too. Anyone who does theater does.

What’s the biggest takeaway from Encore!?

This show makes you want community. What could be a better takeaway than wanting community? I think that has to do with how vulnerable theater kids get with each other. It's this one bit of safe haven in this crazy turbulent journey that is high school, and somehow everyone has touched it. Everyone has had their hand in it. Even people you don't think would have had their hand in it. It’s like the whole thing The Good Place is exploring. When Eleanor Shellstrop [Bell’s character on the NBC sitcom] started, she was an island and she didn't meet anyone. And then because of the stakes of her situation, she needed to create, form bonds with people, and that made her a better person. And sometimes in 2019 we can feel really isolated, and theater is one of the things that brings us back together. And it's healthy.

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Did doing this show bring up more of a longing for you to do more stage work? You’ve done some throughout the years but you’ve also been busy on TV and movies!

Big time. My reality is that my husband [actor Dax Shepard] works in L.A., my children are in school in L.A., so I'm at odds a little bit with my reality. Though that doesn't mean that I'm not secretly plotting to find a summer Lincoln Center project or a Manhattan Theater Club project. When it all works out, I will be thrilled.

Encore!, Fridays, Disney+