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Kristen Bell Returns to Theater Roots With ABC’s ‘Encore’

Although Kristen Bell rose to fame with the titular role in the WB cult teen private detective drama “Veronica Mars” in the early aughts, she had actually been performing for more than a decade already — in theater productions from “Raggedy Ann and Andy” to “The Wizard of Oz,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and the Broadway version of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” Now, Bell is bringing her love of theater to the small screen with “Encore,” a documentary style special she hosts and exec produces that follows one high school class, 20 years later, as they prepare to re-stage their senior class musical for a one-night only engagement.

“For me, just speaking personally, the theater community is kind of like the mom community,” Bell tells Variety. “When you know someone else has been through it, you just know them. You see them more clearly. You kind of have this wink and a smile, like, ‘Me, too.’ There’s a love amongst theater nerds that doesn’t exist anywhere else, so it was very easy to be let in by a group of people that I’d never met before because we shared this common ground.”

The team behind “Encore” accepted submissions from across the country to determine what high school class they should revisit. Bell feels they “lucked out” that the play happened to be “one of the hardest shows out there” — Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Tony-winning musical “Into the Woods” — but she notes that the text was secondary to the cast.

“We’re not as concerned with picking shows that currently have current cultural comment because musical theater isn’t street art that has to be zeitgeist or culturally relevant,” Bell says. “Musical theater is commenting on a time and a place sometimes that once was. So if you did some random or obscure show because that’s all your high school could afford the rights to, that’s OK. Still submit to the show!”

The most important thing for the team, therefore, was to find a group of which each member wanted to be a part of the show.

“You need a diverse group of people that had lives that both intersected and did not in high school. We loved the fact that there was an ex-couple in the show; we loved the fact that some of the people didn’t talk or hang out — that they were in different friendship circles — we loved the fact that there was a woman who was pregnant, willing to tackle [it] again,” Bell explains. “We wanted to not only watch them re-perform the show but also experience each other again.”

“Encore” deals with how a former high school theater troupe — many of whom haven’t seen each other in decades — can pull off staging a play they also haven’t performed in decades in just one week. The show enlists the help of professionals, including a choreographer and a music director, so the ex-classmates are not completely on their own and to ensure the show doesn’t devolve into a “cutthroat reality show” environment for the participants or vibe for the audience.

“There is wonderful television in the stumbles of an insurance salesman who has to relearn the part of the narrator of ‘Into The Woods’ provides, but we never, ever want to do anything too negative,” says Bell. “That’s not musical theater. Musical theater is an incredibly positive experience. It’s certainly where I discovered who I was and discovered my self-esteem, and we wanted to keep it that way.”

“Encore” airs on Sunday, Dec. 10 at 10 p.m. on ABC.

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