Grammy-winner Sara Bareilles is honest about the “so many” experiences in the music industry where someone may be really having a moment and then they disappear from the zeitgeist. That, she believes, “speaks to the fickle nature of our consumer culture — that we get bored of people really quickly.” But she also knows that the story is always more complicated than how it appears to those who are not in the industry.
Such is also the case on “Girls5eva,” Peacock’s freshman comedy on which Bareilles, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Busy Philipps and Paula Pell star as 40-something former members of a girl group who are now trying to make a comeback.
“There’s a lot of getting behind the curtain that I think in the show we do, but also we as people at our point in show business have written and performed and been singers and songwriters. We really know a lot of what’s behind the curtain now, so we operate from that place: very well honed bullshit detector now,” Paul says on a special round table interview event on Variety’s “Awards Circuit” podcast. (Listen below!)
The show starts when the titular girl group’s hit song “Famous 5eva” gets sampled by a rapper. All of the women are at very different stages in their lives, with Bareilles’ character Dawn focusing on motherhood, Philipps’ character Summer still trying to appear as one-half of an “It” couple even though her husband only comes home on the “31sts of the months that have those,” Pell’s character Gloria working as a dentist and Goldsberry’s character Wickie working at the Van Nuys airport while trying to capitalize on fleeting fame through merchandising. (The fifth member, Ashley, played by Ashley Gold, has passed away.)
“I’m glad I get to be a part of a show about a one hit wonder, at the time in my life where I no longer think that’s a bad thing to have happened to somebody,” Goldsberry says.
“When you’re a kid, they say, ‘One hit wonder, haha, what a joke,'” she continues. “And then when you get past a certain age, you’re like, ‘If I could only get one hit, Lord, please!’ Just one before it’s over — just one. And I just feel I’m at that stage in my life.”
In reflecting on creating the ear worm tunes and equally memorable music video and live performance moments, Philipps points out that because they were filming during the COVID-19 pandemic and therefore new health and safety restrictions, “a lot of times we didn’t get a full dance rehearsal all together.” Additionally, “we would have to wear masks trying to dance. And I don’t know if you know this, but I think studies have been done that masks actually affect the part of your brain that remembers choreography,” she jokes.
Rehearsals for the musical moments of the show would be the day of production on them, sometimes with less than an hour to dedicate to finding their rhythm before cameras had to roll, Bareilles says. “That’s kind of the way of the beast of television, I think,” she says, noting that even when she worked on Apple TV Plus’ “Little Voice,” another show about music, “the music got the least amount of time from anything.”
“Thankfully we’re good on our feet, for the most part. We all came in, really, with the attitude of, ‘We’re going to make it work; we’re going to make it as good as we can possibly make it with the tools we have and wonderful support.’ But there was so much going on at every given moment,” she continues.
Goldsberry, who performed as Mimi in the original Broadway run of “Rent’s” final performances and later won a Tony (and a Grammy) for originating the role of Angela in “Hamilton,” notes that she has been practicing for a show like “Girls5eva” for her whole life. “I think the beauty of it was the amount of production around us in that first [musical number], the amount of cameras and the cool video backer — I never got to be in a music video in my life. The fact that I get to do it now with these women, I was scared, but I was like, ‘There is a fan blowing my wig back!’ It was amazing. I was living my dream, and I was grateful that it’s never too late.”
Since the characters have been out of the musical spotlight for two decades, the learning curve the actors had to get into that groove lent itself in many ways to the performances.
“We liked that it had a little bit of ragtag-ery to it,” Pell says. “It just felt a little bit like we’re always just pulling it off in that four stars sort of way, thank you Sara Bareilles’ beautiful song.”
Although Variety made the women of “Girls5eva” dive deep on the music and choreography of the show, Pell notes that she was glad the show wasn’t just about that.
“That was my biggest challenge — just moving this seasoned arse in a hip-hop flavor,” she says. “It was just not in my genetics; it just did not work. I did not grow up on dance music like that. … Writing your name with your butt was not what I grew up learning.”
After completing the season and having some time to see how the audience reacted to it, the cast has an extra special appreciation for the amount of work that went into writing the songs, most of which had lyrics by series creator Meredith Scardino and were composed by Jeff Richmond. (Bareilles also got involved in writing, most notably her character Dawn’s “I’m Afraid.”)
Goldsberry shouts out the fact that every episode’s end credits have a fuller version of one of the show’s songs playing over them, an important attention to detail and way to play to the strengths of the show. Similarly, when looking at personal favorites, she calls out the fact that the show shot a full music video for the “Famous 5eva” heyday hit.
“Jeff also directed the video, and I think he did such a beautiful job of merging who we were then with who we are now,” she says. “And the idea that women can have a similar kind of joy together whether they’re 20 or 40, it just comes out so beautifully in the music video.”
That was also the last big thing on the Season 1 production schedule, which gave it extra emotional heft because they were all about to say goodbye to each other and weren’t sure if they will be renewed.
“Part of the reason why I didn’t want to be an actor anymore was because of the heartbreak that it inevitably has always brought me. And I will say that this is actually, for real for real, the first job I’ve ever had that the heartbreak will have been worth it no matter what,” Philipps says.
The first season left a whopper of a cliffhanger line with the idea that Ashley may have faked her own death. “Do we become Jessica Fletchers next season?” Philipps posits. “To me, the possibility of the show taking such a wild left turn with that line was so delightful. And it was an alt.”
The other options for that line, Pell shares, were about her death, but more along the lines of “whether she got murdered.”
The show was renewed just last week (news the cast didn’t know when this podcast was recorded), but whether or not it returned, there were hopes of keeping the girl group going by reviving mall tours.
In addition to the nine-song soundtrack that has been released, there was a “crazy number” of other songs crafted for the series, Bareilles says. And for the record, they don’t want to take the tour to “fancy, outdoor, bullshit malls that have a train and are really pretty,” adds Pell. They’re looking for an old-school indoor mall tour in line with what their characters would have embarked upon early on in their careers (and sort-of did, if you count their manager just having them sing for crowds at Santa’s Village, even if it wasn’t formal).
Also in this episode: Chelsea Handler discusses “Evolution,” her first stand-up special in six years that shows her at her most vulnerable. And in the spirit of her new podcast “Dear Chelsea,” she gives our interviewer advice on dating and karma.
Variety’s Emmy edition of the “Awards Circuit” podcast is hosted by Michael Schneider, Jazz Tangcay and Danielle Turchiano and is your one-stop listen for lively conversations about the best in television. Each week during Emmy season, “Awards Circuit” features interviews with top TV talent and creatives; discussions and debates about awards races and industry headlines; and much, much more. Subscribe via Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or anywhere you download podcasts. New episodes post every Thursday.