Consider it a day-after-Thanksgiving treat: Sutton Foster and Christian Borle step-ball-changing in pilgrim costumes to new, original Jeanine Tesori tunes. And you won’t need a ticket to see this, just a Netflix subscription. The talents of these musical theatre giants will be featured on Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life.
Invited to catch a glimpse of the making of a handful of musical numbers for the beloved television series reboot, Playbill.com spent a day on the Warner Bros. backlot in Burbank, CA.
Within five minutes of arriving via golf cart to Stars Hollow, the fictional Connecticut hamlet at the heart of Gilmore Girls, I met her, creator and executive producer Amy Sherman-Palladino. Like many women of a certain age, I grew up on a healthy diet of Gilmore, adoring the rapid-fire, whip-smart dialogue on a show about a mother (Lorelai) and daughter (Rory) only 16 years apart and best friends. Gilmore Girls first aired on the WB in 2000, and Netflix made bingeing easy when the seven-season series became available for streaming in 2014.
On November 25, audiences will get to enjoy four new episodes. Each 90-minute installment encapsulates a season, beginning with Winter, followed by Spring, Summer, and Fall, (a nod to Carole King given that “Where You Lead” is the show’s theme song).
On the March day I visited the set, Sherman-Palladino shared her delight at working on the Netflix revival nearly 10 years after the series finale aired. Even Foster, who previously starred in Sherman-Palladino’s Bunheads on ABC Family, buzzed with excitement.
“There’s something about the generations, the idea of a mom, her daughter, and the mom’s mother,” said Foster, explaining why she was drawn to Gilmore Girls. “There’s nothing else that exists on television that’s like it. Amy Sherman-Palladino has such a voice, and her writing has such a voice.”
Sherman-Palladino delivered on her promise to write something for Foster in the reboot. Foster and Borle star in The History of Stars Hollow: A Musical, which is excerpted in the Summer episode. The musical-within-the-show is written, directed, and produced by quirky Town Selectman Taylor Doose. Foster and Borle play community theatre performers trying hard to impress. The two discovered Gilmore Girls together and are both self-proclaimed huge fans.
Staging an original musical seems entirely plausible, especially for a town that has its own troubadour.
Tesori wrote the music to four original songs, including “Working on Building Stars Hollow” and “Love Revolution,” while Sherman-Palladino and her husband and executive producer Dan Palladino wrote the lyrics. Marguerite Derricks (Bunheads, Sister Act) choreographed the musical numbers and gave the actors room to improvise. They tried falling off stools, throwing bottles, a round of patty-cake—anything goes, and the Tony winners drew upon their familiarity with the show.
“We came up with some funny stuff, within the world of Stars Hollow,” said Borle. “We are performing musical theatre style, definitely, in this very small space that is being filmed.”
At the top of the scene, Taylor (played by Michael Winters) tries his material on an audience of townsfolk. There are some big names in the first two rows: musical legend King, who returns as music store owner Sophie, Sally Struthers, who plays Lorelai’s neighbor Babette, and Lauren Graham, A.K.A. Lorelai Gilmore.
Borle plays Carl. Foster plays Violet. (Coincidental naming? I think not since Sherman-Palladino was producer on the Foster-starring Broadway show.) Based on the takes I saw, here’s a sampling of the lyrics for the song “Love Revolution”:
VIOLET: You are me in pants.
CARL: You are me in a dress. / I tried it on.
VIOLET: It fits a bit askance.
CHORUS (both): “It’s a love, love, love revolution in a revolutionary time!”
(For the record, I can still hum Tesori’s silly-yet-fittingly-prim chorus today, more than six months later.)
Foster felt the over-the-topness of it all. “The giggles are real, they’re very real,” she said between takes. (I heard this via headset while watching the monitors.) Later, Foster shared that her character is indeed a struggling actor. “I think coming to Stars Hollow to be part of the musical is a big get for her, but she definitely has some resentment that she hasn’t made it further,” she said.
Foster and Borle’s roles in the reboot are teased with a split-second coupé at the end of the Netflix trailer. (Minute 2:04. Seriously, don’t blink.) The trailer broadly suggests that our Gilmore girls are adrift, each in her own way. The death of husband-father-grandfather Richard Gilmore looms large. (Ed Herrmann who played Richard passed away in 2014.)
Emily is newly widowed. Lorelai is famously second-guessing. And Rory is untethered but unsatisfied. That being said, the banter, zaniness, and pop culture references that made this show such a joy remain front and center in the revival. And have your Oxford English Dictionary at the ready when you watch, because these ladies still bring their A-game when it comes to vocabulary. “Encomiums” – I heard word that on set. Coffee on me if you know what it means without looking it up.
In the Season 3’s episode “Take the Deviled Eggs,” Rory proclaims: “I never want to leave this town,” and I knew just what she meant. At one point, costume designer Brenda Maben approached me and asked if she could take a photo of my day-glo orange and leopard print shoes for inspiration. Jimmy Choo-loving Lorelai Gilmore would have been proud—and so was I.
But proudest of all are Sherman-Palladino and Palladino, who now honor their vision for ending the show. Happily, that vision included musical theatre and a new family of talent. In fact, Foster was the one to suggest that Borle be cast. “It was one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me,” Borle said. “It was such a gift.”