The Warner Bros. back lot has lent its sets and streets to some of the most storied musicals in Hollywood history: “42nd Street,” “The Music Man,” “Bye Bye Birdie.”
On a March day, another show was being fashioned, though “Stars Hollow: The Musical” is unlikely to join that pantheon any time soon. But that won’t matter for the millions of fans of “Gilmore Girls,” who have sojourned in that idyllic (albeit fictional) Connecticut town during its initial run on the WB from 2000 to 2007 or since Netflix picked up all 153 episodes two years ago.
The musical, filled with enthusiastic but talent-challenged townspeople, is one of the story lines in “Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life,” a new, four-part miniseries Netflix will release Nov. 25. More important, the revival is the inspiration of the show’s creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino, and her husband and collaborator, Daniel Palladino. A decade after a contract dispute led to their departure from the show, they get to wrap up the story on their own terms.
The entire, sprawling cast – including its stars, Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel, and supporting actors who’ve gone on to fame elsewhere, including Melissa McCarthy and Milo Ventimiglia (“This Is Us”) – has returned. So has the show’s fizzy cocktail of rapid-fire repartee, pop culture savvy and heartfelt drama about mothers and daughters and relationships.
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But the creators used this second chance to amp up the storytelling complexity. Which explains the faux musical. Both theater obsessives, Sherman-Palladino and Palladino roped in the Tony Award winners Sutton Foster and Christian Borle to appear as regional theater actors, and convinced Jeanine Tesori, the composer of “Fun Home” and “Violet,” to write four songs for it.
“If we weren’t going to do that – to go bigger – we didn’t really see the point,” Sherman-Palladino said. “We didn’t just want to come back and do a bunch more ‘Gilmore’ episodes.”
On the surface, the series Sherman-Palladino pitched in 1999 would seem to be your basic sentimental family drama. The free-spirit Lorelai Gilmore (Graham) flees her disapproving family in haughty Hartford at 16, after giving birth to a daughter, Rory (Bledel). She remakes her life in Stars Hollow, the kind of small town that is filled with quirky, borderline insufferable characters who all know your business. And mother and daughter are best friends, in stark contrast to Lorelai’s fraught relationship with her mother, Emily (Kelly Bishop).
But that description doesn’t do justice to a stealthily ambitious show in which Madeleine Albright shows up in Rory’s dreams; Lorelai names her dog Paul Anka; marathon “Cop Rock” viewing parties take place; and dialogue is packed with cultural references, high and low. (Few shows could pair Nietzsche with “Dawson’s Creek.”)
And the witty banter does speed by. The scripts for most 42-minute TV episodes come in at a page a minute; “Gilmore Girls” scripts ranged between 75 and 80 pages.
Underneath the whimsy and the banter, however, lies a sophistication in the treatment of relationships, both familial and romantic, that helped attract an intensely loyal audience. (During its best seasons, the show averaged more than 5 million viewers.)
But after six seasons, Sherman-Palladino and Palladino abruptly departed the show. A decade on, the couple and studio executives at Warner Bros. Television still sound bewildered that an expired contract led to the rupture.
“We were just getting old and tired,” Sherman-Palladino said, explaining that she and Palladino were looking for production help so they wouldn’t have to shoulder the same punishing workload. “And a little more help turns into a little bit more money. It just got to a certain place where the way we wanted the show to run going forward was not necessarily the way they wanted the show to run going forward. And then the contract just ended. And then they take your parking spot away from you.”
The news did not sit too well with the cast.
Even though many of the writers had long worked on the show, something felt off. “It just didn’t sound the same,” Graham said. She reached for a pop-cultural reference of her own to elaborate, saying that Van Halen was different once David Lee Roth left the band.
“I remember being in a scene one day and having a physical feeling that something was wrong,” she said. “I was in a scene with two other people and for three pages I didn’t say anything. And I said, ‘This is just weird. All I do is talk on this show.’”
Fans noticed, and WB canceled the show after the seventh season.
At first, Sherman-Palladino and Palladino had no desire to revisit Stars Hollow. They had moved on to other projects like “Bunheads” (on which Foster starred) and “The Return of Jezebel James.” But they increasingly encountered a whole new generation of viewers who had discovered the show in reruns, on DVD and then on Netflix, clamoring for a revival.
A changing entertainment landscape also gave them an avenue to resurrect the characters but not get bogged down by a full-blown series. The very short seasons and 90-minute running time of the British series “Sherlock” enticed.
“We always found ourselves wishing for more space on ‘Gilmore’ to do the offbeat things or the diversionary side stories,” Palladino said. “That’s the first stuff to get cut when you have a 42-minute format. It was a wonderful sense of freedom to really just tell a story.”
They quickly hit on an overarching storyline: all three Gilmore girls finding themselves at crossroads in their lives. Rory, who graduated from Yale and headed off to begin her journalism career when the series ended, finds herself a freelance vagabond, unable to land a full-time job. Lorelai, who is together with Luke Danes (Scott Patterson), is feeling restless about the next act in her life. And Emily is coping with the death of her husband, Richard. (Edward Herrmann, who played Richard, died in 2014, and his absence is keenly felt by all involved in the revival.)
“It seemed dramatically to demand something more filmic and less episodic,” Sherman-Palladino said. “Because it was a little bigger than the things we were trying to tackle on a week-to-week basis.”
And four, 90-minute chapters, each one pegged to a season, seemed appropriate for a series that showcased the seasons.
The miniseries was shopped around, and Netflix – already showing the series, and armed with data demonstrating its appeal across generations – licensed the specials. It also fit nicely within Netflix’s budding field of reprising older shows, such as “Fuller House” and “Arrested Development.”
“When you have the original creative team, proactively offering they have a desire to continue telling the story, those are already great ingredients for us,” said Cindy Holland, vice president of original content at Netflix.
Sherman-Palladino had more prosaic reasons for agreeing to the Netflix deal. “We don’t have to sell soap,” she said. “We don’t have to stop for the tampon commercials.”
“Though I must say that ‘Gilmore Girls,’ in its original run, sold a lot,” Palladino chimed in.
With the bigger budgets, the two could do more location shoots and elaborate setups.
And, of course, they could put together a musical.
“We have tap dancing and kick lines,” said Sherman-Palladino, enthused during a break in filming on that March day.
The couple had become friends with Tesori while serving as producers of the Broadway run of “Violet,” and convinced her to put music to their own lyrics. Stretching over the long history of Stars Hollow allowed them to play with all sorts of genres (There’s a “Hamilton”-inspired rap song.)
Foster, who also starred in “Violet,” signed up, and Borle (“Something Rotten!” “Falsettos”) was dragooned into joining his ex-wife, Foster.
“I’m writing him Jewish guilt letters,” Sherman-Palladino joked. “Look, you’ll break my heart. It’s OK, if you don’t mind the thought of me hanging from a shower curtain.”
He signed up.
Sherman-Palladino didn’t have to do a hard sell on the rest of the cast. “Frankly, I was badgering Amy for most of those years to do a movie,” Bishop said.
Scheduling, though, was a nightmare. The deal between Warner Bros. Television and Netflix took awhile to finalize, and that meant a scramble to line up dozens of cast members and film during the brief window the studio back lot was available. The timing was so tight that Graham read the scripts just a day before the first table read.
“There’s just been a feeling of right place, right time, right moment,” Sherman-Palladino said.
When Sherman-Palladino pitched “Gilmore Girls” in 1999, she – unlike many television show creators – knew the endgame. Down to the final four words a character would speak.
On Friday, the world will learn which words she’s been planning all along.
Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life
- 12:01 a.m. Friday, Netflix