As veterans of the stage, some of the young cast members of John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch got an education in the rigors of performing live eight times a week, but nothing could have prepared them for the entire process that began when they were called to audition for the Netflix project. From beginning to end, the children’s musical variety special served as a learning experience for everyone involved.
Ava Briglia, who appeared in the Broadway ensembles of School of Rock and The Ferryman in addition to playing the title girl in Matilda, remembers the audition process being really tough.
“I remember thinking even if I’m not cast this is like a masterclass or an actual boot camp for all of us,” she said. “It was impossible to be prepared for what would happen in the room so you really just had to go in and be yourself.”
Jonah Mussolino, who will appear in the Broadway revival of Caroline, or Change this spring, had a slightly different audition process as he was on tour with Falsettos when he initially received a call to audition. His first time being seen was during the callbacks, so his first callback was actually the second round of callbacks for the rest of the kids auditioning.
When Briglia went into her final callback, she was told she wasn’t going to have to sing, “and the first thing John [Mulaney] said to me in the room was ‘So Ava, do you have a song for us?’”
The callbacks were the first time all of the kids experienced what would continue through shooting the show: they had to prepare for everything, but also expect that those things would change on the spot.
Both Briglia and Mussolino were initially slotted into other places in the special that were either cut after filming or never filmed at all. Briglia says she was originally cast to sing a duet with Stevie Nicks, who didn’t sign onto the special.
“You really had to be resilient and understand nothing was personal,” she explained. “That’s not easy. In the end, I realized my role was being one of the Sack Lunch Bunch and supporting whatever the show needed me for.”
Mussolino appears in two distinct sketches within the special (“Sascha’s Dad Does Drag” and “Algebra Song” with Mulaney and André DeShields), but also filmed a third: “Mr. Molecule,” a science-themed scene that was filmed and cut. He says that even these cut scenes helped him bond with other members of the Sack Lunch Bunch. A two-day table read took place, but he remembers the filming period as the time where he really was able to form friendships with the rest of the cast.
“We used to play silly games when we weren’t in certain scenes, and the scenes you were in with people also helped create bonds,” he said.
Briglia remarked that the group felt like “magic together,” and was quick to compliment every one of her cast mates individually for their unique talents, attitudes, and traits.
“Every single one is special to me and I think we all feel that way about each other,” she said.
Even though the special was structured like the children’s variety shows of the 80’s and 90’s (Briglia admits she didn’t know what the term “variety show” meant until she was doing it), there was still room for improv in the sketches that anchored the musical numbers.
Mussolino loved one particular bit of improv he got to do in the special.
“During the scene I was in before the song “Do Flowers Exist at Night,” I got to say different names each take of what Richard Kind called John, which [Richard] obviously didn’t say,” he said. The final cut of the special uses the take where Mussolino calls Mulaney “Madam Secretary.”
Briglia got to try her hand at improv along with Cordelia Comando and Camille De La Cruz when they filmed a scene with Richard Kind.
The sketch, “Girl Talk!” with Richard Kind, was built around scripted lines but the majority of the sketch called for improv around the lines.
There was also a good balance of unscripted scenes slotted in around everything else, and both Briglia and Mussolino pointed out how special those were. Each member of the Sack Lunch Bunch filmed a talking head interview where Mulaney and co-writer Marika Sawyer asked them about their biggest fears. The interview ended up being Mussolino’s favorite thing he did for the special.
“The biggest fears are completely genuinely who the kids and adults are and unscripted,” Briglia says. “I’m not quite sure how the creative team did it but the characters were authentically the kids.”
There are a lot of differences between ensemble work on stage and on screen. Mussolino said one of the biggest ones is that, when filming something like …Sack Lunch Bunch, the audience isn’t watching it yet.
“They get surprised when it actually airs and the whole world can see it at the same time,” he said. “With theater, a certain amount of people see it on a certain day which is planned ahead of time.”
Another big difference Mussolino realized is that he’s given the chance for do-overs until the scene is perfect, which he remembers being an eight hour process for something like “Algebra Song.”
“When you perform a musical on stage, if you mess up, keep going with it and you can fix it the next time you go on,” he explained. “Also with performing, you never know what type of audience you’ll get; by this I mean that the mood the audience could be in. The more pumped the audience is, the more energy you could display in your performance.” Overall, though, he enjoys performing in both mediums.
“A group of talented kids doing what they love together is what the Sack Lunch Bunch was so there’s no real difference,” Briglia said, talking about her relationship to the Sack Lunch Bunch ensemble in addition to her past Broadway ensembles, which she referred to as family to her.
She summed up her experience rather simply: “If you love performing, there is nothing better than being in an ensemble like this.”
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Published in collaboration with The Ensemblist