With an ambitious mini about boy band New Edition, BET ups its commitment to originals.
When The New Edition Story airs on BET January 24–26, the six-hour miniseries that looks back on the success of the ‘80s boy band will be the culmination of a dream — and more than a decade of work — for executive producer Jesse Collins.
It all started in 2005, he explains, with BET’s 25th anniversary special.
“We did a New Edition reunion. I’d known them before, when I was in radio. But when I co-produced that anniversary special, I got to see how New Edition really functions,” says Collins, who is known for producing the BET Awards, The BET Hip Hop Awards and The BET Honors as well as the reality series Real Husbands of Hollywood.
He started thinking about how the history of the iconic boy band — which formed in 1978 in Boston and paved the way for such groups as New Kids on the Block, Backstreet Boys and NSYNC — had never been told on screen.
“The day after the BET show, I called Mike Bivins at six in the morning because he is up at five every day,” Collins says. “I was like, ‘You’ve got to let me produce the New Edition movie!’”
Bivins, an original member of the band, was interested, but Collins had to convince the rest of the group — Ricky Bell, Bobby Brown, Ronnie DeVoe, Ralph Tresvant and Johnny Gill (who joined in 1987).
His pitch was straightforward. “Show the things they survived — the bad deals, the hurt, the pain — all of the things they went through and how they came out fine on the other side.”
Once Collins got all the guys on board, he sent screenwriter Abdul Williams to cull their individual recollections, as well as those of New Edition manager and choreographer Brooke Payne, who was practically the seventh member of the group.
“Then you had to get all seven to agree,” Collins says. Not everyone remembered events the same way. “It took a year just to get to a place of, ‘This is the story.’”
When the miniseries got to the casting stage, which was overseen by Robi Reed, BET’s vice- president of talent and casting for original programming, that was also a challenge.
When the group started, the guys were kids, so two versions — a kid version and an adult version — had to be cast. Ultimately, the adult cast had Empire’s Bryshere Y. Gray (Mike), Elijah Kelley (Ricky), Algee Smith (Ralph), Keith Powers (Ronnie), Woody McClain (Bobby) and Luke James (Johnny).
And before director Chris Robinson shot a frame of footage, all of the actors — kids and adults — had to learn not only how to sing New Edition hits like “Candy Girl,” “Telephone Man” and “Cool It Now,” but also how to perform the group’s famed, crisp choreography.
Prep for the shoot included a month-long boot camp led by Payne. Members of New Edition worked with the talent, too, sharing small but important details.
“When they started boot camp, I was like, ‘Are they really going to turn into New Edition?’” says Zola Mashariki, BET executive vice-president and head of original programming. “But when I went to the rehearsal studio and saw the evolution, I knew it,” she says, marveling, “Bryshere Gray sounds like Mike Bivins. He’s got his intonation. He’s got the voice. He’s got his style. All of it.”
In addition to taking part in the boot camp and working with a dialect coach on his Boston accent, Gray prepared by shadowing Bivins during a trip to Boston. “I put myself through my own boot camp,” he says.
Gray also spent time with Bivins’s mom, Shirley. “I had dinner with her, picking her brain and figuring out what type of kid he was. I had to get into his mindset.”
His first day on set, Gray worked with Yvette Nicole Brown (Community), who plays Shirley in The New Edition Story. “I’ve never in my life as an actor thought that I was the only person for a role until this role,” Brown says, “but I was born to play Mike’s mother in this movie.”
Turns out Brown has been a New Edition fan since elementary school, when she first heard “Candy Girl” while on the bus. Her fascination with the group continued through high school and college, when Brown was an aspiring singer.
She met Bivins after daring to follow him to a hotel where he was staying. She sang for him in the lobby, asked him to manage her and he said yes.
Brown’s singing career never took off, but after college she moved from Ohio to Los Angeles and worked as Bivins’s assistant at his Motown label, Biv 10 Records. “I went from being a fan of the group to being managed by him to being his assistant,” she says. “And here I am, playing his mother in a movie.”
BET has a lot riding on The New Edition Story, its most ambitious original programming to date.
“This is a big one for us, and we are treating it like a tentpole,” Mashariki says of the project.
“It is a miniseries that the company is behind on all levels, so every department is working on it. We want success for [it] because it’s good and because we feel there is a market for it. It taps into our music base, and it taps into what our audience wants from us.”
Everyone involved feels a responsibility to New Edition, too. “They’re still here,” Mashariki says. “They’re living this story, so we want to tell it right.”
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 10, 2016