Alex Newell first showed off his impressive vocals to America on Glee, when a memorable cover of “Boogie Shoes” by KC and the Sunshine Band in a 2012 episode brought Unique Adams, a transgender character, to William McKinley High School and the world.
Almost a decade after his debut on network television, Newell has returned once again to the land of televised musical dramedy in Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. In the NBC series — about a woman (Jane Levy) who acquires the supernatural ability to hear other people’s thoughts as songs — Newell plays Mo, Zoey’s musically gifted neighbor, who helps her understand and navigate her newfound abilities.
Indeed, it is Newell’s voice that begins the pilot episode of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. His renditions of Juice Newton’s “Angel of the Morning” and Wham!’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” first awaken the protagonist from her slumber — to her initial dismay. “How else am I supposed to listen to Wham!?” Mo reasoned to his neighbor. “Their songs demand a certain level of participation and volume.”
When Newell took the role of Unique, he was an ingenue; he landed the role as a teenager through an audition at a reality competition, Oxygen’s The Glee Project. Now, at 27, he has an album (Power) and Broadway experience (Once on This Island) under his belt, which has given him expertise and confidence in his return to TV.
“I've always been a musical person, but now, instead of having to prove myself, in a way, I could have more fun,” Newell said. “I know what I can do. I know what I want to do. I know what's more refined, what's better.”
An added perk? More creative control (and budget) for hair, makeup, and wardrobe. “I get to sit here each week and create some of the most fabulous, fun looks,” Newell said. “It's such a collaborative effort.” The pilot alone debuts three different looks for Mo, including a red kimono and a '70s-inspired glittering rainbow dress.
Mary Steenburgen, who portrays Zoey’s mother, was among those impressed by Newell’s looks. Admiring his “pearly disco wig,” Steenburgen told Newell he looked like Diana Ross — and then recounted the story of how the Motown legend presented her an Academy Award in 1980 for her role in Melvin and Howard. It’s sometimes “surreal” to work with Steenburgen and the rest of Zoey’s A-list cast, including Peter Gallagher, Lauren Graham, and Skylar Astin, said Newell.
However, brilliant garments, acting, and vocals are not Newell’s only contributions on Zoey. The character of Mo also originated with him. According to the show’s creator, Austin Winsberg, the role was originally written for a female actor. However, Robert Ulrich, the casting director for Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist — who also cast Glee — played a hand in urging Newell to audition for the part.
Newell, who identifies as gay, cisgender, and gender-nonconforming, was initially confused when he read the breakdown for the part. “Every female that I know was going in for this role and I was like, ‘Why am I going in for this?’” he wondered. However, after reading for the role, he changed his mind. “This is new, this is fun. Maybe this could be me,” Newell recalled thinking at the time.
The powers that be at NBC agreed. “Alex came in, and not only does he bring such an amazing energy and personality to the part, but instantly I just felt like the whole world and language of the show exploded as well,” Winsberg said.
Newell was given the part, which, in his hands, he saw as an upending of the “sassy black female” trope. It was also the first time Newell had creative input for a character instead of breathing life into one that had already been written. Winsberg and the writing team had conversations with Newell “to create this entirely new character from the ground up,” Newell said, to make Mo the complement of the lead.
“Zoey is somebody that's very closed off and very science-minded,” Winsberg said. “I wanted Mo to be the opposite of that. I wanted Mo to be somebody who was creative, artistic, emotionally in tune, somebody who welcomes people in, who understands emotions and empathy and compassion, and also has a deep, encyclopedic knowledge of music.”
And Mo, as a queer character of color, also brings important representation to network TV, which the show’s creator acknowledged the importance of. “It was really important with me, with Alex to be authentic to who he is and his experiences and to not try to make any sort of comment or joke about what Mo is, but to just own who Alex is and to lean completely as far into that as we possibly can,” Winsberg said.
After this collaboration, how much does Newell see of himself in Mo? “Too much,” Newell joked, but he noted several key differences. “I put a lot in and there are some similarities, but for the most part, Mo is a freer spirit than I am. … Mo is loud, outspoken, and carefree, and sometimes I can be a little bit more reserved until I'm comfortable.”
Newell also doesn’t burst into song in the morning. “I really don't speak in the morning until I like have a whole routine of like coffee, a shower, and everything,” he confessed.
However, the actor does have a special relationship with music that began nearly from birth. “Music has always been cathartic for me. I started singing when I was 2. It's the only thing that I really knew I was comfortable with doing. It’s one of those things that I have always loved,” he said. “My father's side of the family is very musical. My uncle played the saxophone; my father played the piano. Everyone in my family basically plays something.”
Music also has the power to convey emotion that is distinct from other methods of communication — especially in challenging times. “Words aren't always enough,” Newell observed. The show is inspired by a real-life tragedy: Winsberg lost his father to a rare neurological disease called progressive supranuclear palsy, which robbed his father of motor skills. In less than a year from the onset of symptoms, he had died. Zoey’s father (Gallagher) is in a similar plight, and his daughter is heartbroken that she is unable to communicate with him. For Zoey, music plays a role in bridging this divide.
Newell was 6 when his own father died of cancer. So the story of “losing a parent” and “losing love” resonated deeply with him. “I think we touch on that in such a beautiful way of what it's like [when] you have the person right in front of you … getting ready for the loss and not knowing if the loss is going to happen,” Newell said. “I think that relates to me, in a way, of looking at my father throughout the entire time that he had cancer and seeing him right there and not knowing when I wasn't going to see him anymore.”
While many will connect with Zoey and her struggles, Mo also has a storyline that will resonate with LGBTQ people — particularly those who come from faith communities. Newell, who sang in his church choir and whose father was a deacon, can relate to Mo as he struggles to find acceptance — and self-acceptance — in his church as a queer person.
“It's hard to have faith and practice faith and live a lifestyle that most people of your faith don't agree with,” Newell said. “It's something that I've always struggled with. … I've seen it time and time again: People want to have something from you but, especially in church, don't want to accept you and want to downplay you and say that you aren't as important as you really are.”
What message does Newell hope Mo’s story can broadcast to the world? “There is always a place for you if you make it, and you have to listen to people when they say there is a place for you,” he said.
In addition to helping others find a place of acceptance, Newell hopes Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist — through the journey of its protagonist, who is forced out of her shell to listen to and understand the “heart songs” of those around her — can be a “spark” to come together and a salve during a divisive time.
“We live in a world where we don't really talk to each other. We really don't ask people questions and we don't have conversations whatsoever,” Newell said. “And I think that just saying, how's your actual heart?" can make a world of difference.
"[The heart song] can be good, it can be bad. It could be vengeful. It could be all of these things. But you still have to ask people how are they at the end of the day rather than saying, ‘Oh, I'll see them on social media.’”
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist airs Sundays at 9 p.m. Eastern and Pacific on NBC. Watch the trailer below.