Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist — NBC's musical dramedy about a young woman, Zoey (Jane Levy), who develops the power to hear others' thoughts through "heart songs" — isn't just a celebration of music. It's also an ode to dance. During season 2, around 60 numbers were choreographed to music, in which the cast used their bodies to express drama and joy related to work, family, and love life.
Mandy Moore (not the This Is Us actress!) is the woman behind this magic. The season 2 finale, which airs this Sunday, contains no less than seven stunning productions that she orchestrated in the face of pandemic restrictions and San Francisco weather. It's an amazing feat (and feet, for that matter).
Below, Moore discusses how she pulled it off, highlights from the show's run and finale, and how she hopes her art can inspire the world in a difficult time. Plus there's a clip from the episode, in which the cast shakes it off to Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off."
The Advocate: First, congratulations on a dazzling finale — and two seasons of shows stocked with choreographed musical numbers. How does it feel to wrap a second season?
Mandy Moore: Whoa, what an amazing season we had! I feel incredibly grateful that we were able to work and make magic in a time when so many creatives and performers were not able to work due to the pandemic. I love this show so much and am so appreciative to [creator] Austin [Winsberg] and writers for continuing to use dance as a vehicle for storytelling. Zoey’s is a dream job. I get the chance to create cinematic dance five to six times on average per episode, with an all-star cast, a super talented crew, and a producing family that supports dance. Yes! I am not sure I have fully come to terms with the fact that we wrapped. [Laughs] It’s intense when we are in the thick of it. The day-to-day is so much work, but now that I am back, I honestly just want to do it again. I am very proud of the work that we created.
What is your creative process for choreographing a “heart song” — and what is the range of time it takes?
The creative process for creating a “heart song” always starts in the outline stage with Austin and the writers. We have a dance concept meeting and we talk about the conceit for the number, the structure of the song, the lyric breakdown, and any general dance thoughts I may have. Then Austin and I meet with our music producer, Harvey Mason Jr., to get the track production going. In the meantime, I work with a skeleton crew of dancers and start to create the language and vocabulary of the number. Once I feel that I have a structure and strong idea going, I shoot a pre-viz [a previsualization, or the visualizing of a complex scene] and send that to the director and Austin for any thoughts they may have.
I feel it’s very important that we are all on the same page for the numbers, because once I start the process of teaching the actors and other dancers, there is no time to change and shift. Most of the actors are not dancers, and I have found that the less changes and more coaching and drilling that can happen in the rehearsal, the better the outcome. There are many times that leave space to create directly on the actor and work to find the movement together, so in that instance, I will shoot a pre-viz with the actor and send along for notes. We usually get one or two on-set rehearsals and then we shoot!
How has the pandemic impacted this process, both in time and what’s possible?
I think the biggest impact for my department was having to dance and wear masks all day, every day. That was not fun, it’s hard to breathe, and you have to change your masks all the time because they get sweaty. Luckily, almost everything was possible with testing, mask-wearing, sanitizing, and air filters. We knew that it was not possible to do our show and do the numbers six feet apart or never being able to touch, so we worked with the [show's] COVID team to determine safe practices and it all worked out well.
One of the biggest time impacts was organizing casting along with testing so that dancers could be cleared to work. We hired hundreds of dancers over the course of the season, and each one had to be cleared to work and also tested while they were with us. That process alone was a full-time job. Creatively, I feel like we all really made it work. It was tough not to be able to hug one another after a job well done or give someone a high five after they finished a performance, but we figured out other ways to keep the joy alive … you can still laugh a whole lot, even with that mask on.
There are seven (!) musical numbers in the finale. How in the world did you manage it?
I am not sure how we managed it! [Laughs] Actually, the nice thing was that episode 212 only had one number in it, so as soon as I wrapped directing episode 211, I went straight into creation for 213. I believe that everything is possible with scheduling, so we worked very closely with the AD team to organize how to pull off all the numbers. We had to allow for certain numbers to have more time, as they were more complex, so we shot later in the schedule. The biggest challenge was planning for weather since our final number was outside. We had to plan for multiple scenarios, which was tough with casting and scheduling. I really loved the script and music for our finale, so I have to say that the creation and rehearsing part was easy; it was fun and also a bit bittersweet, knowing we were wrapping up the season.
Not everyone in the cast has a Broadway background. What are the challenges of tailoring numbers to those of differing abilities?
I guess I never see it as a challenge, I see it as an opportunity to find movement that is unique to each one of these characters. I so enjoy that from the beginning, Austin has loved dance and all kinds of dance. To me, dance is everything, from a stylized walk to an advanced phrase of movement that only a trained dancer can execute. These characters are expressing emotion through song and dance, and the way that they express in each moment has infinite possibility. I really try to push the limits of physicality for them in some moments, and in others, I keep it simple. Each song has its own conceit, and that gives space for many different abilities.
Which actor has surprised you with how good their performances are (or how much they’ve grown)?
I am very lucky to work with a very talented cast, and each one of them has grown immensely since we started. I am always blown away by John Clarence Stewart [who plays Simon, Zoey's love interest and coworker]. Since the pilot, we have had a very different way of working than some of the other cast members. John is not a trained dancer, but John loves to move and is a very athletic, coordinated mover who is also an incredible actor. When we create together, I often only use thoughts, phrases, or words, and he physicalizes them. I have found he does best when the movement originates from his body, as opposed to me showing or telling him what the movement should be. He is all feeling and has a wonderful sense of his body and how to express emotion through it. For me, that was a very different way of working, and I have come to love the process with him. It takes a bit of time, but I am always so proud of what we create together.
Which was your favorite song to choreograph from the show’s run?
Oh, that one is tough, since we created over 60-some numbers this season. [Laughs] I am going to give you two since I can’t just have one favorite child. I really loved the choreography in "Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing." I was very proud of the dancers and cast and loved the use of the chairs and style of movement. When I had the chair idea, I wanted to play with the idea of sharks circling their prey, and I also loved the idea that they, programmers, never got out of their chairs, always kept their cool, and just let [the coder] Leif (Michael Thomas Grant) go around begging for them to listen and forgive him. I also really loved the one shot we did for "Let’s Get Loud." That one was a very complicated number, an incredible track, with lots of story to tell, tons of dancers, a great space, and beautiful camera work.
There’s a beautiful song in the season 2 finale with a beloved character. You know the one! What can you tell us about the experience of its creation?
Yep, I know the one! Honestly, creating that was one of my favorite rehearsal processes of the season. Working with Peter [Gallagher] and Jane [Levy] is always a dream; they are magic together. That song was a very important moment and a moment that the audience is going to be waiting for, so we needed to make sure it checked all the boxes. I didn’t want the dance to get in the way; I hoped it just felt right. When we were shooting it, I for sure got very teary a couple of times. It’s such a treat to watch two actors that are as excellent as Jane and Peter do their work and express through dance.
I think it’s important to remember that Zoey’s power isn’t just to hear a heart song — it’s also to see that character move and express their inner feelings through dance. As a choreographer, what does it mean to work on a show that is also a celebration of dance and its role in communication?
I don’t know if it gets any better than Zoey’s for me. I continue to be so grateful that Austin created a show that uses dance as a vehicle for storytelling. It is incredibly challenging to do number after number but also the most rewarding as a choreographer. I love getting to work with Austin, the cast, the director, the production designer, the wardrobe designer, the AD department, and my team to create these numbers. It truly takes a village, and my moves would only be moves without all the other parts that make the magic you see in the frame.
It’s been a hard year for everyone. How do you hope your art in the finale impacts viewers after such a trying time?
I hope that for anyone who can take a moment and sit down to watch our show, they are moved by the immense amount of heart our show has. I hope our viewers can laugh and cry along with us.
The season 2 finale of Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist airs Sunday at 9 p.m. Eastern on NBC. Watch a clip from the finale, of the cast dancing to Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off."