India de Beaufort as Jessica in ZOEY'S EXTRAORDINARY PLAYLIST - Season 1 - "Zoey's Extraordinary Night Out" | ©2020 NBCUniversal/Sergei Bachlakov

India de Beaufort as Jessica in ZOEY’S EXTRAORDINARY PLAYLIST – Season 1 – “Zoey’s Extraordinary Night Out” | ©2020 NBCUniversal/Sergei Bachlakov

In the musical dramedy ZOEY’S EXTRAORDINARY PLAYLIST, in its first season on Sunday nights at 9 PM on NBC, Jane Levy plays Zoey. Zoey is a young computer tech exec at a firm in San Francisco. Her beloved father (Peter Gallagher) has a debilitating disease that has robbed him of the ability to speak, and her mother (Mary Steenburgen) is so devoted to him that she’s becoming exhausted. When Zoey has a routine MRI, there’s an earthquake. After this, Zoey discovers that she now has the ability – whether she wants it or not – to know people’s innermost emotions, because she sees them singing and dancing, even though, so far as the other people know, they’re just sitting or standing as usual. This is great for Zoey’s communication with her dad (Gallagher’s musical background is on potent display), but chaotic for her love life.

ZOEY’S EXTRAORDINARY PLAYLIST is created by Austin Winsberg. The choreographer, also one of the show’s producers, is Mandy Moore. No, not the Mandy Moore who stars on NBC’s THIS IS US (although both of them are in the same building on the day of this interview). This Mandy Moore has won Emmys for her choreography on both SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE and DANCING WITH THE STARS. Moore has also choreographed for several Oscars presentations, as well as the films LA LA LAND, AMERICAN HUSTLE, and SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK.

At a Q&A session for ZOEY’S EXTRAORDINARY PLAYLIST, Moore talks about her work on the series. Afterwards, she answers some one on one queries.

In terms of when in the development process Moore sees scripts for upcoming episodes, she says, “Luckily, Austin and I work really well together, and he invites me into that process very, very early. I would never be able to do what we do on this show without that. He and I sit, and we work on the conceit of the dance. We work on the arrangements of the song, and it’s really this back and forth that ultimately is the best part for me, because it’s so creative, and we get to get in there and really work on the ground level of how we create these numbers.”

Moore uses a process called pre-visualization to work out the dance numbers before she involves the actors. In visual effects, “pre-vis” refers to raw animatics, but in choreography, it means using a team of dancers to experiment with the performers’ movements in concert with the photography. “Because [the musical numbers] are so highly choreographed, and they also choreographed for camera, we don’t shoot coverage on this show. We don’t have a bunch of cameras pointing at the action and figuring it out in post. We create it for the edit. The only way to talk about that to the team and to the directors and the producers, everybody is to shoot ‘pre-vises,’ so after Austin and I do our ‘What is this number going to be?’, I go away and usually have a slight panic attack first, but then I work on it with my skeleton crew, and then we shoot it the way we would see it, and then we’re able to do this kind of notes situation back and forth, so that by the time we get to set and we’re teaching the cast and everything, it’s pretty much on lockdown.”

Moore notes that everyone in the cast of ZOEY’S EXTRAORDINARY PLAYLIST has been cooperative and enthusiastic. “I have to be honest and tell you I’m super-lucky to have this cast, because they, from Day 1, jumped in with me. That was the only thing I said. I said, ‘Guys, we’re going to be weird. We’re going to try stuff. Austin wants dance to live in a very interesting way in this show,’ and if I didn’t have these guys willing to jump in with me, it never would happen.”

Alex Newell as Mo in ZOEY'S EXTRAORDINARY PLAYLIST - Season 1 - "Zoey's Extraordinary Neighbor"| ©2020 NBCUniversal/Sergei Bachlakov

Alex Newell as Mo in ZOEY’S EXTRAORDINARY PLAYLIST – Season 1 – “Zoey’s Extraordinary Neighbor”| ©2020 NBCUniversal/Sergei Bachlakov

This said, Moore acknowledges that Episode 8, is set to air March 29, was a challenge for both her and Levy, who is in seven different dance numbers. “She had a nervous breakdown, and then I also did at the same time. I have two people that are on my team, Jeff and Jillian [Meyers]. They are the best ever. And we just had to come up with a plan. I think that all of everything is doable, if you give it a little bit of time and you have an idea of how you want to incrementally work on it, because we can’t, in four hours, teach her seven numbers. That’s just not the way that dancers work, humans work, artists work. Nobody works that way. So we just had to incrementally, bit by bit, work on different parts.

“A lot of it is that so many of these routines are narratively based. They are acting first, and then we physicalize the emotion. It’s definitely not the kind of show where I just say, ‘Okay, Jane. Ready. Spread out. Five, six, seven, eight. We are going to kick our head, and then we are going to go here.’ So that exchange is so important. And so as long as we had time together, we were good. And I kept saying, ‘We are going to get it. We are going to get it.’ And then, when we get on camera, it’s the same thing. It’s like we put it up on camera. We do it a couple of times. We are there for notes. We all talk about it. It gets better and better and better, and then, eventually, you have this finished product that everybody gets o see. It’s pretty incredible.”

ASSIGNMENT X: You are also a producer on ZOEY’S EXTRAORDINARY PLAYLIST, so does that mean you get input into elements besides the choreography?

MANDY MOORE: Yes, it’s great. Having a producing role actually came out of the pilot, because I ended up being very involved in the early stages, like we were talking about, with Austin, the show runner, and then also our director Richard [Shepard], for the pilot. So that producing credit was born out of that ground-level work, and I love it, because then no one can give me notes on choreography, because I’m a producer [laughs].

AX: I know what pre-vis is in terms of special effects, but does pre-vis with choreography mean that you get your dance team to shoot the number, and then you show it to people?

MOORE: Yeah. It’s basically the same idea. I’ll have what we call a skeleton crew. So I’ll hire, say, ten dancers or fifteen dancers, and then I will work out what the choreography will be, and then I will shoot it the way that it needs to be shot, and then cut it together if there are any edits, or I just send that off to the directors and the producers, and we talk about it.

ZOEY'S EXTRAORDINARY PLAYLIST - Season 1 Key Art | ©2020 NBCUniversal

ZOEY’S EXTRAORDINARY PLAYLIST – Season 1 Key Art | ©2020 NBCUniversal

AX: Are you going to migrate into directing for ZOEY’S EXTRAORDINARY PLAYLIST if it keeps going?

MOORE: There is talk of that, for sure. So yeah, I would really love to.

AX: You’re already directing some of it …

MOORE: That’s kind of how it goes with choreography and camera.

AX: Although everybody in the cast can sing and dance, most of your leads aren’t professional dancers. Do you have to change the way you talk to them? Watching documentaries, or movies like ALL THAT JAZZ, choreography-speak seems like a whole different language. Do you have to adapt your language to talk to the non-dancers?

MOORE: Yes, actually. When you’re working with actors, they approach movement from a very different space than dancers. Dancers, I feel like they kind of approach it outside in, and actors, they approach it inside out. They want to know, first, what they’re supposed to be feeling, and how this affects their character. And so this show has actually pushed me and challenged me a lot, to understand how to communicate to them. But honestly, it’s a very interesting collaboration. I talked a little bit about that on the panel, but it’s definitely not the kind of show where I just come in and I say, “These are the steps, this is how you move, you go like this, put your arm up like this.” The initial start of all of that is very much a back-and-forth, talking about character and narrative. Then it does come to the point where I say, “Okay, get your hand up, no, it needs to be like this on the count of five.” Then my teacher side comes in after that [laughs].

AX: What needs to be agreed on before you can choreograph a scene – the song, who’s singing it, how many dancers, the location? How much is agreed on between you and the other creative people and the budget/production people, and then how much do they say, “Okay, it’s yours from here on out, take it away”?

MOORE: Right. A lot of it is, Austin has very good ideas, and his writers have very big-picture ideas, about concepts. And he’ll say, “This is a song about Fill in the Blank.” So I know what I’m supposed to feel from the song. Then I need to know where the song exists. Is it in the living room? Is it outside on the street? Is it in a bar? Is it in a coffee shop? Because the space around a lot of the stuff we do, as you can tell, is very location-dependent. So I need to know what the space is. Then I need to know the structure of the song. I don’t necessarily need to know the exact accent here or there, but I need to know, is it a verse, a chorus? Because the structure, obviously, the length of a song, affects how I can do my job. And then, obviously, casting, but that’s a little bit more fluid. I mean, once I know the character, I know the character.

AX: When you’re on set rehearsing, and shooting, in fact, have the actors pre-recorded the song, and they’re lip-synching on set, or do they play just the music and the actors are singing live and then it’s replaced, or how do they do that?

MOORE: It depends on the song. Some we do pre-record and we play it back and lip-synch because, say, where we’re shooting has really bad acoustics or something. But then there will be times that we will do what we call a live performance, and so while they’re shooting, we will have the boom [microphone] in and we will make sure that we’re capturing their live vocal. So it kind of just depends on the number, and where it’s situated.

AX: Has anybody particularly surprised you with their dancing prowess?

MOORE: Funnily enough, each one of them has their little things that I didn’t know they had, which is really cool. But Peter Gallagher to me, man – I mean, I know he has dance experience, but – I can’t even say it’s just him. Jane really, in Episode 8, she came out huge, and I’m really excited for everyone to see that one. Lauren [Graham, who plays Zoey’s boss Joan] surprises herself all the time, just like she said, “I didn’t think I was going to be able to do all this.” John [Clarence Stewart, who plays Zoey’s crush and coworker Simon] I didn’t know much about before he started, and he’s a beautiful dancer. He has no training. Of course, Alex [Newell, who plays Zoey’s friend Mo] has a lot of experience performing and moving, so I wasn’t surprised by him so much, but he’s amazing.

AX: And Mary Steenburgen of course had a very famous tap-dancing scene in MELVIN AND HOWARD …

MOORE: Yes! And she’s so good, and she’s so fun. If you ask her, she’s like, “I’ve waited my whole life to get to do something like this every week,” so it’s really fun.

AX: Do the writers/producers ever say to you, “We’d like something that’s more Bob Fosse style, or more Alvin Ailey style,” or do they even know what those styles are to tell you?

MOORE: Interesting, and I have to be honest and tell you they don’t, and I love it. Because they allow the dance to be whatever it’s going to be. And when I create vocabulary for the movements, of course, I’m inspired by everything that’s come prior to me, because I’m not the first person to create a ball change [laughs]. But what’s nice is, I’m not given that kind of direction, that, “Oh, it needs to be like Jerome Robbins, or it needs to be like this, or it needs to be like that.” I get to create what’s right for the scene, which is really lovely.

AX: Are any of your favorite songs incorporated into the first season?

MOORE: Yes. Austin and I are very oddly aligned when it comes to music and dance. Pretty much every song he writes in, I’m like, “Ah, I love this song!” [laughs] So yeah, there are many of them that I really like.

AX: What would you most like people to know about ZOEY’S EXTRAORDINARY PLAYLIST?

MOORE: That it’s a really heartwarming, beautiful story, that will touch you in all the different places. It really is a great show, so I hope people will tune in.

This interview was conducted during NBC’s portion of the Winter 2020 Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour.

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Article: ZOEY’S EXTRAORDINARY PLAYLIST: Exclusive interview with choreographer Mandy Moore


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