Imagine living in a real-life musical, where spontaneous song-and-dance breaks happen as often in the street as they do onstage. After a series of unusual events, every dancers' dream becomes an unexpected reality for computer coder Zoey Clarke (played by Jane Levy) in NBC's newest series, "Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist." Although at first her new powers catch Zoey off guard, when she learns to embrace them, she's able to connect with the world around her like never before.
And the best part? Every musical mashup puts incredible dancing front and center, thanks in large part to series choreographer and all around dance-for-the-screen extraordinaire, Mandy Moore. Dance Spirit chatted with Moore about choreographing for the dance-driven series, which returns to NBC with all-new episodes this Sunday, February 16 at 9/8c.
Dance Spirit: How did you first get on board with "Zoey"?
Mandy Moore: One of the show's executive producers, Austin Winsberg, sent me the script for the pilot and said that he'd love to have me on board. The script was so magical and fun, and as I was reading it I could really see in my head how dance would fit into the world of the show. I immediately called Austin back and said I was in. We started meeting about a month before shooting the pilot, where we would sit for hours and just talk about dance and watch dance videos. Dance is hard to talk about and dissect if you're not a dancer, so those meetings were really important in helping me shape in my mind what needed to happen in the show. From there, we just hit the ground running.
DS: After choreographing La La Land, you're probably one of the few people truly qualified to work on massive outdoor dance numbers! Has that experience helped you with your work on "Zoey"?
MM: Yes! I really like creating location-based numbers, moving big groups of people around, and thinking about what the camera shots will be. So much of that goes hand-in-hand—I can create a whole dance, but if it's not shot correctly then it may not translate on camera. "Zoey" is unique because dance isn't in the background with some cool moves here and there–it's really integrated into the storytelling language of the whole show. It's been interesting to figure out the timing and nuance of every scene, from the simplest routines to more than fifty people dancing through the streets. It's so cool to have all those different kinds of performances in one episode.
Mandy Moore at the "Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist" premiere (Chris Haston, courtesy NBC)
DS: What's your process like for creating the dance numbers in each episode?
MM: I get a lot of information early on in script development, which makes my job much easier. Next we'll have dance concept meetings, where we sit and talk about the initial thoughts and feelings Austin and the director have about each number. I then elaborate on that working with my skeleton crew, a group of dancers that I do pre-production work with. At that point, I'll also collaborate with Harvey Mason Jr., our executive music producer, as he's creating the tracks for the episode. Finally, I'll shoot a video of what we have and send it to the team. Luckily, they've been really happy with what I've done so far, so once that's signed off, I start rehearsing with the actors and talent. There's not much time by then, so we have to teach it really quickly and then shoot it.
DS: Speaking of talent, you've gotten to work with so many different dancers on the show!
MM: The scenes range so much, from one person to eight, to some numbers with over 70 dancers. When we last wrapped, we had something like 400-plus dancer contracts. I love that we were able to employ dancers like that–it's a great thing for our community.
The cast of "Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist" dancing it out (Sergei Bachlakov, courtesy NBC)
DS: And what was it like working with the lead actors in the show–Jane Levy, Lauren Graham, Alex Newell, John Clarence Stewart–so much great talent!
MM: Luckily, the entire cast was very gung-ho about dance and enthusiastic about rehearsing, which I loved! They all have varying levels of dance experience, and each actor has their own little dance language, which was fun for me to discover. Creating dance scenes in "Zoey" was very different from what I've done with "So You Think You Can Dance" or "Dancing With The Stars." Whereas as dancers, we're trained from the outside-in, and want to make sure everything looks "right" or has the right dynamic, actors bring a different mentality to movement that's all about feeling first. I didn't even have mirrors where we rehearsed for "Zoey," because I didn't want anyone to worry about what they looked like. I could fix their shapes as needed, but I cared more about working through the backstory of each number and creating the right tension with a tinge of dance in each moment, even with something as simple as someone walking through their house.
The cast of "Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist" posing on the red carpet (Chris Haston, courtesy NBC/Universal
DS: What can our readers look forward to on February 16?
MM: Tons of dancing and music! The way dance lives in the show is unlike anything else I've seen on TV. The writing is brilliant and very funny, but also heartwarming and emotional–it's great storytelling. The characters are bold and fun, and very relatable. People will see a lot of the situations that we work through in the show paralleled in their own lives.
DS: And are you working on anything else at the moment that you can share?
MM: Always. The very next morning after we wrapped "Zoey," I flew home and did a commercial. And I just got back from Australia where I guest judged for "Dancing with the Stars." So, I don't really sleep, but that's okay.
DS: One more question: If you had musical powers like Zoey's in the show, what songs would make it onto your own Extraordinary Playlist?
MM: I really love "Celebration" by Kool & the Gang. That's how I feel every day when I wake up! And also, "All I Do Is Win," by DJ Khaled, which is in the first episode of the show. I think people should just strut around singing that song all the time–then we'd really be nailing it in life.