When Choreographer Mandy Moore first received the pilot script for Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist from creator Austin Winsberg, even she was a bit perplexed by the premise of the title character, software developer Zoey (Jane Levy), who unwittingly hears people’s innermost thoughts as they’re singing their hearts out via “heart songs.” Moore was called upon to give these songs a physicality by creating dance numbers that could easily translate onto a Broadway stage. Any doubts she might have had on whether the show would work were happily dashed when she won the 2020 Emmy Award for “Outstanding Choreography for Scripted Programming” for the show’s freshman season.
Now in its second season on NBC and moving towards the finale on Sunday, May 16, the show has amassed a loyal following eager to see the talented cast led by Skylar Astin (Max), Alex Newell (Mo), John Clarence Stewart (Simon), and Mary Steenburgen (Maggie) performing musical numbers deftly choreographed by Moore.
The three-time Emmy winner is best known for her small-screen work on Dancing With the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance. On the big screen, she’s worked with Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land, Jennifer Lopez in Second Act and with Grace Vanderwaal in the Disney film Stargirl.
Moore’s secret to success is zoning in on the emotion of the notes, matching them step for step in her choreography. She is all about telling a story through movement, which bodes well for non-dancers such as the actors, who can still express what she is trying to convey even if they’ve never taken a dance class in their life.
Moore talks with Below The Line about providing the framework for how the dancing would be seen in Zoey’s, sometimes down to the use of a coffee table to dance upon, to the very beginning inspirations behind feeling the groove for the heart songs, and how dance is used as a vehicle for the emotive storytelling.
Below The Line: How did you first decide how dance would be used in the storytelling?
Mandy Moore: [At the] very beginning of the show, there was no language so we had to world-build. Richard Shepard, who directed the pilot, and Austin and I would sit for three or four Saturdays for hours on end. I would just gather links of dance from film, on television, things that were from the ’50s vs. things that were from the ’80s to now, music videos, commercials which we would just watch and talk about. Then we could build how dance would be used as a vehicle for storytelling cinematically and what that language would be. Luckily, Austin is a fan of longer shots, not very many edits and shooting head to toe. It was a dream to be involved in the creation of how this is being seen; they really let me fly with a lot of things.
BTL: How does the production design play into your choreography?
Moore: It is very location specific. If there is a staircase, I love using it. I really enjoy trying to use the space in a way that you might not see normally, such as them standing on the tables in a coffee shop. It juxtaposes the reality vs. the fantasy of the “Zoality” that we experience as an audience. Our production designer Rusty Smith was amazing in Season 1 and David (Willson) in Season 2. All of it comes from the script. My department gets involved early so if we know we have a song that has to be in a coffee shop, then I can go to the production designer and say, ‘I need a level here,’ and that could be a table or a shelf and make sure it’s weight baring or can I get it against the wall so somebody can crawl on it. All of a sudden it’s go time and you gotta get things built and go with your gut!
BTL: Do you get involved in choosing the music for the “heart songs”?
Moore: There have been times when Austin will text me when he gets stuck. He and I have a really good working relationship and I am honest with him. I’ll tell him “That’s mid-tempo death, man” and “I can’t dance to that.” Sometimes, he has to talk me through the narrative of a lyric, because it doesn’t always match with what he wants. Every once in a while, I’ll chime in because I also love the same kind of music. My heart songs are very varied. I go everywhere from old classics to country. In the episode “Zoey’s Extraordinary Double Date,” in the race scene Austin could not decide what song he wanted to do. He gave me a list of six songs like “We Will Rock You,” “Let’s Get Physical,” “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now.” I love them, but it didn’t grab me. I liked the power of “Don’t Stop Me Now,” which then has to go to our music producer to decide if it will be similar to the original or use a cover of the original and then I get to chime in about structure which is amazing for choreography. If something builds then I know to build 45 seconds in as opposed to the first three seconds or I need eight eights as opposed to four eights (counts in dance).
BTL: Where do the ideas for the choreography come from?
Moore: You see something in your mind. Luckily, when I was a kid growing up in my studio, I was exposed to so many different styles. I took everything from belly dancing to break dancing, to jazz, to tap, to ballet. My love for movement and shape is very wide. So when I hear a song or read something in the script along with what the song is, I thankfully see things. Or I feel a groove that I can kind of start with and then expand upon it once I put it on a body. What you see in your mind and then putting it on a physical human is not always the same translation!
BTL: What choreographers for movies and television have inspired you?
Moore: I’m a kid from the ’80s so I grew up on MTV and all the fantastic ’80s dance films like Flashdance and Dirty Dancing. I loved the aesthetic of that, but as a kid I watched every MGM film ever so I’m a huge Jerome Robbins fan who was incredible with storytelling and dance. Marge and Gower Champion, Michael Kidd; I’m inspired by how timeless their work is, even though it was created so many years ago. It’s still relevant and still great dance on camera specifically.
BTL: How do you work with professional dancers in the show vs. non-dancers like some of the actors?
Moore: Learning to work with non-dancers is certainly a journey that I’ve evolved into. As a younger choreographer you’re just drawn to people who are trained like having access to some of these bodies in So You Think You Can Dance who could do anything and have trained their whole lives to do it. On the flip side when I got into La La Land and Zoey’s, I really started to appreciate the beauty of the process for an actor or for a non-dancer. I had to shift how I went about things and create from an internal place and understand what emotion was trying to be conveyed. I also learned to appreciate what comes out of their bodies naturally and not fight it. It’s not my job or would I be able to train somebody in a two-hour rehearsal, because it’s never going to be right on their bodies. If I had six months maybe that would be a different story, but the show is about real humans moving in the space. One of the things I said to my team from day one was that we will win if I can get them to love dance and trust the process and that it was gonna take work. Everyone has their insecurities, but luckily they love dance and they love coming to dance, and I never have to fight them on that so it’s really nice.
Moore: I’ll use a core group of dancers when I’m creating on Zoey’s. Depending on the scene though I couldn’t use them again. Let’s say you’re a coffee shop patron you’re not going to be in SPRQPoint (location for the tech company where Zoey works), or at the park so unfortunately I kept going through dancers up in Vancouver (where the series is shot). Some of them I had to put wigs on because I had to work them back in. They are incredible dancers and so beautifully trained.
BTL: Take us back to the beginning when you were first approached to work on the show.
Moore: When I first read the script from Austin, I didn’t realize this, but we had met before on another project where we were at this fancy lunch somewhere and he goes, “Hey Mandy” like we know each other. He reminded me that I choreographed his best friend’s wedding dance 10 years ago and I was in it! I remembered him being very funny and very sassy in it. Basically a week later after that lunch he sent me the script for Zoey. I remember reading it and thinking it was so magical the way it came off the page and this girl (Zoey) was so unique and sarcastic and funny and seeing these things that no one else was seeing. All of a sudden I’m crying in the scene with [Zoey’s] father (Peter Gallagher) with the song “True Colors.” It’s a dream come true for a choreographer. It doesn’t get much better than Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.
BTL: Is there an overall Zen thing you’re trying to achieve with the dancing in Zoey?
Moore: I always want the dance to feel 50% magical and 50% real, because dance only gets to live in reality unless you’re at a wedding or skipping down the street. I love that dance can feel grounded and realistic through gesture and then move to a place that feels fantastical and athletic and beautiful and sad. I really love the journey of dance. In the show there’s like this little weird bubble that comes around the musical numbers where everybody is like, “Cool!”
The Season 2 finale of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist will air on NBC on Sunday night, May 16 at 9pm Eastern.
All photos courtesy NBC and Lionsgate; Photographer: Sergei Bachlakov, except where noted. (Click on images for larger versions.)