Having a hit musical-comedy series is no easy feat, much less one that airs on network television (amid reality dating spectacles and gritty procedurals). However, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist has excelled in a very competitive space with its creativity and technical mastery — thanks in no small part to creator Austin Winsberg and Emmy winning choreographer Mandy Moore.
In its sophomore year, Zoey and her family processed their grief following Mitch’s death, while Zoey struggled to maintain control of her musical gift. The season two finale left audiences with a stunning cliffhanger when Max hears Zoey’s heart song for the first time, expanding the world of the show in a surprising twist.
This season also marked Moore’s directorial debut in which she also choreographed a marathon size routine with a couple hundred dancers under Covid restrictions. “There was some trickery,” says Moore. “We had wanted at least three to four hundred people, but there was no way due to Covid.”
Winsberg and Moore spoke with Awards Focus on finding a new home for Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist on a streamer, the magic behind the Bay to Breakers musical number, and reflect on the entire cast coming together for a routine to Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” in the final episode.
Awards Focus: The show has received strong support on social media following its cancellation. Why do you think it has accumulated such a loyal fan base?
Austin Winsberg: Music is such a unifier. People turned to the show for comfort and catharsis through the emotion you get from the dance numbers. The show also has a core message about human empathy and compassion, and we see how people really feel even though they don’t express it on the outside.
The story is based on my own father, who suffered from a very rare neurological disease. All the outpouring of love I got from season one was related to people grieving and the loss of a loved one. I had so many emails and personal letters during that time about people’s experiences with grief, and how they see themselves in this show.
Mandy Moore: I’ve always thought that you can see yourself in this series. You can connect with the characters. Maybe you’re like Mo (Alex Newell), or like Zoey (Jane Levy), or you feel how Simon (John Clarence Stewart) feels. People are wanting authenticity, and our show gives audiences that.
AF: Do you think the show would change if it gets picked up by a streamer?
Winsberg: We had so many challenges doing a forty-two and half minute show. The benefit of being on a streamer would be have a little more breathing room to give the show more space. Scenes were always left on the cutting room floor. We could be a little bit more provocative and dig deeper into certain topics.
I was so excited to tell the story of Maggie (Mary Steenburgen) going back into the dating world, which is what happened to my mum after a period of time when we lost my dad. We were looking forward to exploring what it means for a woman of a certain age to write a dating profile in a real and authentic way.
AF: Mandy, this season marked your first time directing. How was that transition for you?
Moore: It’s funny, directing and choreography are very parallel, so it really was not so crazy of a jump.The difference really was time, four or five hours versus fourteen hours on set.
Working with the actors in the context of directing a scene was new for me, and I loved it. Showing dialogue on screen is very similar to dance. I always work with narrative, storytelling, and intention when I choreograph a routine, so figuring how to do that with dialogue was an awesome challenge. It could not have been a better first drive for me.
AF: The Bay to Breakers musical number in that episode featured hundreds of dancers. How did you pull it all together under Covid restrictions?
Moore: The beauty and magic of production. There was some trickery. I’m not going to lie, there’s not as many people as you think because within the choreography I also moved people around. It was our biggest dance number with the most amount of people, and on the day it was very mathematical and clinical to put together.
Winsberg: Should I reveal the secret of that shot?
Moore: I mean, yes, do it.
Winsberg: So we had wanted at least three to four hundred people but there was no way due to Covid. So, if you look closely, you can kind of see a lot of people in the background and on the sides. It’s all CGI people put in there.
Moore: (Laughs) The CGI dancers weren’t quite all together, but that’s okay.
AF: Was that the same line of thinking with the Maximo set, because it also seemed full of life during the dance numbers?
Moore: I’m going to say thank you for telling us that it felt full because that was one of Austin’s biggest things all season, that it’s not full enough.
Winsberg: The Maximo set is incredible, but it was hard. We were allowed sixty to seventy people total, and sometimes we could only have twenty extras. We would have to maneuver dancers into shots and strategically place people within the frame so it at least looks filled up enough to give the perception there’s more.
AF: Mandy, how do you determine the movement of the characters given the dancing experience of the actors in the role?
Moore: Dance can be so many different things, and the way that one person thinks about dance may be different then how I do. As long as it is rooted in story, emotion and narrative, it’s easier to find movement. When I work with Mary (Steenburgen), for example, I like to try different things, hear what she thinks Maggie might do, and collaborate on the process.
AF: Austin, looking back on season two, what considerations went into how the Clarke family processed their grief?
Winsberg: For the most part, the family story is autobiographical. When someone dies it forces you to evaluate what’s important to you, and season two was based on the year after my dad died. The theme was always “carry on,” but how do we carry on?
We spoke about recovery, relapse, regression, rebirth and redemption as her phases of grief, but it’s never a straight line. So we wanted Zoey to be okay, and then pull the rug out from underneath her.
She goes through a rebel phase, while Maggie is figuring out how to stand on her two feet after losing her partner of forty years. The postpartum story with Emily (Alice Lee) came from my wife struggling to express how she was feeling after our first child was born, because she was more concerned with me and my grieving. All of this factored into the story for the season.
AF: How do you feel looking back on that final episode and the dance number with the entire cast to Taylor Swifts “Shake It Off”?
Moore: I’ll start crying. There were definitely times while rehearsing and shooting it that I wanted to pull my hair out. It’s like herding cats when you have the entire cast there because each are so good in their own way, but they all need a certain type of coaching based on their dancing abilities.
It was so great because a lot of them hadn’t been in a musical number together. Mary (Steenburgen) had so much fun standing across from John Clarence Stewart. They were dancing and smiling looking at each other.
Winsberg: The only other time we had the cast all together was at the end of season one with “American Pie,” which was seven minutes long. For season two, we needed to have a more joyful number, and we wanted to shoot “Shake It Off” last because it’s nice to end the season on a big musical number with everybody.
The feeling on set was great, but no one expected it to be the end. We’re still holding out hope that some streamer will pick it up.