By Lynn Elber, The Associated Press on February 14, 2020.
LOS ANGELES – The zestfully titled, song-and-dance filled â€œZoeyâ€™s Extraordinary Playlistâ€ has an unlikely origin. The NBC series, about a young woman who channels other peopleâ€™s thoughts through pop songs, was inspired by the devastating illness of creator Austin Winsbergâ€™s father.
In the months before a rare neurological disorder claimed Richard Winsbergâ€™s life in 2011, the 68-year-old architect who had been engaged in a full, active life was left immobilized and unable to speak.
â€œWe would try to figure out ways to communicate with him, but we didnâ€™t always know what he was thinking, what he was processing. And I was also becoming a dad for the first time, while losing my dad that I was really close to,â€ Austin Winsberg recalled. â€œIt was a very, very painful time in our lives.â€
The distance of years allowed Winsberg, 43, to address the loss in his writing.
â€œOne day I thought, â€˜What if the way that my dad saw the world during that time was through musical numbers?â€™ And somehow the idea of that made me smile, and it brought a little joy out of something that felt very sad and tragic,â€ he recalled.
â€œZoeyâ€™s Extraordinary Playlist,â€ which previewed in January and begins its full 12-episode run at 9 p.m. EST Sunday, stars Jane Levy as Zoey, a computer coder whose life is transformed during a medical test. She becomes the one-woman audience for such impromptu numbers as work friend Max (Skylar Astin) exclaiming his unspoken affection for her with the Partridge Family tune â€œI Think I Love You.”
Thereâ€™s choreography along with the vocals, invisible to all but the bewildered Zoey. But the burden turns into a gift when she gains entry to the thoughts of her dad, who is incapacitated with an illness like that of Winsbergâ€™s father. Peter Gallaghand and Mary Steenburgen play Zoey’s parents, Mitch and Maggie, with Lauren Graham as her boss.
Musicals are familiar turf for Winsberg. He wrote the book for â€œFirst Date,â€ which was on Broadway in 2013-14, and sold three other music-centred TV pilots to networks that didnâ€™t make it to series. But creating what are essentially a dozen musical productions on a tight schedule proved logistically daunting, he said, even with unwavering network support.
â€œWe have eight days to shoot episodes, and we do somewhere between five and six musical numbers an episode,â€ he said, all within strict creative rules. â€œWe didn’t want them to feel like music videos. We didn’t want to make them feel like fantasy numbers, where the lighting and the costumes and everything change and with people singing directly at the camera.”
Instead, the goal was to create â€œan external expression of the person’s internal wants and desires,â€ Winsberg said. â€œSo, in a way, itâ€™s an extension of the comedy or the drama thatâ€™s happening in the scene. Itâ€™s not just a musical number for a musical numberâ€™s sake.”
That high bar found the choreographer who could leap it: Mandy Moore, who shares her name with the â€œThis Is Usâ€ actress but is a star in her own field. Her credits include the film â€œLa La Land,” stage projects, and the Oscar, Grammy and Emmy ceremonies. She’s also a double Emmy winner for her choreography on â€œSo You Think You Can Dance” and â€œDancing with the Stars.”
â€œZoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” brought its own challenges, Moore said.
â€œThese numbers that weâ€™re creating are unique to each character in each scene. Itâ€™s not like the kind of show where youâ€™ve got a cabaret club, and every time youâ€™re in the club thereâ€™s a band. These dancers live in so many different worlds within the show,â€ Moore said. â€œIt is physically different worlds, because you do (a number) in a bedroom, or in a coffee shop. But weâ€™re also able to physicalize emotion: Something can be a very sad song, and so how does that look? What kind of shape, what kind of dance moves during a sad song, versus one that’s talking about being jealous or one that is someone poking fun?”
What may be entertaining and touching for viewers remains personal for Winsberg.
â€œEvery episode, something that happens to (Mitch) or happens to the family is something that we went through over that time. And itâ€™s raw and vulnerable, putting yourself out there like that,â€ he said.
It’s also proved rewarding. Since the preview episode aired, Winsberg has heard from dozens of people whose families are afflicted by diseases akin to progressive supranuclear palsy, which took his father’s life within a relatively short time after it was finally diagnosed (the disease can be mistaken for the more common Parkinson’s, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine).
It’s heartening that viewers are â€œseeing the reflection of what theyâ€™re going through,” he said. It also makes his family’s loss count for something.
The value of bringing awareness to the disease is â€œpart of my dadâ€™s legacy,â€ he said.
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