When telling a story about a woman who hears people’s innermost thoughts in song, it’s absolutely necessary to add movement to convey those emotional messages properly.
Enter choreographer Mandy Moore, the woman behind those moves.
Moore crafts the dance numbers on Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, the series about the aforementioned young woman who moves through a fascinating world filled with song.
This Mandy Moore (not to be confused with the actor Mandy Moore, who stars in the series This is Us), has an extensive background in dance, having choreographed numbers for reality competition series including So You Think You Can Dance, Dancing with the Stars, and American Idol, as well as narrative shows such as Glee and Modern Family. On the big screen, she choreographed La La Land, and Moore made history in 2017 by being the first to choreograph the Golden Globe Awards, Oscars, Grammy Awards and Emmy Awards in the same year. She’s also contributed to stage shows for Celine Dion, Michael Jackson and Shania Twain.
For her work, Moore has won three Emmy awards.
On Zoey’s, in addition to her choreography duties, she also serves as a producer, working closely with series creator and showrunner Austin Winsberg to design the dance numbers for maximum impact.
“I feel like I have a great partner in crime,’ she says of Winsberg.
Their tight bond makes the collaboration needed to pull off the intricacies of the show effective, says Moore.
She explains the process of bringing a number to the screen, saying, “It’s a very complicated process to make it all work within the storyline. So, Austin and I start very early, pretty much in the development stage of the story, like when he’s putting the outline together for the episode. We talk a lot about the conceit of the numbers, and discuss all of the important questions, like ‘who’s involved and why are they involved in this number?’”
Moore says that with each number she needs to have a deep understanding of what Winsberg wants to convey through the song. Then she formulates the dance to deliver the message of the scene. “Our show is very unique in the way we use dance as a vehicle for storytelling. It’s not just a ‘people are breaking out into dance for no real reason’ kind of thing. We’re really trying to show this world, and Zoey’s journey, through dance.”
To accomplish this, Moore and Winsberg, along with the rest of the creative team, have established a system, she explains. “For each number, we put together ideas in a rehearsal setting and we shoot those. Then working with Austin and the director we discuss how best to show all of it with camera work that supports the story that the writers are telling. It’s a very big meeting of the minds in which every creative department is very involved.”
That planning is key, says Moore, “because we would never go into a number and just say, ‘okay let’s put some cameras on it and we’ll figure it out.’ We’re very deliberate with how we shoot it and how the storytelling evolves within the rehearsal phase, all the way from the very beginning through to the final shooting of each number.”
But, even with all of the careful planning, sometimes numbers still don’t feel like they’re coming out right, says Moore. “We had a piece recently that just wasn’t landing in the way we thought it should, and we couldn’t figure out why exactly. But then we really drilled down into the emotional core of the scene and we got it. It took some serious effort and it was worth it in the end, but it was a tough go on that number for a while.”
With Zoey’s moving into its second season, when asked if her process has evolved at all, Moore laughs a little as she responds with an emphatic, “No,’ and then explains why. “I really wish there was some sort of formula, but every number is a new thing; it’s its own beast. Maybe we’re a bit more efficient because we know more, but still, it’s a challenge every single time.”
She does admit that, “I definitely would say that I trust my process more and more as we move along, which basically means I don’t feel the terror that I used to feel.”
Now, she looks at each number, ‘like it’s a new present that I get to unwrap and enjoy.”
Moore admits that the fact that she’s a ‘massive perfectionist,’ can sometimes be a hindrance in the fast-paced world of television. “I have to tell myself to ease up sometimes, that everything doesn’t have to be perfect. In fact, it’s not supposed to be perfect. As long as it is evoking the emotion and it’s allowing the story to propel forward, it’s a win.”
On Zoey’s, Moore is called upon to create very large production numbers with hordes of dancers as well as smaller numbers that might just be one or two people. Discussing her preference, Moore asserts, “I mean I love the bigger numbers because obviously everybody loves the scale. It’s so fun figuring all of it out when you have a lot of bodies moving in a large space. I feel like I’m a kid in a candy store when I get to do that. But I also love the challenge of the smaller numbers, because when it’s a single person or a couple, you really can’t rely on scale, you have to really think about it how to have these people move in a meaningful way.”
She points to a few numbers from season one as favorites of hers. “I loved doing the number for Fight Song. That was unique because we did the whole thing in sign language. It was all about learning to communicate with other people. And I loved when we did American Pie, in the finale.” Moore says that she already has a few numbers from this season that she’s excited to share with the audience. “We’re really going bigger this year. We just keep trying to push and one up what we did last year.”
One thing that Moore wants to be clear about is that even people who aren’t keen on song and dance shows should check out Zoey’s. “It’s funny, but I’ve had a lot of people say to me, ‘I hate musicals, but I love this show.’” She adds, “This show is a lot of things – it’s about taking a personal journey, which I think everyone understands. And there’s drama, but there’s also a lot of comedy, and while it has this fantasy perspective to it, it’s really grounded in reality.”
For her part, Moore lives for the challenge of putting it all together. “I love the singing and twirling and dancing. If I really think about it, Zoey is on her journey in the show and this is my journey, and I’m getting to experience all of it through dance. All of it just makes me happy.”
‘Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist’ airs Tuesdays at 8 e/p on NBC, and is available for streaming on Peacock.