There aren’t many shows like Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, which infuses song and dance into each of its episodes, a dream for a choreographer like Mandy Moore. A double Emmy nominee this year, Moore has worked on a variety of reality-competition series and televised specials, in addition to the Oscar-winning film La La Land.
Awards Radar had the chance to speak with Moore about the unique experience of working on this show, some of her favorite routines, and the differences between scripted and reality programming. This conversation took place before the recent news that Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist may in fact be returning in some form on Roku.
Q: Congratulations on your two Emmy nominations this year!
A: Yeah, thank you.
Q: You’re an Emmy winner already in this category from last year. Then it was a juried award, and now it’s competitive. Is this a sign that more scripted programming is featuring choreography?
A: Yeah. Well, I don’t know if you knew this, but I’m actually a co-governor of the choreography peer group at the Television Academy, so it’s part my fault that it happens. We’ve seen a huge rise in scripted television that involves choreography and so, I think it was about two years ago, we started the process of going to the board and asking to change from a juried award to nominations. Yeah, this is the first year, and obviously to be nominated is freaking amazing. But then to be nominated twice, incredible, and then after the pandemic. I’m like, how does that happen? Yeah, really cool.
Q: Can you explain how it works with the different groupings of routines that gets submitted and then nominated?
A: It’s different for every peer group, but as a choreographer, you are able to submit up to three routines for one show. So basically for Zoey’s, I did hundreds of numbers, so I chose three for a submission that was just myself that I choreographed. And then I also did a submission for the episode that I choreographed with my dear friend Luther Brown. Because that was a co-choreography thing, I was able to submit for Luther and I, and we decided to put two numbers in for that submission. You can do up to three. You decide what’s Emmy-worthy in your mind and then you put that forward to the group to vote.
Q: Was it a difficult process selecting the five routines you ended up going with?
A: Yeah, it’s interesting, there’s no prompt for the people that judge. Basically, the routine is extracted out of the episode and all you’re really given is maybe like a tad bit of an in, so say, I was able to choose to come off of Jane’s reaction to something into the number, but there’s really no description of the scene or why it’s there in the story. Part of it is also making sure that the routine stands on its own for someone who maybe hasn’t seen the show or doesn’t really understand the context of why the number was there.
Q: Looking at the first pairing, the one that you did with Luther, Black Man in a White World, was one that was particularly memorable to me. It’s a big character moment for him. That felt so impactful for him.
A: Yeah, it’s incredible. Creating it with Luther too, I wish I could have Luther here to speak on it as well. Our process on Zoey’s and especially when working with actors is, it’s not like we get up in front of them and say, okay, it goes 5-6-7-8 and this is how it goes. It’s a very collaborative process and especially with John, the actor who plays Simon, he is not a dancer, but a dancer, you know, so he’s not trained but he’s a really, really good mover. So that process was just about first and foremost breaking down the scene, because those numbers are scenes, they’re scenes with movement and dance and song. So we had to break that down and understand what Simon needed, where Simon was going in the scene, and then our showrunner Austin Winsberg had this really great idea of wanting everyone to kind of freeze except for the three African-American workers at SPRQ. This visual, I thought, was just so incredible, this idea of people being stuck in their ways of thinking, like it paralleled that in some way. And then seeing Luther and John really navigate talking about what things meant to them, and then physicalizing it, was definitely one of the coolest things ever. I was obviously involved in the process, but in that collaboration, sometimes John drove it, sometimes Luther drove it, sometimes I drove it. So it was a super complex process, and it took a ton of time, which it needed. It was a very fragile piece. So that was fun.
Q: For the three that you’re nominated for solo, I think that Starships is one of my favorite moments of season two, just because Jane gets to be part of it and that’s rare. And I think that it’s equally impressive that you got to do something about the effect of people being on drugs and singing, and also to have outdoor space, which is pretty rare for this show.
A: Especially during the pandemic. Everything was different for a lot of shows when it came to locations during the pandemic. So we were stoked to be able to get that street and be able to shoot outside and really navigate, like, what does this thing look like, this Zoality, because she’s altered as well. It’s already an alternate universe, so then to alter an alternate universe was so much fun. I really loved the first thing where she comes up and she’s in the Zoality and she starts doing all the stuff with her face and she feels crazy. And then I really wanted to immediately alter the space and that’s why I was like, okay, I think we need to take a camera and need to actually like shift the whole thing sideways, because also I needed the audience to understand, oh, we’re in a different world too. This is not the same. Luckily, our DP Shasta was amazing, and our director, John Terlesky, and the camera operator Bradley. We had to practice that. It was a very difficult move on a Steadicam. I don’t know if you know too much about Steadi, but it does not want to do that. The fact that we were kind of able to get all of those ducks in a row to do was super fun and then of course, Noah and Felix are incredible and hysterical. The fact that Danny Michael Davis knows a little Fosse or something is ridiculous to me. I’m glad I put that in there.
Q: The office set is really fantastic in terms of what it offers for the group numbers. Was the layout designed in part with that in mind?
A: Oh yeah, for sure. Even early in the pilot or after the series was picked up, we had a lot of conversations about what SPRQ Point could look like and how it could help the dance. There’s so many great places that we can use as far as space. I really love to use space. I love to use stairs in a way that maybe you haven’t before or stand on desks, or crawl under desks. For Hello Dolly, also, Austin was really keen to just make it a Broadway spectacular kind of moment and really build from her coming out of the elevator. So we had to really work on what her path was. Normally, when you come in for a day, you come from the elevator and you go to your desk, but she was interrupted by all these things and all these people singing at her and then eventually found her way to the desk which was so much fun.
Q: Do you have any other favorite routines that you didn’t choose for this?
A: I’m sure people say this all the time, but each one of them is my baby. It’s been a second since I’ve been there. I really like some of the simpler routines too. I’m thinking about when Felix did Unwritten in his apartment, and it was in that same drug episode. I didn’t think I was going to like that one. Through creation and through having fun in the space together, we really found, I thought, a fun little piece for him to know a bit more about that character. Obviously, I love any of them that are one-ers because I think they’re so fun. I was going to put in the dream sequence that Jane did in episode three, the Nowhere to Run. I just didn’t know if, out of context, people would really understand how awesome that was for her. And I also didn’t know how to put all three together because it was in three parts in the episode. I would have had to choose one, and I just felt like they were of a piece.
Q: A lot of these songs – like Let’s Get Loud, which is nominated – have very influential music videos and there’s choreography in there. Was that something that you tried to steer very far away from?
A. You’re exactly right. I really try hard not to be affected by something that everybody knows it to be. For something like Let’s Get Loud, obviously, it’s got a Latin flare. There’s something about the music that I think inherently will make someone move a certain way, but I really try, because, also, we’re never doing a parody of something that’s ever happened before, so I try as much as I can to really create movement that is unique to that scene and that moment and that character. I don’t know if I always do it exactly right, because I’m also a dancer, so I move a certain way to music. But yeah, it’s interesting. Funny enough, the therapy song in the therapy waiting room that we did in that episode I directed, we had created the whole thing, done a skeleton crew, and then my associate found the video and she was like, oh my gosh, they stand up on couches and they like do things in the video and I thought, oh no. If somebody didn’t know the process of this, they might have thought that I saw that video and that was the idea. But funny enough, we both saw the same thing. Whoever created that video saw the same thing in that piece of music that I did.
Q: Sadly, the show got cancelled. I assume that if it was to be magically revived something at some point, you would come back without hesitation?
A: Oh yeah, I would hope so. It was such a fun job to be on and it was an immense amount of work. But I also feel like I grew a lot as a choreographer on the show to. I got an opportunity to do five to six of these pieces every eight days. Had a great cast. It’s fun, man. It sucked when it got cancelled.
Q: How different is scripted programming than the other two shows you’ve won Emmys for, So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars?
A: So different, Abe. Night and day. Scripted and variety reality is another world. On something like So You Think, I come up with the song, the concept, the costumes, the lighting, talk about the shots, it’s very much dance-driven. Just dance for dance for dance. Dancing with the Stars is obviously all about scale and epic moments and hot men and women and their sequins outfit. It’s a very different mindset than scripted because you really have a lane that you’re given when you’re given a script and it’s all about servicing the story. I love that parameter. I really do. It’s fun to work that way.
Q: You’re in good company in your Emmy category with Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square, Genius: Aretha and Lucifer. Have you seen those programs?
A: I have. I know all of those other choreographers that are nominated. The choreography community is pretty small. So I was super stoked for everybody. Draico, it’s his first Emmy nomination and Brooke, I think, same thing. Obviously, I’m with Debbie Allen, which is incredible. She’s a rock star and then also in the variety category there’s a bunch of people that are dear friends that got nominated as well. It’s pretty cool.
Q: I enjoyed your work in Valley Girl. You don’t see a lot of movie musicals like that anymore. What was that experience like?
A: Oh, it was cool. I’m a kid of the eighties, so anything that has to do with the eighties, I love it. And also I love a movie musical. It’s a dream job for a choreographer to be able to create that kind of stuff and to have a director that’s willing to do it is amazing. I remember the cast being really fun. I remember it was the summer and we were hot. That’s kind of all I remember, and shooting a lot of dance and music, which was great. That’s the stuff I dream of. I love it.
Q: So, what’s next for you?
A: I’m actually working on Babylon right now with Damien Chazelle. I’m deep in the throes of that. And then, who knows? I’ve had some really great meetings coming up with some cool things that could maybe or maybe not come to fruition. So, fingers crossed on that.
Q: Is there anything you can preview about Babylon?
A: No. I can’t. I signed an NDA. [laughter]
Q: I’m sure people always ask you about the other Mandy Moore, and so I’ll try to make my question as creative as possible. If there was a musical episode of This Is Us and you had to choreograph a dance number for, who would you have in it besides the other Mandy and what song would be your go-to for it?
A: Oh my gosh. I would love to work with Sterling. I worked Sterling on the Emmys, and he was awesome. So I feel like it should be Mandy and Sterling for some reason. I don’t know why. Maybe it could be like something like, anything you can do, I can do better. And I really want to meet Mandy at some point. It has been so close so many times. I know she’s also said things about it as well. So one of these days, I just know it. I feel like it’s going to be like on a corner somewhere on LA. We’re going to run into each other, literally, and the world’s going to shift, because we finally met.
Q: I really appreciate you speaking with me today. It’s great to learn a little bit more about this choreography world and I wish you luck in both of your nominations.
Season two of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is available to stream on Hulu.