The NBC musical dramedy Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, in which Jane Levy’s titular Zoey Clarke suddenly sees her friends, family, and co-workers break into song and dance numbers that capture their inner monologues and emotions, isn’t quite like anything else on television. It’s a wonderfully cheesy and heartwarming piece of work, anchored by Levy’s remarkable commitment to the concept. Every episode, she has to sell an outlandish premise while also balancing many different tones in a show that tackles material as serious as grieving the loss of a parent—while also serving as a pop-music karaoke machine. Ahead of tonight’s second-season premiere on NBC, Levy spoke to Vulture about this tightrope act of a show, giving us a preview of what to expect in season two and discussing a few major moments from season one.
You recently said on Twitter that the season-one episode “Zoey’s Extraordinary Glitch” is your favorite thing you’ve ever made. Let’s start there. Why is that?
I get to do so much in that 42 minutes or however long it is. I get to do singing and dancing as well as farcical comedy, as well as romance and really sad, heartbreaking drama, all while singing pop songs and Christmas songs. I get to dance on top of tables. I get to be smooched by John Clarence Stewart. Tonally, that kind of work is what I love to do as an actress, which is … I don’t really even know how to describe it. It’s my sensibility. It’s my taste. And I just feel like I did a really good job at it.
It kind of distills the entire show in its broad range. How scary is that? Or is that fear what you want?
I had a ton of anxiety last year, especially leading up to that episode. I’m not a trained dancer or singer, and it’s a lot to pull off. Before we shot “Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” I thought, This is one of those moments where if I don’t commit 100 percent, it’s going to be really bad. And I did. And I remember walking off set so embarrassed, and everyone was like, “It’s really funny,” and I was like, “I don’t know if it’s funny. I guess people think it’s funny.” My barometer is off, I think, in what it feels internally to do something and then how it comes across. You have to really trust your collaborators, and I do in Austin [Winsberg, creator] and Mandy [Moore, choreographer] and Jon [Turteltaub, director]. This show was very scary. I just felt like a lot rested on my shoulders, and if I didn’t do it right, it wouldn’t work. All of my former anxiety, especially anticipatory, was at its highest level.
It’s got to be hard to know how people are going to respond to it, since musical theater is typically driven by an instant response. How does doing such broad musical numbers to cast and crew, with no idea how it will play to a broader audience, feel different?
Everyone is incredibly supportive, but I’m someone who tends to not believe in compliments. This is turning into therapy! [Laughs.]
A lot of these have this year. Trust me.
It’s a good question. Yes, it’s difficult to gauge in the moment. That’s why directors exist. I’m somebody who, as an actress, I think directors are your most important collaborator and ally. Jon Turteltaub, who directed this episode, I loved so much. We connected very quickly. He’s got such a perverse sense of humor. I trust him. This is his episode.
Zoey is the only one who can see other people singing, so her reactions are crucial to the scene. How do you keep watching performances interesting? How do you make sure not to go too broad as she’s listening or so soft that she seems detached?
From the very beginning, I have sort of crafted this thing that wasn’t fully in the script, which is that it’s like a bodily sensation when people sing. I think that the key to this show — and what was so exciting about it when I first read the script — is the device that gets you into the musical numbers. It’s not traditional in the sense that characters just suddenly feel so much that they have to break into song. This is like a mental illness or a superpower or whatever that happens through Zoey. I think of Zoey as a projector, and she projects the song. I know it’s a little heady when I talk about it.
I like it. You very much have emotional responses to what you’re watching, especially if it’s your dad or one of the guys, so that plays.
From my point of view, it’s like the audience sort of gets to be Zoey. And through Zoey, you experience the song the way that Zoey does. For that to happen, Jane has to have an experience. For me, I’ve been crafting that these songs come out of Zoey. It’s all just happening in her brain. I guess the way that it doesn’t get boring is that I get to actually watch people perform in front of me. I’m watching my incredibly talented castmates perform. Each one is different. Each song is different. I’m very personally affected by music, which I think most people are. The music is playing when I’m watching. I’m always thinking about Zoey’s journey and her arc and where she is in these numbers. They’re heart-songs. They’re going to teach Zoey something that she has to do. She has to act on these things that she hears, and so that’s all part of the listening.
What’s your favorite musical number from season one?
“American Pie” [from the season-one finale] comes to mind. It’s such a beautiful way to end the season, and incredible work by Mandy Moore, and our cast, and our ADs, and cinematographer. It was an incredible collaboration to pull that off.
Have you ever been able to get a song you like into the show? Do they take requests?
This is where I’m going to get in trouble, because I’m going to say that Austin listens to some cast members more than others [laughs]. He doesn’t listen to me. There’s your headline [laughs].
Is there a reason? Have you tried to get in some really obscure stuff?
Honestly, I don’t suggest songs that often. It’s not really my wheelhouse. I try to stay in my lane. I feel like I know a lot about acting but not about musical theater and not about pop music. I’m trying to think. No, I don’t think any song I ever requested made it in. Wait, that’s not true! I suggested something that’s in season two. I suggested Nina Simone for one of the characters, and we did it.
You mentioned you don’t have a musical-theater background, but you got legends on the set in season one, like Bernadette Peters and Renée Elise Goldsberry. What did you take or learn from those appearances by people who just know so much about what you’re doing here?
We also have Alex [Newell] and Skylar [Astin], the regulars, so I think they attracted Renée and Bernadette. We were all floored that both of them were willing to come guest on our show. Austin was very starstruck with Renée. Most of our songs we prerecord, and we all lip-sync to them on set because it’s easier that way. You sound better in the studio than you do on the set. Bernadette came in and was like, “Nah, I’m just going to sing.” And she sang it every time. It was full-body chills. Mouth agape. Couldn’t believe it was happening. And such a lovely person. I remember thinking, If these people want to do this, maybe it will be good.
Let’s talk a bit about season two. You kind of lost a centerpiece with Peter [Gallagher]. Were you worried about how to move on from that arc without having that center?
Yeah, absolutely. Thank God I’m not the writer of the show [laughs].
They broke it in a way that works for you, without spoiling?
Yes. We’re still in the middle of shooting, which is interesting because, last year, when season one came out, we were basically done. So it’s interesting starting to do press in the thick of it because sometimes it’s hard to really see — just like I was talking about, how when I’m performing, I can’t tell if something lands or not. While we’re making the thing, I’m still in the zone of crafting and discovering and exploring. It’s just different. Not only did we lose Peter, Zoey loses the mentor in Joan in episode one. That’s not to say that Lauren [Graham] won’t be back ever, but for the beginning of season two, she’s lost two pivotal people who guided her. I feel very bad for Zoey. We’re going to see her struggle with that.
And two strong counters for you as performers in Peter and Lauren. I’m not trying to get you anxious, but were you worried about how you replace such giant roles in an ensemble? How do you get past that anxiety? Just trust the team?
For me, it was less anxiety and more sadness. I truly felt sad because I loved those characters so much. I think if I watched the show and I was not a part of it, I think Joan might have been my favorite character. She’s so weird and kind of unhinged, but the relationship between her and Zoey is so sweet. I felt sad not having both of those actors to work with. Both of them are so affecting to me. They’re so generous. I feel really close with both of them.
It’s always interesting to watch when a creative team has to sort of rebuild again after losing major pieces.
Yeah, it’s really interesting in my position as Zoey because I’m not a producer. I am in almost every single shot in season one, but I really am not part of the process in terms of creating the show. I’m an actor for hire. I love this show so much, and I’m continually having conversations with Mandy and Austin. In terms of crafting season two and Zoey’s arc, I don’t totally have a say in that. One day, I hope to be able to produce shows.
Speaking of producing, what’s it like to shoot a show in a post-COVID world? It’s not exactly a two-hander. It’s a show that requires a lot of interacting, so what’s that been like?
I was really scared going into this year. Like everybody else, I had been sitting in my house with my boyfriend for five months. Lionsgate contracted this team of scientists and doctors to keep us safe. I’ve never felt more fortunate in my entire life than this year, just being able to go to work and do the thing that I love and be paid to do it. I just feel so incredibly lucky to make this show, to play this part, and then to do it while this pandemic … I’m just extremely grateful. It’s a little strange that I spend more hours a day being Zoey than I do Jane, so it’s a little strange to operate as if there’s no pandemic for so many hours. And then we yell “cut” and masks go on and you go to your secluded area. It’s a little bizarre, but I also feel really lucky that I get to do this.
The show doesn’t address it at all, right?
So it’s like going into a world where it doesn’t exist for half of your time. It’s got to be strange.
It’s mostly nice, to be honest. When we started the first episode, there was a scene where Mary [Steenburgen] and I hug in the kitchen, and the minute we touched each other, we, like, froze and started laughing and almost started crying from touching another human being.
It feels to me a bit like the show might be more popular now than when season one ended. It feels like it’s growing a fan base, even if it’s not on the air, as people catch up on Hulu or Peacock. Why do you think it’s growing?
Because we’re running out of content! [Laughs.] We have to watch something. No. I don’t know. That’s the first time I’ve heard this idea.
You’ve seen some of the year-end praise. Is it just a factor of more people writing about it?
Maybe. When we were making this show, we were making a show about a woman grieving. We didn’t know when it came out that we would be going through such a mass collective grieving process. In that way, it’s been sort of mind-blowing. I was thinking a lot about our show yesterday. Something I’ve been thinking about a lot this fall. In moments when I’m like, This is really hard and I’m tired and I don’t want to go through this right now, I really do think about everybody in the world right now. If we can offer some sort of cheer or catharsis or joy or laughter or even a good cry for anybody sitting at home, that would mean everything to me. That’s the whole reason I do this job.