“Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” choreographer Mandy Moore pulled double duty on this week’s episode be also making her directorial debut. And, honestly, don’t stop her now because she’s on a roll.
The episode brought one of the biggest musical numbers of the season so far, as Simon (John Clarence Stewart) and Rose (Katie Findlay) led a whole crowd of runners in crazy costumes in singing Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now.” And pulling it together was obviously no small task.
First came the song choice. Dissecting the number with TheWrap, Moore — who is not the “This Is Us” actress — reveals that she and and “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” creator and showrunner, Austin Winsberg, went back and forth a lot on which song should be used for the Bay-to-Breakers race. “Let’s Get Physical” by Olivia Newton-John was in the running (pun definitely intended), as was another Queen song, “We Will Rock You.”
“You know, something like ‘We Will Rock You,’ it feels pretty obvious, and didn’t feel like a true heart song,” Moore tells us. “It’s really tough sometimes with these songs, because you have to make sure that they are an emotion that somebody might be feeling inside and that the song and the lyrics can help explain that. So I’m really happy we went with ‘Don’t Stop Me Now.’”
Indeed, the song truly captures the joy of the runners, which is what Zoey was questioning in the first place. (Because, seriously, does anyone actually enjoy running for fun? I’m still not totally convinced, and neither is Moore).
In the end, shooting what was essentially the coordination of a massive flash mob — albeit one where everyone had very specific marks to hit — was something Moore recalls being mostly zen about. After weeks of prepping and coordinating, making sure to adhere to COVID safety guidelines, Moore knew it was ready and could work — her only real concern was simply Mother Nature.
“My biggest fear on the day was that it was gonna rain,” Moore says. “For days leading up to it, I thought ‘Man, the only thing that can really jinx this shoot is if it starts sleeting or raining and everyone’s just miserable and cold.’”
And that would’ve been a lot of cold and miserable people. Though Moore says that the race number didn’t actually take up three blocks, as Zoey jokes in the episode, there were somewhere between 40 and 50 dancers, plus 150 extras, and then the cast themselves.
Of course, the race was only one thing on Moore’s to-do list. She had five other numbers to choreograph plus an entire episode to direct on top of those. And really, a lot happened in the episode. Max (Skylar Astin) all but officially decided he’s moving to New York with Rose for a few months, causing Zoey (Jane Levy) to spin out and Simon to think she still has feelings for Max, all while Zoey is figuring out how to navigate the beginning of her journey in therapy. And that in particular is not something Moore took lightly at all.
“As a director, you’re in charge of that whole arc, you know? You’re not only in charge of the arc of the episode as a whole, but each character’s arc,” Moore says. “I had a lot of discussions with Jane and Austin about how we would strike that chord because she is a quirky little thing. And she is awkward at times, and she’s not in touch with herself and what she’s feeling, and she’s learning through this episode, I think, to put words and explain and talk about what she’s feeling a bit better.”
In crafting those arcs, it also helps that Moore is fully in tune with how the characters and actors move through life — both literally and metaphorically. Up to this point, as Zoey has comes to realize, she’s only understood those around her by their subconscious lyrics and movements. So, in bringing new heart songs out every week, Moore has a clear vision of how to move a particular character in Zoey’s eyes. Each one has their own language.
“I think the biggest thing I’ve tried to stay true to is understanding that each and every heart song is its own little fragile egg. We really try to look at each number as its own scene. I don’t ever want to fall back on, ‘Oh, we could just do this’ or ‘It could just be this,’” Moore says. “And that’s one of the hardest parts of ‘Zoey’s’ is being vulnerable to that creative process and trying to stay within the lane of ‘Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist,’ of course, so I’m not trying to create a new show; we’re still in the lane of these heart songs, but each and every one has such different coloring and textures and emotion and foundation to it.”
In this episode, Moore notes that though the race was the hardest number to shoot, it was actually one of the more emotional numbers that was the most difficult to choreograph. “Overwhelmed” by Royal & the Serpent kicked off the episode, bringing in “The Good Doctor” actor Noah Galvin and “Glee” alum Becca Tobin as other patients at Zoey’s chosen therapy practice.
“I knew that we had the ability to push the envelope a little bit, dance-wise,” Moore notes, saying that the song felt a bit more clean-cut and structured than other heart songs. “We did a lot of different versions of that. Even on the day, I felt like we were shifting things a teeny bit because I was like, ‘It just isn’t reading.’ But, ultimately, we got there with that, and I think it’s a really strong number.”
As for what “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” fans can expect going forward, Moore can’t tease too much, but she does say to be ready for more incredible musical numbers and more familiar faces.
“There’s gonna be a bunch of numbers in the finale, and you just might see an old friend come back. And I think it will be very satisfying for everyone to see that. That’s all I’m gonna tease.”