Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist helped Jane Levy discover her inner 'secret musical theater nerd'
Jane Levy can do anything.
The 30-year-old actor delivers scathing, wry, sarcastic quips as easily as she lets loose blood-curdling screams. From Shameless to Suburgatory to Evil Dead to Castle Rock, she has proven her versatility as a performer. She’s a comedic lead, a dramatic powerhouse, a cult favorite scream queen. And now, despite not being a trained singer or dancer, she is poised to be your new favorite musical star.
Levy stars in NBC’s upcoming musical drama series Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, playing the titular Zoey Clarke. Zoey is a smart and driven computer coder working her way through the male-dominated tech industry in San Francisco. But after something strange happens to her, she starts to hear the innermost thoughts, secrets, and desires of the people around her… through giant, colorful, musical numbers. At first, she questions her own sanity but soon realizes this unwanted curse may just be an incredibly wonderful gift since her father Mitch (Peter Gallagher) suffers from a rare neurological disease called Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP), which has rendered him unable to move or communicate with his daughter, his wife Maggie (Mary Steenburgen), and everyone else around him. The emotional, moving series follows Zoey as she struggles with her new “superpower,” fearing it may be a symptom of her own potential impending neurological disease diagnosis, as well as her family’s new normal, taking an important step forward in her career, and maybe even developing her love life (if she finds the time for it, that is).
While many of the showstopping musical performances on the series happen to and around Zoey, it won’t be long until she stops resisting and joins in. And while Levy did participate in community musical theater when she was a kid, taking on the starring role in a musical production as big as this show was a completely new experience for her. “There has been a secret undiscovered musical theater nerd inside of me that this show has brought out,” Levy tells EW. “It’s interesting working with incredible singers and dancers, Skylar Astin and Alex Newell, a lot of our cast has starred on Broadway for many years. They’re all so seasoned in this art form and know so much about the history of musical theater, and then I come in as the lead of this show knowing nothing.”
She laughs as she confesses: “The last time I saw a live musical theater performance was when I was 8 years old. This has been really fun, discovering my love of dance and singing. It’s a whole new side of myself.”
What’s even more surprising is that showrunner Austin Winsberg reveals that they “had no audition process” when it came to finding the perfect person to play Zoey.
“We offered it to Jane,” he tells EW. “This part was going to require a wide range of comedy and drama and singing and dancing. I also needed somebody who felt a little quirky and was someone that could belong in that computer coding world, someone who was really smart as well. To have that razor-sharp comedic timing to be as expressive as she is for all the musical numbers, Jane was the first person we thought of that checked all those boxes.”
And all it took was one meeting for Levy to accept the lead role in a musical drama TV show — again, despite having no formal musical theater training. “It’s so crazy how this business works because there are so many surprises and unexpected things along the way,” Levy says. “From reading the script to my experience now, I never ever could have imagined that this show is what it is. It’s wild. We’re learning how to make this show together every week.”
Winsberg knew that Levy didn’t have formal singing and dancing training going into this show, but he’s blown away by how much that hasn’t mattered. “She comes out swinging in episode 2,” he says. “It’s like, ‘Oh my god, she really can do anything.’ We have an episode later in the season where she does every single number herself and she’s incredible. It’s a tour-de-force for her.”
Comparisons can definitely be made to previous musical dramas like Smash and Glee, but Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist goes above and beyond with every performance thanks to choreographer Mandy Moore (So You Think You Can Dance, La La Land, Silver Linings Playbook). “She’s my partner on this show,” Winsberg says. “I’m not sure if we’ve seen on TV a musical where the songs come out of emotion and come out of the moment and the language and dance we’re using to express this stuff. A lot of it is inspired by shows like So You Think You Can Dance. The songs don’t feel like music videos, we’re not doing parodies, we’re not just cutting and covering. We want to really see the dancing and that’s why we do a lot of oner shots and our cast is really doing it all in the moment. I’m excited for people to see a different kind of musical.”
And that’s what has surprised Levy the most about making this series. “When there is a musical number, when Mandy comes on set and we start mapping it out with camera operators, the energy in the room shifts,” she says. “You visibly see everyone’s mood change to a little bit more joyful. You look around and you see our assistant director or the sound guy just bopping along to the song and you realize that music has the ability to transcend language. We have scenes that communicate just through dance and song and I can’t quite explain what happens but endorphins from music are real.”
Because the songs are used to show Zoey what people are thinking or feeling on the inside rather than what people are telling her on the outside, all the performances take on a much more serious note than previous musical shows — especially when Zoey’s father is finally able to communicate with her after months of silence thanks to his degenerative disease. “The normal construct of a musical is that a character feels so much that they have to break out into song, but ours is rooted a little bit more in reality,” Levy says. “Because Zoey’s the only one seeing it, it feels more grounded. Zoey sees all these things that nobody else knows she sees. That’s been a really interesting thing to explore. It’s also very hard [laughs] because they can’t do anything without me. It means a lot of hours on set but it also means a lot of witnessing of a lot of incredible musical numbers. Our show has a lot of heart in it because Zoey has a lot of heart.”
The core of the show comes from Winsberg’s own experiences — his father died a few years ago after suffering from PSP. “This is such a personal story for Austin and what’s so clever and genius about Austin is he’s able to write his guts,” Levy says. “How personal this story is makes it very specific but it’s also extremely universal. We all know what grief feels like and we all know what yearning for parental love feels like. The reason that the universe gives Zoey this gift of empathy and wider lens of perspective of other people’s experiences is because of what’s happening with her family.”
She adds, “There’s a very parallel story going on that while she’s losing control and losing someone and spiraling into the grieving process, she’s also been given this gift to see beyond what normal people can see and that life is big and complicated and beautiful and that everybody has pain in their lives and yearning and lots and lots of love. Watching a character go through that, the audience gets to go through that too.”
And if watching Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist helps bring about a little bit more empathy in viewers, Levy will be satisfied. “We’re living in a time of a lot of anxiety and just having a little more compassion for our neighbors might be really cathartic,” she says.
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist debuts with a special pilot preview on Jan. 7 before its regular time slot premiere on Sunday, Feb. 16 at 9 p.m. ET (following an encore airing of the pilot at 8 p.m. ET) on NBC.