‘Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist’ is moving tribute to creator’s father
“Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” is an extraordinary undertaking.
Jane Levy (“Suburgatory”) plays the title character, a San Francisco computer coder whose father, Mitch (Peter Gallagher), is nearly non-communicative with a rare neurological disease called progressive supranuclear palsy. After a weird mishap during an earthquake, Zoey discovers that she can sense the feelings of people around her through music, as they spontaneously break into elaborate song-and-dance routines and perform tunes made famous by artists such as The Beatles, DJ Khaled, Salt-N-Pepa, Katy Perry, Freddie Mercury, Whitney Houston and the Jonas Brothers.
The 12-episode first season premieres Tuesday but will debut in its regular 9 p.m. Sunday slot Feb. 16. The series was created by executive producer Austin Winsberg, 43, whose father, Richard, died in 2011 at age 68 after his own battle with the disease.
Winsberg, who is based in LA, recently spoke with The Post from Hawaii, where he was on vacation with his wife, Amy Nathanson, and their two sons.
Why did you want to develop this show?
That last year of my dad’s life was such a charged, difficult time in our family — watching this man go from being incredibly vibrant, dynamic and outgoing to basically being how he is on the show, almost catatonic. I wanted to do something about that. I was also becoming a dad for the first time while losing my dad.
Music is in your blood — you wrote the book for the 2013 Broadway musical “First Date.” But how did you come up with the show’s concept?
His last six months alive, we didn’t know what was going on in [my father’s] head and how much or what he was processing. What if we could actually see and experience it? Maybe he saw the world during that time as big musical numbers? I started building on that, like if the main character could have insight into the way people were feeling and what was going on in their heads. Suddenly, it felt bigger than just being about my father.
How emotional is it to revisit your father’s illness?
I have two modes. One is I’m able to look at it more dramatically and analytically and have some distance from it. There were lots of moments in these episodes where I was taking stuff, one by one, out of our life and could compartmentalize. Then there were moments on set when Peter Gallagher — who in many ways looks like my dad during that time — will just channel a look. It will take me back and take my breath away. I’ll break down and have to leave set for a moment.
Enlarge ImageJane Levy stars opposite Peter Gallagher in “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.”
Jane Levy stars opposite Peter Gallagher in “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.”Sergei Bachlakov/NBC
Did you put in any songs your dad liked?
Some songs definitely were meaningful for him, like “The Sound of Silence.” He loved Simon & Garfunkel. I had to write a letter personally to Paul Simon to get him to approve that song. Apparently, he almost never says yes, so that was a huge victory. At least five times over the course of the season I had to reach out to the artist directly. I wrote letters, talked about my father, what the show meant. Every time they said yes. We were incredibly lucky.
Van Morrison gave you permission to use “Moondance” in Episode 2. Why was that special?
The day we shot “Moondance,” I wrote something on Facebook, like, “Today I got to make my father and mother dance together again.” There have been moments like that along the way, where I feel like I’m honoring the love story between my mother and father, who were married 40-some years.
You work with two-time Emmy-winning choreographer Mandy Moore (“Dancing With the Stars,” “La La Land”). How involved are the dance sequences?
Mandy is working on seven, eight dance pieces at any given time — so we are just constantly go, go, go. We shoot those numbers pretty fast; we have to. One number could take a choreographer on Broadway a month to do, which we do in a day. The “Help” number [in the pilot] was particularly challenging. The coordination and logistics of that number alone were like shooting an entire pilot.
What is the show’s message?
One of the big ideas is we don’t always know what’s going on in people’s heads. I hope in some ways the show is joyous and hopeful and gives the people the message to recognize there’s a lot going on with people, and hopefully they can have empathy and understanding for that.
Is the show a tribute to your father?
Absolutely. I don’t think he’d feel good about the fact that this is what caused the show to happen, but I think he’d be very proud and very much respond to the messaging of the show, the comedy and the emotion of it. I think he’d be — hopefully — proud and moved.
“Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” premieres at 10 p.m. Tuesday on NBC.