Americans have a complicated relationship with musicals.
We have everlasting affection for them, as well as a degree of disgust. We think they’re over-the-top, but we like when they make us cry. And when they make us feel alive. We all agree we want to see that hip-hop one about the founding fathers, but we don’t want to spend a lot of money on tickets. We love music and dance, but we’re suspicious of things that feel condescending.
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, a new musical-comedy series from NBC that premieres Tuesday night, January 7, is trying to get it right this time. The protagonists are everyday people, not scheming high schoolers or loudmouthed orphans or, God forbid, semi-extraterrestrial cats. The song choices are contemporary pop, folk, and rock. The weirdness of singing and dancing your feelings is baked into the premise: Zoey, a coder living in San Francisco, has an odd experience in an MRI machine and comes out with the ability to hear the thoughts of the people around her, expressed in song.
The woman who plays Zoey isn’t some bouncy, belting theater kid. She’s Jane Levy, a Bay Area native, just like her character, who starred on Suburgatory and has a résumé filled with horror movies and dramas. She never did a cappella or show choir or competitive interregional synchronized jazz dance squad. She doesn’t casually drop into splits halfway through a conversation. But no one is safe from the power of song and dance—because damn it, Levy confirms, those songs are catchy.
“We do these numbers over and over again; the songs have a way of getting really stuck in your head, more stuck than ever before,” she says. “Skylar sings ‘Sucker’ in the second episode and that song has haunted me. I swear it’s been stuck in my head for three months.” That’s Skylar Astin to you, one of the stars of Pitch Perfect and Crazy Ex Girlfriend, who delivers a heart-racing version of the Jonas Brothers’ 2019 earworm to Levy’s character.
Levy and Astin are just the tip of the stacked human pyramid that is the Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist cast. Peter Gallagher and Mary Steenburgen play Levy’s parents, Alex Newell plays her roommate, and Lauren Graham plays her boss. “We all hate each other and we’re all extremely competitive,” Levy says, jokingly, before admitting, “Lauren is like my guardian angel. Every day is so, so fun.” The cast works 15 hours a day but still finds time for karaoke, where Levy's happy to hand over the spotlight. “I definitely do not sing, because I would never go before or after any of them,” she says. But hearing Alex Newell—who played Unique Adams on Glee and has performed on Broadway—sing in person “gives you a full-body chill,” she says. “It’s like, Oh, this is what they talk about when they say people are touched by music.”
Levy does sing on the show, though. All the characters do. At the risk of spoiler-ing, I can confirm that you will hear Lorelai Gilmore sing tunes by both the Rolling Stones and Miley Cyrus within the first four episodes of this show. Levy spent the summer going to voice lessons to prepare for the role and says she’s often surprised to find herself in the center of giant dance numbers—choreographed to nonannoying perfection by La La Land’s Mandy Moore.
“If the show gets picked up for a second season, I have all sorts of plans,” she says, excitedly, before giving specifics. “Tap dancing classes.”
I feel I can say confidently that we would all very much like to see Skylar Astin, Lauren Graham, and the rest of this cast tap dancing. But there may never be jazz hands or 5-6-7-8s on Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. The musical numbers take place inside Zoey’s head, and the rest of the show is naturalistic. We meet awkward tech workers, lonely baristas, and families who are in mourning. Zoey’s big tech world is glossy, sure, but its inhabitants are isolated.
It’s not clear whether Zoey’s ability to hear people’s thoughts is an Edward Cullen–style superpower or an imaginary escape—some type of coping mechanism. It’s moving and a little eerie but surprisingly relatable, right down to the emotional Whitney Houston covers. There’s even a fairly nuanced plot about how misogyny can infiltrate the workplace, even when your boss is a woman. For Levy, who has been outspoken about her feminism and support for women’s health groups (like Planned Parenthood), this topic is, unfortunately, familiar.
“I definitely have been treated in ways that I don’t think that men in my position would be treated,” she says. “I have been paid considerably less than my male costars, even on a movie in which I was supposed to be the lead. I actually ended up dropping out of it because I found out my costar, who was male, was being paid more than five times as much as me and they would not negotiate a higher rate for me.”
Levy adds, “Some of my greatest confidantes in my life have been women.” (She’s close friends with Good Girls star Mae Whitman and comedian Jenny Slate, for example.) With this, I’m reminded of something Levy recently posted to her Instagram: a clip from the movie Dolores Claiborne, in which Judy Parfitt tells Kathy Bates, “Sometimes you have to be a high-riding bitch to survive.” I ask Levy about it, and she laughs.
“I love women and I hope for a society and greater world to be more equal between the genders,” she says. “I’m all for equality, baby.”
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist premieres Tuesday, January 7, at 10 p.m. ET on NBC.
Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. Follow her on Twitter @JeanValjenny.
Originally Appeared on Glamour