How 'Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist' Creator Turned His Grief Into NBC's Joyful Musical Dramedy

ZOEY'S EXTRAORDINARY PLAYLIST S01E01 Still - Publicity - H 2020
Sergei Bachlakov/NBC

Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist creator Austin Winsberg has not ever hallucinated dozens of people performing an elaborate musical number at his local coffee shop — at least not that he's disclosed to reporters while promoting his new NBC musical dramedy. But it's still an incredibly personal show for the TV and theater veteran.

The series, exec produced by Lionsgate TV, follows Jane Levy's Zoey, a San Francisco computer programmer who is suddenly able to see people expressing their innermost thoughts through musical numbers. It starts with strangers at a coffee shop all singing The Beatles' "Help," but also involves her friends, neighbors, co-workers and family members — including her father (Peter Gallagher, The O.C.), who is nearly comatose and suffering from the rare neurological disease progressive supranuclear palsy.

Winsberg, who created ABC's 2005 John Stamos sitcom Jake in Progress and penned the book for the 2013 musical First Date, began toying with the idea for what would become Zoey's in the aftermath of his father's death from the same disease Gallagher's character has. It was a life-changing tragedy for the tight-knit family, and it took several years to process the grief and trauma stemming from that experience.

"Eventually, I got to a place where I felt like I need to write about this, I need to write about what that experience was like," he told The Hollywood Reporter days before the show's Jan. 7 special premiere (it continues on Sundays beginning Feb. 16). "I started thinking about the different ways in which I could tell that story, and what is a way that can make it feel hopeful and optimistic rather than just sad and depressing?"

Eventually, he began thinking about how he didn't know what was going on in his dad's head during his illness — and the idea stemmed from there.

"I didn't know how much he was processing, what he was processing, especially the last six months that he was alive. And then I started thinking, well, what if during that time he was able to see the world as big musical numbers? What if that's what was going on in his head? And that came from the fact that I had a musical that was on Broadway a few years ago, I had done the live Sound of Music for NBC. I had been living in this musical space and the idea of my dad seeing the world as musical numbers made me smile. It gave me some hope."

Below, Winsberg talks with THR about why this project was so personal, his casting wish list, and the possibility of having star and Oscar-shortlisted songwriter Mary Steenburgen pen a tune for the series.

You'd had stints writing on soapy dramas like The CW's Gossip Girl and sitcoms like Jake in Progress and CBS' 9JKL — and you adapted The Sound of Music for NBC — but what were you working on as Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist came to fruition?

What's not conveyed on [my IMDb] are all the different projects that sold over the years that got close and didn't get made. I have spent a lot of years besides writing on TV shows, selling a lot of TV shows. I've sold shows to every single broadcast network, to Showtime, to Amazon, to Freeform, all different kinds of networks. And I've sold things that are half-hour, hourlong, working every different genre — sitcom, I sold a sci-fi show. I've sold three other musical shows before this. So I've always explored different genres and different ideas. I also sold a bunch of movies to different studios. I had a lot of years in there that things would get close and they get to the one- or two-yard line and then not happen. I had really early success in that coming off of the second show that I was a writer on, I got my own TV show on the air. When I was 27, I was the showrunner of Jake in Progress. That was kind of a trial by fire, going from being a story editor on a TV show to having my own show on the air. I was the youngest showrunner in ABC history at that point.

I've always gravitated toward human stories, and I've always gravitated toward stuff that feels more like Cameron Crowe or James L. Brooks or Nora Ephron. Things that are character pieces that are comedic and dramatic and emotionally rooted in something. Definitely some of the Judd Apatow stuff as well that tries to touch on real emotional truths. And so I think it's fitting that the show that's made it onto the air is one that is not only highly personal, but also really touches upon all the themes and ideas that I love. Something that's comedic and dramatic and hopeful and musical and personal. I think there's a reason why that's the show that made it onto the air while a lot of these other things I've sold over the years, and some of them with really big people attached, didn't get this far.

This is clearly a very personal, all-encompassing story.

It's been a lot of years of getting close and then being like, what? I'm sure my shitty pilot is at least as good as half the other shitty pilots that are being made this year! But there's no rhyme or reason to it a lot of the time, or it's political, or there's a million reasons why things happen or don't happen. But every step of the way with this show it's been — this isn't BS either — it has been really blessed. From minute one NBC has been incredibly supportive. Every single actor that we've gone after for the show we've been able to get. Every single musical number, every single song we've wanted to get, all the creative people behind the show, there's been kind of a wind behind our sails of the show that just keeps lifting it and pushing it along that's been really magical.

Casting is key for a high-concept project like this. What was that process like?

Starting with Jane, I mean, we just knew that we needed somebody to embody this character who could be quirky, who you could believe as a computer coder, who had the smarts and the intelligence of that, but we also needed them to be comedic and wry and dry. And we also needed them to be able to delve into deep emotional depth. There's not a lot of people out there who check all those boxes who are leading ladies as well. She was one of the first names that kept rising to the top of the list. We had one meeting with her and we talked everything out and we hit it off and she said yes. That was it.

What about the rest of the cast — did you just go down a list of names?

Yeah. The next person we went after I always knew — there's a certain kind of character I write that's sort of the neurotic, comedic, romantic, interesting kind of guy. The first person I thought of for that part was Skylar Astin. We went after him and he said yes. Mary Steenburgen was the first person we went after for the mother and she said yes. Peter Gallagher was the first person we went after for the dad and he said yes. I had images in my head of who some of those people all should be and reached out to those actors, and I think that they responded to the script and they liked the opportunity to be in a musical and something that they felt was unique and different, and they all responded to it. We got really lucky with some of our casting of the other roles, especially Alex Newell (The Glee Project-turned-Glee), who I think is incredible. It was a combo platter of reaching out after actors that I knew and loved and respected, and then having Robert Ulrich, who cast Glee, as our casting director. We would have people come in to audition and they would have to sing songs at their audition and do scenes. I wanted to make sure that every single person who's on the show had some singing ability as well, because I knew that at any given time we could give any of them a song. They all came in ready and willing.

The other key for a show like this is music rights. That probably takes up a significant chunk of your budget, right?

There's two kinds of rights for songs. When you do a needle drop on a show and you're playing the actual song that the person has done, that is one [type]. When you get rights to a song and you do your own versions with your own rerecords, that's actually a smaller fee because you're not actually playing the Beatles. You're not actually playing Whitney Houston. So we have a sizable music budget, but it might not be as big as you think.

How do the songs fit into the scripts? Do you pick the songs that you want to use first, or do you find a song that will fit with the scene you're writing?

It's a little chicken and egg. First of all, the radio has been ruined for me, because anytime I listen to the radio now I don't just listen to music, I think, "That's a good song. Could that be a song on the show?" So I'm constantly thinking about songs, and what songs function in some sort of story or narrative or emotional way. And then we had a board in the writers room with all these green cards on it, which were just songs that I would think of that I thought could be good to use in the show at some point. I would say, "This feels like a good song for Max," or "This feels like a good song for Simon or for Maggie." So we just had this big wall of songs.

Sometimes we would say, "We know we want this song in this episode because we know this episode is dealing with this kind of idea." But other times we would get to a point in the story where we would feel like, "This is a song moment," then we're looking for a song here that has to do with jealousy, or has to do with someone being duplicitous, or someone confessing their love to somebody. Then we would scour the Internet or our musical brains for, "What's a song that really feels emotionally connected with the idea that we're trying to convey in the moment?" So it worked both ways.

I always had three rules with songs in the show — and these rules extend back to my musical theater days and musical theater past — songs either need to advance story, reveal character or be funny — or some combination of the three. I never wanted to just put a song in the show for a song's sake. The song always had to check one of those boxes, and that was kind of our gut check to ourselves to make sure that we're really living in musical terms, that songs aren't just there to be a song moment, but that they're actually informing something instead.

Will you be releasing a soundtrack of the songs?

Yeah, we're working with a record label right now.... I don't know all the exact plans yet, but I know that there is going be a way to get all the songs.

Josh Safran's Soundtrack came out on Netflix a few weeks ago and also features characters breaking out into musical numbers. The concept is different, but there are still some big similarities there. Is that just coincidental?

Josh and I are friends. It was just one of those flukey things that they both happened. Mine came from this place of my dad and my dad's stories and my musical path. He had his version and I don't know, maybe some of it has to do with trends. Maybe some of it has to do with the fact that musicals were succeeding and really doing well in movie theaters. Maybe it has to do with the fact that there was a hole in network scheduling when Glee went off the air and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend went off the air that it felt like, oh, maybe it's time we put another musical out there. I don't know. I feel like these things are cyclical.

Why did you decide to make your protagonist a woman, and particularly a woman working in tech, which is a very male-dominated industry?

When I came up with the concept that this was a character who suddenly got the ability to hear people's inner thoughts as musical numbers, I felt like I needed to create a character that wasn't very musically inclined, and also somebody that wasn't that in touch with their fellow man. I felt like it would be good to have somebody who saw the world in more binary or black-and-white terms, and could suddenly, by gaining access into what's really going on into people's heads, open them up to people and connectivity and what's really going on emotionally inside other people. I felt like well, that needs to be a person who's not that emotionally connected or savvy to begin with. So I started thinking of different people from different worlds who could reflect that. And I thought computer coders, their life is about data, their life is very black-and-white, they hide behind a computer screen. I thought it would be interesting if somebody who comes from that space suddenly gets this ability, is forced, because of these songs, [to] deal with people. Suddenly, they have to come out of their shell and see what's going on with other people. So that's where the computer programming bit came from.

When I was still working on the show before we went to studios or networks, I went and pitched the show to Paul Feig. And he said, "I love this idea. What if the lead was a woman?" And when I thought about it that way, and I started doing more research into Silicon Valley and tech, I realized that there are so few women in tech. We could talk all about why that is the way that it is. But it seemed like the chips were even more stacked against her, and suddenly having a character who not only was emotionally disconnected, but was also trying to achieve in a world that was very male-driven, I thought just added more complexity and more stakes and more obstacles against her.

The first two episodes establish Zoey's home life and work life, but how much will her world grow as the season progresses? Or will the worlds of the people in Zoey's life begin to expand?

Certainly a big love triangle starts to evolve and develop in the show. Part of the conceit initially, and I think this could expand more as the show goes on, is that she starts to learn that everybody has their own emotional complexities. Every week there is a different character that she is helping in some way, that she hears their internal, what we call their "heart song," and then uses that song to then help them in some way. There are a couple episodes where she helps people that are out of her realm that aren't just people who exist in the family or the workspace. But also in season one, because we have such a talented cast, I didn't want to have a guest star of the week. I wanted to three-dimensionalize every one of our characters so every episode, be it her boss Lauren Graham or the family caregiver who comes in to help the family later on, we learn something about them through those songs and then Zoey has to use that to help them in some way. By helping them she's also helping herself expand and grow as a human being. The show primarily lives in her home life, her work life and her family life.

The first season features all covers, but would you consider adding original songs in the future?

I think original songs would be supercool at some point. In season one I wanted to make it songs that people knew and that were accessible and that excited people. We do a lot of different genres in the show, different time periods, but my rule was always that it had to be a song that I felt like were known songs. As we continue to go forward we could expand the vocabulary of that. We could do songs that are more alternative or less known or songs that help convey story more but maybe aren't Top 40. But in season one, I really wanted to make it as accessible as possible.

And then when you decide original songs you have Mary Steenburgen right there waiting for you.

Exactly. She hasn't been nominated yet but she's on the shortlist for the Academy Awards. So I've got to use her.

She famously has said that she woke up from surgery and could hear music all around her, and she wrote the song "Glasgow" from the 2019 film Wild Rose.

It's why she said yes. She's like, "how could I not do the show where the character's basically experiencing a version of what I've been living with?" That's one of those meant-to-be things where it just feels like the show has had a special journey.

Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist premieres Tuesday, Jan. 7, at 10 p.m. on NBC, then moves to Sundays at 9 p.m. beginning Feb. 16.