The Anti-musical Musical
One of my favorite SNL moments features Ana Gasteyer as an erstwhile Evita. Norm McDonald plays the Argentinean leader Juan Peron with the kind of snarky attitude only McDonald knows how to deliver. To the roar of the crowd below his palace balcony, Peron steps to the microphone to deliver the opening lines of his speech – “Argentina, let the world know that our great nation is awakening.” Rousing stuff. At this precise moment, his wife suddenly and inexplicably breaks into song – “Don’t cry for me Argentina, the truth is I never left you.”
McDonald stands aghast until she’s finished, then turns to her:
“What the hell was that?”
“What was what?”
“You were singing.”
“Oh...I, I, I did, didn’t I?”
“Yeah, yeah. Don’t do that!”
That, in a nutshell has always been my feeling about musicals. Don’t get me wrong, I respect the art form. I’m capable of appreciating Julie Andrews and I get that Fred Astaire was a hell of a tap dancer. But – and I know I’ll take heat for this – Hamilton doesn’t move me the way it seems to move everyone else; I dislike Rodgers and Hammerstein immensely; and I’d rather have a root canal than suffer through Grease ever again.
I like music well enough. And I like film. I’m reasonably fond of dance. I just don’t like those things together. And I could make all sorts of excuses for my feelings on the matter, but the bottom line is that I completely agree with Juan – it makes no kind of sense to me for characters to suddenly break out into song over their feelings.
That’s why I’m as surprised as anyone that I’ve grown fond of the current NBC series Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. After all, I have little use for the series to which it is frequently compared – Glee. But I’ll confess, Zoey is currently on the renewal bubble (see USAToday’s annual “Save Our Show” list for more bubble series), and I genuinely hope it survives.
I began watching the series for the actors. I really loved Jane Levy as a disaffected teen in the often-overlooked series Suburbia. Who doesn’t like Lauren Graham? And I have a soft spot for Mary Steenburgen for, among other things, the fact that she hails from my hometown. But I should also confess – since I’m making confessions – that I didn’t realize the show was a musical. I basically stumbled into it by accident. And through the whole first episode, I told myself that I wouldn’t watch a second one. But then I did.
A good cast certainly doesn’t guarantee a good time – Ishtar, anyone? But here’s the thing, I actually found myself really enjoying that first episode of Zoey, even the sing-y, dance-y parts. Steenburgen’s voice might best be described as a curiosity, but she’s a hell of a dancer. And Peter Gallagher, who I know I see all the time but who has never really caught my attention in anything, I found positively mesmerizing. He plays the title character’s father, and I don’t want to give too much away here, but he manages to turn what might be a very limiting role into something...not to put too fine a point on it, but, well...extraordinary. His singing is impressive, but I really like what he does when he’s not singing, when he’s got no lines at all, in fact. Skylar Astin is good as Zoey’s best friend, Max, and Alex Newell really shines as Zoey’s music-obsessed neighbor, Mo. I was also pleasantly surprised to see Zak Orth – who first came to my attention in the dystopian series, Revolution, and who I’ve been rooting for ever since.
It isn’t the cast, though, that has kept me watching. It’s the premise and especially what the producers have done with that premise so far. Through a twist of fate, Zoey, who is a programmer geek with no interest in music whatsoever, suddenly finds she is hearing other people’s thoughts in the form of elaborate song and dance numbers. I find that I sort of like musicals when everyone involved seems to recognize just how improbable it is to suddenly start singing in the middle of a conversation. And the fact that Mo has to tell Zoey that “Satisfaction” is a Rolling Stones song makes Zoey particularly likable. If it were Mo who had this strange ability, which logically it should be, I’m not sure I’d have made it past that first episode. But it’s as though Zoey is just as irritated by what’s happening to her as I am.
More recently, though, the show took an even larger risk, one that cemented my loyalty. In an episode titled, “Zoey’s Extraordinary Glitch,” Zoey’s powers suddenly reverse themselves. That is, instead of hearing other people’s feelings, Zoey is suddenly compelled to express her own, and in the same kind of musical form. As a result, we get to watch, uncomfortably, as she dances and sings her way through Billy Joel’s classic, “Pressure,” writhing around on a conference table as her boss and colleagues look on in fascinated horror. Funny for sure, in a cringing Office sort of way, and made even more so by the fact that Levy plays the moment absolutely to the hilt, her voice pitiful in its desperation. This is a person who would give anything in the world if she could just stop singing. But the really amazing thing about that episode is that it takes for granted that musicals make no sense. Take away the music and lights, as the producers do here, and it’s all ridiculous and a little scary. Juan Peron would understand. And for understanding where I’m coming from while still managing to hook me into watching a musical television show, I can do nothing but salute this series.
I don’t know if Zoey will maintain its ironic edge. I frequently wonder as I watch how the creators can possibly hope to sustain the show’s concept into a second season. But then I thought the same thing about The Good Place, and see how that turned out? But I’ll say this: that one episode so impressed me that I’m probably a fan for as long as the show manages to stay on the air. And, honestly, I hope that’s a long time.
MK Adkins has a Ph.D in English that he occasionally uses to think about literature, but more often uses to think about television, music and film. Adkins is the author of two popular culture books as well as numerous articles and reviews. Until recently, he worked as a college professor but made the decision to devote himself full-time to writing and podcasting in January 2019.
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