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Before Winning a Tony, Alex Newell Dominated Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist

NBC's musical comedy was more a showcase for Newell's talent than anything else.
  • Alex Newell in Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist (Photo: Peacock)
    Alex Newell in Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist (Photo: Peacock)

    Alex Newell made history on June 11 as the first openly nonbinary actor to win a Tony Award, which they earned for their performance in the musical Shucked. Fans were quick to point out that their win signaled another milestone — they are now one of two contestants on the reality competition series The Glee Project and one of three stars of Glee to receive the accolade after their run on the show (Lea Michele not among them, as the internet also noted).

    Between both of those series, there are plenty of opportunities to catch a Newell performance without heading to Broadway. And while Newell’s talent is clear from the very first note they sing on The Glee Project, the Oxygen series that served as a casting call for new Glee characters, through their final song on Glee itself, it’s the NBC musical comedy Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist that shows Newell at their best on television.

    Jane Levy starred as Zoey, a computer coder with the unique ability to hear people’s innermost thoughts through song. Even when someone around her tried to hide how they really felt, their true emotions came through in the form of an often elaborate musical number based on a hit song. It’s a gimmick that could have easily grown tiresome, and some performances were certainly less successful than others. But Newell’s presence elevated every scene and song they were a part of, turning the series into a showcase for their immense talents.

    Mo (Newell) was Zoey’s gender-fluid, music-loving neighbor, one of the few characters who would sing both in Zoey’s head and in the real world for all to hear — the series pilot featured four numbers by Newell alone, establishing how essential they were to the premise from the start. And they were the only person who knew about Zoey’s power from the very beginning, helping her decipher not only what exact tunes she heard but also the meaning behind them.

    But Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist was careful to not let Mo fall into the queer best friend or mystical confidant tropes, and as the series progressed, they led some of the most entertaining and insightful storylines. In Season 1, Episode 4, “Zoey’s Extraordinary Neighbor,” Mo struggled to be open about their sexuality in church, a place where they love to sing. It led to Mo performing a beautiful and emotionally rich rendition of “This Little Light of Mine” with their church choir, presenting their true self to the congregation for the first time. It’s a testament to Newell’s power as both a vocalist and an actor.

    Throughout the series’s two seasons and one Christmas special, Mo navigated complicated romantic relationships, experienced the hardships and triumphs of starting their own business, and inspired everyone around them with their palpable confidence. Along the way, Newell displayed their range singing everything from Wham!’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” to Blake Shelton’s “The More I Drink” to Whitney Houston’s “I Look to You,” serving completely mesmerizing performances every time. It may have been Zoey’s playlist, but it was Newell’s Mo who made it extraordinary.

    Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist Seasons 1 and 2 are streaming on Peacock and Zoey’s Extraordinary Christmas is streaming on The Roku Channel. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Brianna Wellen is a TV Reporter at Primetimer who became obsessed with television when her parents let her stay up late to watch E.R. 

    TOPICS: Alex Newell, Glee, The Glee Project, The Tony Awards, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, Jane Levy