Film & Television

People Will Say I’m in Love … with Schmigadoon!

My sister, brother, and I were brought up on musical theatre. One of the first movie musicals I remember seeing on a big screen was The Sound of Music (I’m pretty sure we went out for ice cream sundaes afterwards). We had countless soundtracks and original cast recordings in our record collection; to this day, I know every lyric from Camelot, My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins, and many others. (Rather amazing, given that half the time I can’t remember why I went downstairs to the kitchen five minutes after I’ve descended.) 

I do remember wishing that life could be a musical, that people would burst into song and dance, that orchestral background music would tell us exactly how we should feel from overture to happy ending.

Of course, what I’ve just described would be the perfect definition of a living hell to my husband.

Musicals tend to be divisive things. Every once in a while there’s a show that becomes a cultural phenomenon larger than the genre itself — like Hair in 1967 or Hamilton fifty years later. But by and large people love them or hate them.

 

And that’s precisely why Schmigadoon! is good news for all … all right, most … of us.

Schmigadoon! is the new musical-comedy-drama that will have your toes tapping or your eyes rolling depending on which camp you fall into. Either way, it’s sheer genius and so much fun. So much fun that it earns that exclamation point (the first of many allusions to Oklahoma!).

The series is the brainchild of co-creators Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul. The two are long-time collaborators of animated features, including Despicable Me and The Lorax, as well as the little-known cult classic Bubble Boy musical, which was a critical and commercial flop, but attracted the attention and loyalty of Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Pippin, Wicked), who called it “one of the cleverest, funniest, and most endearing musicals I’ve seen in a long time.” Schmigadoon! is directed by Barry Sonnenfeld (A Series of Unfortunate Events, Addams Family) and produced by SNL’s Lorne Michaels, who knows a thing or two (or fifty) about comedy.

In fact, Michaels and team turned to a 10-year veteran of SNL for Schmigadoon!’s leading lady. Cecily Strong plays Melissa, a contemporary and competent doctor, in a decidedly non-musical relationship with fellow doctor Josh (Keegan-Michael Key, who recently sang and danced in The Prom). To round out the cast, Schmigadoon! includes a veritable who’s who of musical theatre and television: Tony-winners Kristin Chenowith, Alan Cumming, Jane Krakowski, and Martin Short; Tony-nominee Aaron Tveit; Emmy-winner Dove Cameron; Emmy-nominee Fred Armison; plus, Ann Harada, Jaime Camil, and Arian Debose, star of Steven Spielberg’s upcoming West Side Story.

The premise of Schmigadoon! is as follows. Melissa and Josh “meet cute” in front of a vending machine at the hospital where they both work. Now, after four and a half years, they find themselves in a bit of a rut. Melissa would like to move forward; Josh is fine with the status quo. To strengthen their relationship, she talks him into a couples retreat which devolves into an exceedingly wet hike in the woods. Lost and bickering, the couple stumble upon a bridge, which they figure must lead somewhere. Where it leads is Schmigadoon, a place that, according to the welcome sign, “always strives for peace and happiness.” (Population: 167.)

Our heroes are greeted with a full-scale musical number filled with enthusiastic townspeople declaiming the virtues of their little hamlet. At first, the couple assume they’ve stumbled into a tourist attraction, but as the merriment continues, Melissa realizes the truth. “We’re in a musical!” to which Josh responds “Dear God, no.”

Soon we meet such familiar stock characters as the Mayor (Cumming), his wife (Harada), the disapproving leader of “Mothers Against the Future” (Chenowith), a ne’er do well carny (Tveit), the charming school marm (Debose), a farmer (Kevin McNulty), and his seven daughters (Cameron and company). Melissa and Josh try to make a run for it only to find that the bridge out of Schmigadoon leads to … Schmigadoon. Much to their horror (especially Josh’s), they’re trapped. That is, as a friendly leprechaun (Short) materializes and explains, until they cross the bridge with their “one true love.”

Clearly, Schmigadoon! is built upon a ridiculous conceit. But, is it really any sillier than the premise of Finian’s Rainbow or the show’s shnamesake Brigadoon? Keep in mind that the series is as much about musicals as it is a musical itself. Consequently, we’re served up song after hilarious song based on the classic movie musicals from the 50s and 60s. At least half the fun is identifying the origins of each.

Here are just a few examples: “Schmigadoon!,” the opening number, draws its structure and even the elongated first syllable from “Oklahoma!” And, like that famous (infamous?) Rodgers and Hammerstein tune, the ensemble spells out the name of their beloved town at song’s end. “S! C! H! M! I! G! A! D! O! O! N! Schmigadoon!” 

Carny Danny Bailey (who is surely the fictitious bastard son of Carousel’s Billy Bigelow) warns Melissa “You Can’t Tame Me,” then ponders the gender of his incipient offspring in a “Soliloquy” after Melissa spends the night. “No, no,” she objects, “I have this magical little device called an IUD.” When he sings about supporting his wife and child, Danny swipes lyrics from Carousel’s “Soliloquy.” He’s going to get the money “Or make it, or steal it or take it!” Melissa voices what many an audience member has thought over the years, “That’s really the same thing” before she slips away.

Mayor Menlove (yes, we should take that name literally) sounds an awful lot like Sound of Music’s Reverend Mother as he encourages Melissa to climb every mountain because “Somewhere Love is Waiting for You.” Meanwhile, his wife sounds a lot like The King and I’s Lady Thiang when she explains why her husband is something wonderful, “He’s a Queer One, My Man.”

In addition to the songs (which are simultaneously homage and parody, and uniformly brilliant), there are familiar plot twists like a lunch basket auction and a shotgun wedding. Meanwhile, Melissa (who is far more sympathetic than Josh, at least so far) provides clever commentary, praising the “color-blind casting” and observing that “women’s roles in early musicals were so underwritten.” If she wasn’t still trapped in Schmigadoon, I might have asked Melissa to write this column for me.

The bottom line is this. Regardless of where you land on the “Musicals, pro or con?” debate, Schmigadoon! is well worth your time. The only people who won’t find something to laugh at or love in it are those who are indifferent to musicals.

And, can anyone truly be indifferent to musicals?

Schmigadoon! is divided into six half-hour episodes, three of which are available to stream on Apple TV+ now, and the remainder to be released one each Friday between now and August 13th. You’ll find trial offers for the streaming service online here.

 

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