Very early in the first episode of Schmigadoon!, the new musical show on Apple TV+, the central couple wind up in an argument that is also an intentional meta-commentary about how people will feel about the show itself. As they enter Schmigadoon, the enchanted town from which the show gets its name, they are greeted by singing and dancing locals. The couple, Doctors Josh (Keegan-Michael Key) and Melissa (Cecily Strong) wind up arguing over their ability to accept the premise. Melissa asks why Josh can so easily accept concepts like Thor’s hammer in a movie but not the singing and dancing of a musical. It is a question that musical lovers (among whom I certainly count myself) often have when presented with these same scenarios.
Thankfully the show’s creators Cinco Paul and Ken Dauro are on Melissa’s side of the argument and the world and the presentation of the show from that moment on just asks the audience to go on the journey as it is presented. Schmigadoon is a magical, cartoonishly old-fashioned, town in which everyone will bust into an occasional song. Members of the audience who can’t accept that that really isn’t more “unrealistic” than an alien being able to kill half the universe with a magic glove, or jumping a car out of a helicopter and using it to surf down a building, would probably be much happier watching something else.
Other modern musical shows like Glee or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend have used either existing pop songs or original music that is designed to sound like pop music (this was at least mostly true, though CXG definitely did the occasional classical musical number; to great effect). Schmigadoon! leans entirely into a very specific type of old-school musical style in both look and feel. The show specifically borrows a lot—especially the title and essential concept—from the classic musical Brigadoon. This adds a hyper specificity to some of the humor, which simultaneously makes the show feel very cohesive while also making it feel a bit limited by the high concept.
The tone, at least for the first two episodes, remains pretty arch and parodic. Which definitely makes the show feel of a piece with 30 Rock, which was also executive produced by Lorne Michaels. And like that show, I feel that Schmigadoon! is a lot of things that I love that have been crammed together into a package that does not quite jell, at least at first. 30 Rock took some time for the creative teams to find the exact ways to voice the show, and for the audience to understand and expect the show we got. Schmigadoon! has a real chance to follow that same pattern, and director Barry Sonnenfeld has certainly had a lot of that same tonal issue in his filmography. (Whether successful, like Men in Black, or unsuccessful, like Wild Wild West, his projects have always had a bit of detachment and irony laced throughout.) Despite this, some of the heart that had been hidden behind the high concept has started to poke through. I just hope we get more and more of that.
As for what we do get, these first two episodes do a pretty good job of setting up the themes, the characters, and the rules of the world that will be explored. The show’s theme seems centered around the question, “what is love, and how is it expressed?” This is clearly the central motivating factor for Melissa. In that sitcom fashion for female leads, she is presented as a character who has to be smart and motivated but, at least through the first two episodes, we see little of that. Instead, we see the neurotic, awkward, love-centered obsessive female character that overwhelming populates television.
Cecily Strong is very good at presenting the awkwardness and her comedic reaction shots, which often look like direct outtakes from her time on Saturday Night Live. This works really well when the citizens of Schmigadoon are doing something ridiculous like singing about “Corn Pudding” but the moments that are supposed to play more seriously, like anything with Melissa and Josh together, don’t quite seem to work. Strong’s overall acting range is limited and, like so many other comedians who cut their teeth on SNL, she often over-emphasizes those gestures and moments to such an extent that she seems just as much a caricature as the citizens of Schmigadoon.
Keegan-Michael Key’s portrayal of Josh has a lot of the same issues. His greatest success has been as one-half of the exceptional Key & Peele sketch comedy team. From that show, it is clear that Key is a great sketch performer, but it remains unclear if he is able to pull off the sincerity necessary to play an effective romantic lead. Key is particularly uninspiring in the first episode as Josh spends the entire time actively disengaged and dismissive of everything going on around him.
Thankfully in the second episode, “Lover’s Spat,” he is forced to actually participate in the action. As Josh starts to embrace the wacky world a bit and play along with the shenanigans, the character starts to feel more at home in the show. As that happens the viewer can see Key is also keener on playing along than playing aloof, so by the time he is threatened with a literal shotgun wedding at the end of the episode, Key is actually having a blast and is more much more engaging.
Of course, the real appeal of the show comes from the design and music. And there are a lot of musical numbers. All of the songs are written by co-creator Cinco Paul and they do a great job of establishing the tone and setting. All of the show is pretty perfectly of a piece with the musicals of the era. The plot parallels, as mentioned previously, are most obviously to the musical and legend of Brigadoon. But Schmigadoon! Is also incredibly in debt to Oklahoma!, and since that show is one of the most well known in all of musical theatre it is perhaps an even greater influence. Schmigadoon! also references Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, Carousel, and a whole host of other shows.
The show totally embraces the vibe and aesthetic of what non-musical theatre fans seem to fear about musicals. The opening titles are old-fashioned, the production design is so kitschy and garish that it might seem appalling, and every weird thing anyone says, like referencing “Corn Pudding,” might be turned into a song. But all of that, plus the casting of musical theatre royals like Alan Cumming and Kristin Chenoweth, is also what gives the show its appeal. This also makes it fascinating, some of the jokes are so hyper-specific that only someone who has seen Oklahoma! 100 times will get them, but anyone who has seen that show that many times knows that there is always something else happening behind the gaiety. (Beyond the obvious death and misery that can be explored in that show and so many others.)
In the premiere, there are only three songs, each with a pretty specific role to play in the story. The extremely long, and pretty overwrought, title song, introduces all of the characters when Josh and Melissa enter Schmigadoon for the first time. “Corn Pudding” is a bit of the type of nonsense that the show is definitely setting out to parody, but it also has an interesting plot significance as it is in this song that Josh and Mel start to realize that the “show” they think is being performed for them actually includes them. (To the point of Mel joining in for a verse.) And finally, there is “Tunnel of Love” the song where the town bad boy Danny Bailey (Aaron Tveit) starts to seduce Mel. The character introduction song has a long and storied musical theater history and it is fun to get these preliminary glimpses at everyone and a little taste of what their role will be without having to do lots of dialogue exposition later.
Everything about the pilot episode (“Schmigadoon!”) felt just a bit off, including the songs. It was a really good move by the creative team and Apple TV+ to release the first two episodes ahead of the weekly releases of the next four. Episode 2, “Lover’s Spat” was a better showcase for the entire concept and the songs themselves were also decidedly better. The goofy title song “Lover’s Spat” served as a commentary on the characters of Josh and Mel, an indictment of the misogyny of these types of musicals, and another chance to really integrate the “real” fight between the leads into the plot of the song and therefore Schmigadoon itself. If this town is supposed to represent a purgatorial space where Mel and Josh have to find a sort of redemption, the more songs like this in the mix the better. Though it was also this song that had me most longing for the show to break from the strict adherence to the same style of music. These ensemble songs need more variety.
The second song in “Lover’s Spat” didn’t provide a variety of styles, but it did give Alan Cumming’s character, Mayor Menlove, a spotlight. The song, the character, and his “dark secret” of being in love with a man. (Hmm, I wonder if there is a subtle reference to that in his name.) Cumming is great in everything and the song really shows off his talents. I hope the character will be given at least a secondary characteristic, but as it is, Cumming is at least his usual charming, scenery-chewing self in the role.
Some of the characters, like Kristin Chenowith’s villainous Mrs. Layton, Fred Armisen’s Reverend Layton, and Ariana DeBose’s schoolteacher Emma Tate, have really not gotten much to do so far and I really hope they become key parts of the narrative. Chenowith has already made her presence felt even without much to do and I really hope she gets a great “Mrs. Danvers” style role to play with a big booming villain song. I am least interested in Armisen, but I assume he will eventually do something, whether it will be interesting or effectively performed will be a discussion for that time and when it happens. It is DeBose who I’m most hoping can get some breakout material from the show. From her time in the ensemble of Hamilton, she has started to build buzz as a charismatic and fantastic performer and with the right type of material in a show like this, her talents could really start to be appreciated.
At the end of “Lover’s Spat” both Josh and Mel, who separated earlier in the episode, are in various states of temptation with other characters. Danny Bailey has taken Mel into the tunnel of love and the young (possibly very young) Betsy (Dove Cameron) has taken Josh to the “Virginity Ruins”. The four are involved in a very sexy bit of intertwined singing as Mel gets carried further and further away before finally giving in, while Josh starts to worry about whether his connection with Betsy is appropriate. “Lover’s Spat” ends appropriately abruptly as Betsy’s father sneaks up and initiates an official “shotgun wedding” that will likely be the main conflict of Episode 3. It also serves as an appropriate climax for the show and should get any viewers who got that far to be ready and willing to come back to this crazy and esoteric show for more.
A Few Of My Favorite Things
To close out these musings each week I thought it would be fun to list a few of my favorite specific references to other musicals. There are many many more and I encourage anyone who would like to play along to post their favorites in the comments!
Episode 1: “Schmigadoon!”
- While there are many shows that have a song introducing the characters, and there are more direct comparisons, the opening number had the feel of an homage to the “Munchkinland Welcome” in The Wizard of Oz. The characters from “our world” have entered this technicolor dreamland and now the locals are singing introductions of themselves.
- The catchy and very corny “Corn Pudding” song and dance is a direct parody of “That Was a Real Nice Clambake” from Rogers and Hammerstein’s Carousel.
- Aaron Tveit’s Carnival Barker character, Danny Bailey, also seems to be based on Billy Bigelow from Carousel, though we can all hope he doesn’t turn out to be quite that depraved.
- As noted above, the entire concept is inspired by Brigadoon. I can’t help but think that Martin Short’s Leprechaun character is also trying to impart some of the harsh lessons of Finian’s Rainbow as well.
Episode 2: “Lover’s Spat”
- The business with the girls providing baskets at an auction as an excuse to meet with the objects of their affection and the “shotgun wedding” are both key plot points in Rogers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, the funny thing to me is that there is barely even any parody, most of that stuff is just what happens.
- The “Lover’s Spat” song that opens the episode doesn’t evoke any specific songs from Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, but that number and the commentary on the inherent misogyny on display throughout definitely bring that show to mind.
- It also becomes much more clear that Dove Cameron’s Betsy is at the very least a girl who “cain’t say no”. However, I think she is going to turn out to be saying something more like, “Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets” before all is said and done.