Schmigadoon! Episode 3, “Cross That Bridge” picks up right where “Lover’s Spat” left off, but it is clear from the very first moments that things are beginning to get more serious in the technicolor musical town. Melissa (Cecily Strong) does sleep with Danny Bailey (Aaron Tveit) and it does not lead to the best of results for her. Danny obviously does not understand the rules of modern “casual sex”, and takes the entire experience as the beginning of something more. Josh (Keegan-Michael Key), having been forced to propose to Betsy (Dove Cameron) at gunpoint, is also trying to escape that situation. If that wasn’t enough, Mrs. Layton and her cronies have gotten them kicked out of the hotel. And they also have the little matter of still being stuck in Schmigadoon, so things are not going well for them.
One of the biggest mistakes people make when thinking about Musical Theatre as a genre is thinking of it as purely silly and frivolous. There are certainly those aspects, of course, but the best shows have also always been much more than that. This is especially true of the “Golden Age” (basically the 1940s and ’50s) shows to which Schmigadoon! is both parodying and paying homage. South Pacific deals with the racism at the heart of the characters in a straightforward way, as does Finian’s Rainbow. It is true that there is a lot of fun nonsense and large colorful casts in all of these shows, but the plots usually have real stakes—often life or death stakes.
As Melissa says in the show, “Nobody dies in a musical!” then she goes on to list a great number of just such deaths. In Oklahoma! “poor Jud” does die after all, and the scoundrel Billy Bigelow in Carousel not only dies but is such an incredibly awful person that the entire second act is about him trying to redeem himself from the afterlife. Danny Bailey, despite his great smelling neck and exceptional good looks, seems the most likely character to be destined to follow that path. In “Cross That Bridge” after Mel and Danny have slept together she awakes to him doting on her with an enormous breakfast and plans to marry. She quickly shuts him down but that leads to palpable darkness overtaking the character.
Tveit, whose already pretty well accomplished Broadway career is only on hiatus due to the pandemic, is exceptional at the mid-lyric turn to darkness. As he sings along happily about his new baby and marriage, seemingly oblivious to Mel’s constant admonitions that neither thing will be happening, a sudden change in the song comes over him. Suddenly he really is Billy Bigelow and this is his “Soliloquy”.
When Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers developed the idea for that great, character-defining number, it was a chance to establish that Bigelow is both a dreamer and a doomed man. And it also set the stage for the 60 years of defining character numbers about musical theatre antiheroes that would follow. For Danny Bailey, It may not be an 8-minute rumination on all his mistakes and joys, but it is a chance to make a big decision. And just as the carnival man did all those years ago, he is turning from a “rapscallion” to a criminal. The hyper specificity of the parody makes it all the more affecting.
Less affecting is everything to do with Keegan-Michael Key’s Dr. Josh Skinner. He is able to break off his impromptu engagement with Betsy but almost immediately decides that he should try to manipulate the women in town into getting him out of Schmigadoon. His big activity in Episode 3 is the titular attempt to “cross that bridge,” which he tries with almost every woman in town. The actual “Cross That Bridge” number is fun and catchy and includes a highlight solo from a Rodgers and Hammerstein stock character we haven’t seen yet in this show—the “Earth Mother” who guides the young protagonists. She doesn’t have a name, and only has a few lines of high soprano gusto, but she is already one of my favorites.
The actual scene though, and basically everything about how Josh is treating these people, whether they are fantasy recreations or not, is just too cynical for my tastes. Convincing the women that there is a “Skinner feeling” that indicates true love is no big deal, but something about the entire scene and the callow and callous way Josh treats the women, and how Key plays his reactions, just doesn’t quite sit right.
There have been many examples of both television leads and musical theater leads who aren’t “likable” but that does not seem to be the issue with Josh. I think my distaste for his performance is rooted in the way he is playing the material at a remove as if he is above it all. In “Lover’s Spat” the best Josh moments were when he gave in and played along, participating in the auction and obviously being turned on by Betsy. I think it would make the character more compelling if he had more scenes like that and fewer of him just trying to manipulate things to his advantage.
Of course, we have seen from the flashbacks and Mel’s reactions that this is Josh’s flaw all the time, so perhaps Miss Tate (Ariana DeBose)—who we have not seen nearly enough of, but who Josh realized he hadn’t taken across the bridge—can help to knock some sense into him. Mel also has a new potential love interest show up at the end of the episode: Doc Lopez (Jaime Camil). We don’t know anything about the character but Cecily Strong’s amazingly played full-body shudder upon seeing him and the phrase “whoa-hunk” Mel has apparently adopted from Danny are pretty spot on reactions.
Time is running out to really get a whole lot out of the supporting characters. Kristin Chenoweth is pitch-perfect and menacing as Mrs. Layton, but it is about time to give her a song. My preference would be a full-on Disney villain number that is a cross between “Poor Unfortunate Souls” and “Hellfire” but those are not entirely period-appropriate.
Fred Armisen is still doing virtually nothing as Reverend Layton, but he did at least get a scene with Josh this time and seems to be a pretty good guy. With that said, all in all, the less we have to see of Armisen the better off we will be.
We continue to get more than we want of “hey this guy is gay” references to Mayor Menlove. Alan Cumming doesn’t show up in “Cross That Bridge” but his wife Florence (Ann Harada) gets a full song. Harada is always welcome and her voice is light and charming, but unfortunately the entire number is (once again) just about how her husband is gay but she doesn’t realize it. This is hammered home with cuts to Mel looking at the very particularly “telling” ancient Greek statuary that adorns the Mayor’s home.
Cumming’s number in “Lover’s Spat” was pretty funny and gave him a nice spotlight, but having Florence also sing about the same topic is definitely a bridge too far. I’d love to see it turn out that Mayor Menlove has a different secret and he is either a Harold Hill-type imposter or, also from our world like the Wizard of Oz. Though I will take anything to flesh out the character over more “this guy is closeted and into men” lampshading.
The ending of “Cross That Bridge” does leave us in a pretty great spot going into next week’s episode, which will presumably focus on the courtships between Mel and Doc Lopez and Josh and Miss Tate.
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!
- Obviously my favorite thing about Schmigadoon! Episode 3 was Danny Bailey going “full” Billy Bigelow. Carousel is a complicated show and Bigelow is a hard character to nail, but like so much of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s best work, all of that is intentional. Danny’s number in the first scene is a direct homage to “Soliloquy” and if you haven’t listened to it, please do!
- As much as I continue to dislike Josh, the entire “Cross That Bridge” number was delightful. The staging and choreography are also developing as the show goes on and that is a big credit to Barry Sonnenfeld (who is directing the entire series) and choreographer Chris Gattelli. Gattelli’s work has been excellent at setting the stage since the opening number of the series and he really seems to understand the importance of getting it right.
- Ariana DeBose’s Miss Tate is set up to be a perfect Marian the Librarian parallel and honestly makes me want to see her take over the part in the upcoming Music Man revival, assuming anything ever opens back up on Broadway.
 Ethan Mordden, in Beautiful Mornin’: the Broadway Musical in the 1940s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 84.