Schmigadoon! Episode 4, “Suddenly,” has to answer a question: “How do you solve a problem like Josh Skinner (Keegan-Michael Key)?” The answer, it turns out, is simple: pair him for an entire episode with the most promising young talent in the show’s cast and have him turn into Harold Hill. By setting Josh up to actually play a character that needs to be a bit sketchy and untrustworthy the show puts Key in a much better position than he has been in previously. It also allows the spotlight to be much brighter on the other characters since he is actually an integral part of the plot rather than just commenting on it—the biggest spotlight being shined on that promising talent, Ariana DeBose.
DeBose, who is playing the schoolteacher Emma Tate, has developed quite an impressive reputation in Broadway fan communities due to her breakout role from the chorus of Hamilton. Her role dancing throughout that show was a narrative one, the Bullet that was looming in the lives of Hamilton and Burr. Hamilton was not her first role on Broadway, she had previously been in a few shows, including a short stint as the Leading Player in Pippin and as Eponine in Les Miserables. But, the cultural phenomenon of Hamilton has undoubtedly increased her profile considerably. She will soon be Anita in the Steven Speilberg film version of West Side Story. Because of all of this, and her incredibly charming Instagram feed, even more than the established stars, it was her presence in this show that made me feel that it was one I had to watch.
For the first three episodes, Miss Tate has been in the background. She has had some lines every now and then and a prominent place on the dais at the basket auction in “Lover’s Spat”. Now though, Miss Tate is front and center as Josh tries to woo her to “Cross That Bridge” with him. Given the new centrality, DeBose does not disappoint. Her performance is winning and she makes the character much more engaging than the other cartoons that inhabit Schmigadoon.
Emma is, of course, the woman in Schmigadoon who is not like all the others. She is stuck in town with her little brother, Carson (Liam Quiring-Nkindi), and they are both outcasts from the rest of the town. Mel (Cecily Strong) is quick to understand the classic role Emma is playing in the story and can’t help herself—even though she doesn’t want to help him, she tells Josh that the way to win Emma is through connecting with her brother. (She even says the way to do this is through giving the boy a trumpet as if the parallels to Harold Hill and Marian and Winthrop were not already clear.) Josh starts hanging around the schoolhouse and, as he bumblingly tries to act as a handyman, we get treated to Emma’s big number.
That number is pretty spectacular: a big, brassy, tap-centric showstopper, set in the schoolhouse that it is quite probably the most catchy song in the show thus far. As befits the new central female lead in this storyline it is DeBose who gets “Suddenly”’s “big number.” It is a five-minute-long rollicking, tap dancing spectacular featuring DeBose and all of the students in town imparting wisdom to Josh. That wisdom—“You Must Always Do Your Best, With All of Your Heart”—seems to finally sink into Josh’s hard head, at least a little bit, by the end of “Suddenly.”
And after all of that Josh does seem to be drawn in. He plays up his role as the Harold Hill of the story to the hilt (even if it is still clear he doesn’t know who that is). He is in town to give out trumpets, or at least kazoos, and win hearts, or at least breasts. Miss Tate resists him at first, as the heroine in these types of stories always must, but then she comes to him at the end and tells him, in song, that “Suddenly” she feels something she never has before. This actually sparks something else in Josh though: the realization that he still loves Mel.
Mel’s story has also moved on from Carousel right into The Sound of Music. After being introduced to Jamie Camil’s Doctor Lopez at the end of “Cross That Bridge” we get to follow the developing relationship, and conflict, between Mel and the Doc. And in doing so we fall into another one of the other enduring plots of musical theatre, the carefree or modern woman who struggles to change the set in ways of a controlling and unreasonable man.
The story hews extremely close to The Sound of Music, perhaps too close, just replacing rambunctious and/or Nazi-infatuated children with Doc Lopez’s horny parents. Doc Lopez is, quite frankly, a jerk. This is the point of course, but he does not quite have Captain Von Trapp’s other main quality of endearing naivete. This of course makes him actually hew closer to that other giant jerk who got his eyes opened by a brassy woman, the King of Siam. Unlike the Emma and Josh plot, which I feel could stand on its own as a version of the type of story it is parodying, this plot falls flat. Around the time Mel was teaching a sing-songy version of how sex works to a pregnant farm girl and her lover, I checked out.
“Suddenly” also includes progress on the Mayor Menlove (Alan Cumming) front. He comes out as gay in a short number during the funeral for the elder Doc Lopez. And he confesses his love for Rev. Layton (Fred Armisen, who remains as milquetoast as ever.) The moment is only intermittently funny and basically retreads both the musical and dramatic themes that this storyline has been hitting over and over. But, it is nice that it is progress. By actually making this declaration there will be no more need for the types of annoyingly winking songs we have been subjected to so far, which will hopefully open up time for Cumming to play some more interesting notes. Alan Cumming, who is best known for playing the Emcee in the Cabaret revivals and who can play any number of charming, sinister rogues, like Mack the Knife in Threepenny Opera, should not be relegated to a role consisting of one long reference to his character’s sexuality.
The Mayor’s coming out and the two love stories should both play out over the final two episodes. It is clear that Mildred Layton (Kristin Chenoweth) has been biding her time, interfering in everyone’s lives certainly but not yet doing her worst. It seems natural, and will hopefully come to pass, that the events of “Suddenly” are all a bridge too far and will set her down the path to more insidious and active villainy.
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!
- The show has clearly moved from using the musicals of the 1940s as the primary inspiration to using the musicals of the 1950s. The two big shows at the heart of “Suddenly” being Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man from 1956 and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music from 1959.
- Do I want them to take this even further if there is a second season and actually have the episodes progress a decade for each episode a la WandaVision? Of course, I do.
- DeBose is essentially playing Marian from The Music Man crossed with Anna from The King and I and while her song isn’t as iconic as some of the ones they sing, it is still an absolute blast.
- The final split-screen dance duet between Josh and Emma on one side of the screen and Doc Lopez and Mel on the other was a really well-executed bit of old-school movie musical magic. It was probably the closest thing on the show so far to anything out of Singin’ In The Rain, but any time the show can remind me of that film, I’m satisfied.