‘SNL’ star Cecily Strong knows funny. Apple’s new musical shows off her other talents
In “Schmigadoon!,” a musical comedy about musical theater starting a six-episode run Friday on Apple TV+, Cecily Strong and Keegan Michael-Key play Melissa and Josh, whose sputtering relationship has brought them out to the woods, backpacking on a “sacred love trail” where they are supposed to find one another again. It has been established that she is the one who thinks things need fixing, and he is the one who is fine with them as they are. You have met this couple, surely, or been part of it.
They get lost. It starts to rain. A bridge appears in the mist, and when they cross it, like Dorothy over the rainbow, they emerge from gray reality into a brightly colored, manufactured, soundstage world. The road they are on (brick, if not yellow) leads them to Schmigadoon, a turn-of-the-last-century hamlet, where they find themselves in the midst of an introductory production number, as when Harold Hill first ambled into River City, Iowa, in “The Music Man.”
For the record:
1:00 p.m. July 23, 2021An earlier version of this story stated that the magical town in the musical “Brigadoon” appears once a year. The town appears once every 100 years.
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They take it at first not for a magic kingdom but a Magic Kingdom, a kind of immersive tourist experience. But when they try to leave, and find the road out of town always leads back to town, Martin Short appears for about 20 seconds, dressed as a Leprechaun (dropped in from “Finian’s Rainbow,” presumably), to explicitly state the series’ premise: True love is the only thing that will get them back across the bridge, and “until ye finds it ye must stay/Where life’s a musical every day.”
Josh is unhappy; Melissa is interested.
“You know how much I hate musicals,” he says. “People don’t just burst into song in real life.”
“You seem OK with magical hammers that come back when you call them,” she responds.
In terms of production, this is no amateur hour. Supporting the leads is a starry cast of bona fide New York theater veterans who will be familiar to many who have never been to the theater, including Ariana DeBose (the original Bullet in “Hamilton”), Kristin Chenoweth (the original Glinda in “Wicked”), Jane Krakowski (“Starlight Express”), Aaron Tveit (“Moulin Rouge!”), Ann Harada (“Avenue Q”), Dove Cameron (“Clueless”) and Alan Cumming (“Cabaret”). Strong’s briefly overlapping “Saturday Night Live” castmate Fred Armisen is here too — “Schmigadoon!” is a Lorne Michaels production — as is Jaime Camil, from “Jane the Virgin.”
Barry Sonnenfeld (“Men in Black”) directed; the great Bo Welch (“Beetlejuice”), who worked with Sonnenfeld on “A Series of Unfortunate Events” and elsewhere, is the production designer. They favor a frontal approach that turns the screen into a proscenium stage, emphasizing the theatrical otherness of the setting and setting off the production numbers to good effect; the dancers are seen, as in the old-time talking pictures, head to toe, in long takes, with a minimum of edits.
Created by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, who are best known for writing animated features (three “Despicable Me” movies, a couple of Dr. Seuss adaptations), with songs by Paul, it will please some viewers merely by existing, a colorful affair stuffed with music and dance and people being silly. And it is certainly likable in its parts, and in its performances, and in that it acknowledges there was musical theater before Disney took over 42nd Street: The musicals of the 1940s and 1950s are its inspiration and subject. The songs are fine — Paul has a firm grasp of period styles — and stay true to midcentury standards until the final number, which has the industrially inspirational flavor of modern Broadway. (That the citizens of Schmigadoon don’t know they’re singing is a nice touch and a smart insight.)
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But the book doesn’t sing, even if the actors do. Jokes fall flat. It’s conceptually muddy, magically themed yet somehow lacking magic, schematic but illogical — a charge against which “Schmigadoon!” preemptively defends itself. “Romance in musicals isn’t always logical,” Melissa tells Josh. “That’s why they usually let the songs do the heavy lifting.” As satire, some of it just feels off base: The inequality of women in old musicals is a recurring theme, but it’s not the case even of the shows the series takes off on. (It is certainly not true of “The Music Man,” the show most referred to here.) Partners recognizing an equal, through singing, through dancing, is at the heart of musical comedy: One meets one’s match.
If the town of Schmigadoon is a cosmic contraption designed to bring the leads together, it drives them apart instead, and this is the business that will take up much of the series’ running time. Citizens distracting or resisting or assisting them include Betsy, a waitress in low-cut gingham, apparently even younger than she looks (Cameron); Mayor Menlove (Cumming), whose name contains a clue to his character; carnival roustabout Danny (Tveit), a chip off of “Carousel,” channeling John Raitt; schoolmarm Emma (DeBose), echoing librarian Marion from “The Music Man”; the Countess (Krakowski), a parody of the Baronness from “The Sound of Music”; and Mildred (Chenoweth), more or less the villain of the piece, a voice of conservatism and control who doesn’t like the visitors “or their new-fangled city ideas.” Her big number is a pastiche of “Trouble”: “We got tribulation/Right here in Schmigadoon. … We’ve got strife and tribulation/and not to mention miscegenation.”
That the series has been built especially for theater nerds is evident from the title onward, which is funny only if you know there is a musical called “Brigadoon,” by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe — as in Brigadoon, Schmigadoon — and meaningful only if you’re familiar with its central plot device, in which a centuries-old town magically appears in the Scottish highlands once a century. (Oddly, it never occurs to Melissa to mention “Brigadoon,” though she will demonstrate a familiarity with 20th century musical theater.)
The references are obvious and obscure (though not terribly so) to please different levels of fan. There is a nod to “Oklahoma!” in the first bars of the series’ main theme. Many will spot the show’s lisping child as Winthrop from “The Music Man”; fewer may recognize the Schmigadoonean exclamation “yee honk” as joining two oaths from that play, “yee gods” and “great honk.” There are jokes about dream ballets and colorblind casting. Snow-capped mountains suggest a scene from “The Sound of Music”; a knockoff of “Do-Re-Mi” as a lesson in sex education confirms it. I am certain that Krakowski’s comic vamp solo is a sideways rewrite of “Always True to You in My Fashion” from “Kiss Me Kate,” and, yes, it pleases me to know that.
Why is this happening, other than that the idea of a meta-musical caught the authors’ fancy? One might say that the town appears because it’s what the protagonists require — broadly what happens in “Brigadoon” — but beyond Melissa watching a bit of Gene Kelly in “Singin’ in the Rain” there is no textual reason why the universe should have guided them to this particular form of unreality. It feels random. Josh and Melissa don’t discuss, in any searching way, what it’s all about — a shared dream, the Matrix, heaven, hell. They only want to go home. And because so much of the couple’s time is spent out of sync, or out of sorts, or out of each other’s company, the question of their relationship, or even their getting back home, registers as less than crucial.
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There are moments of real emotion. As the partner who feels things, and goes with the flow, Strong gets the better of the script, and she can sing and dance and turn a cartwheel; the series is perhaps best seen as a showcase for her, and she is especially good with Tveit on a Fosse-esque number — basically “Steam Heat,” from “The Pajama Game.” As Florence, the mayor’s wife, Harada gets a lot out of a small part; her solo number, sincerely performed despite its joke refrain — “He’s a queer one, that man o’ mine” — is quite moving, emotionally complex and rooted in genuine yearning and compassion: “I wish that I could free him/so I could truly see him.” DeBose is similarly grounded, in a part free from silliness, and her dance with her classroom is delightful in its exuberance.
If you’re going to enjoy this series, and do not let me stop you, it may be best to under-think it. To enjoy the performers enjoying themselves. To admire the sets and the choreography (by Christopher Gattelli) and appreciate the fact that, in the midst of a pandemic, the kids of the chorus got work.
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