- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
My grandmother loved musicals. She loved seeing them and singing along with them, and she loved announcing, when a song came on the radio or came up in conversation, “I wrote that one!”
See, my grandmother also loved writing musical parodies. Whether she was reconceiving the classics for friends and family at the Wapaska Lodge on Muskoka Bay, or as part of talent shows or fundraisers for the New Mount Sinai Hospital Women’s Auxiliary, it was the rare musical classic that she hadn’t already given her own spin — like the indelible “Fanny Get Your BB Gun,” with “BB” standing, of course, for “B’nai B’rith.”
At its best, the new Apple TV+ comedy Schmigadoon! felt like sitting in the backseat on a long car ride with my grandmother, sharing excitement for musicals of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. More frequently, however, Schmigadoon! felt like a two-hour musical parody originally intended for Off-Off-Off Broadway performances in front of an enthusiastically drunk crowd of former theater kids, perplexingly expanded to three hours without sufficient commentary to justify the running time. One thing that’s for sure is that Schmigadoon! never feels like a half-hour comedy, and it definitely doesn’t feel like an ongoing TV series after these six episodes.
I’m a born-and-raised fan of so many of the musicals that creators Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio are paying homage to, but for every amusing takeoff, there are at least two parodies with the satirical rigor of the show’s title, or a third-rate Mad magazine goof. There’s too much talent here for Schmigadoon! to ever be a total waste, but the show is far more pandering than nurturing.
Our heroes are Melissa (Cecily Strong) and Josh (Keegan-Michael Key), a pair of doctors several years into a romance that has gone flat. Hoping to rekindle that spark, Melissa and Josh embark on a wilderness relationship hike, only to find themselves in a magical, unstuck-in-time town called Schmigadoon. See, Lerner and Loewe wrote a musical called Brigadoon and … that’s the joke, though Schmigadoon is a community cobbled together from every small-town period musical, complete with a loquacious mayor (Alan Cumming as Aloysius Menlove, whose secret you’ll never guess), a prickly conservative zealot (Kristin Chenoweth’s Mildred), a carnival barker with a shady past (Aaron Tveit’s Danny Bailey), a smart, love-starved librarian (Ariana DeBose’s Emma) and other archetypes. As a friendly leprechaun (Martin Short, present for all of one song) explains, Melissa and Josh are trapped in Schmigadoon until they find true love.
It must be added that nearly every emotionally heightened moment causes the residents of Schmigadoon to break into song, which amuses musical aficionado Melissa, who is quickly able to figure out some of the rules of their new surroundings, and irritates Josh, who’s prone to saying things like, “People don’t just burst into song in real life!”
That’s a somewhat stale and dated perspective on musicals, but I’m not sure the creators’ perspective is all that much fresher. The grand discovery seems to have been that vintage musicals are often weird, with Paul and Daurio revealing that, oftentimes, elements of sexuality and romance were either repressed or ignored entirely. It’s surely not wrong to observe that classical musicals left homosexuality as an unspoken undercurrent, while elements of sexual violence were treated with unnervingly nonjudgmental matter-of-factness. And if you were to have brought these aspects to the surface in maybe 1985, you’d be hailed as edgy and forward-thinking, but it’s been decades since anybody has been able to do a straightforward production of Carousel or South Pacific or The King and I, while iconoclastic adaptations like the dark, horny Oklahoma! (2019) are closer to the rule than the exception.
Schmigadoon! generally has nothing to say about these emotional oddities other than acknowledging them, and when it comes to other manifestly obvious deficiencies in musicals of that period — many having to do with race — the show is barely engaged at all. There’s only an early mention that Josh’s race might cause issues in Schmigadoon, but Schmigadoon is thoroughly populated by actors of color, which almost certainly needs to be a focus if the town exists in a nebulous, pre-integration past. What’s here isn’t a piece of commentary that would earn you more than a tenuous passing grade if you submitted it in a high school theater class.
The scripts stop digging after an episode, and that leaves director Barry Sonnenfeld at loose ends for his own visual efforts to capture the strange artificiality of this world. Other than a few jokes about artificial backdrops and rear-projection, Sonnenfeld is nearly playing Schmigadoon! straight, to the comedy’s detriment.
The songs fit into several categories. There are the Paul compositions inspired by the songs from the musicals I’ve listed already and a few others, and then there are the direct rewrites of some of the most famous songs in the genre in a style I can only describe as Bubie Ida-esque, in honor of my grandmother. The songs in the latter group, which include a sex education tutorial set to “Do-Re-Mi” and a warning about moral rot set to “Trouble,” are dishearteningly bad. And if you’re saying, “But wait, what’s the point of rewriting ‘Trouble,’ which is already a warning about moral rot, to be a parody about moral rot?” The answer is that there’s no point, any more than when Danny sings an almost unembellished 30 seconds of “Soliloquy.”
Would I watch Aaron Tveit play Billy in Carousel, or Kristin Chenoweth as Henrietta Hill in a gender-swapped The Music Man? Good gracious, yes! This just isn’t really the next best thing, but it’s still impossible not to find amusement in Tveit’s feigned brutish swagger, in Chenoweth’s impeccable rigidity and in Cumming’s joyous bluster. Dove Cameron shines in what amounts to one episode as an alternative love interest for Josh, and Jaime Camil does the same as a doctor who catches Melissa’s eye. But of the secondary romantic leads, the clear standout is DeBose, who sings and dances like a dream and radiates the prickly purity required to be Marian, Madam Librarian. And Strong and Key are both very solid anchors for the story, though there are moments where they’re treating the material as an extended sketch, not a naturally occurring world.
Everybody sings with enthusiasm and leaps into the choreography with the best of intentions — it’s here you can see the gap in the ensemble between true hoofers and actors who can be convinced to learn steps — and at least six half-hour episodes isn’t an abusive duration. I just needed more from Schmigadoon! than “Hey, we love that thing you love!” camaraderie. I do love that thing. I just wish I liked this thing more.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day