by Karen Han, Slate
Keegan-Michael Key and Cecily Strong star, and musical theater royalty make appearances to satirize their kingdom.
Even if you’re not the kind of Broadway nerd who would clock the title Schmigadoon as a reference to Lerner and Loewe musical Brigadoon, the new Apple TV+ series’ overture, which takes the iconic “Ooooo-klahoma” refrain and tailors it to a new town, immediately announces the show as a love letter to musicals. But if that description may not appeal to those who gag at the schmaltz that defines the Great White Way, creators Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, the screenwriters behind Despicable Me and The Secret Life of Pets, have built a comedy that understands that reaction, too, layering on self-awareness and even writing in an in-universe musical-theater skeptic (Keegan-Michael Key) to function as an audience surrogate. That is to say, whether watching characters spontaneously burst into song causes you to roll your eyes or to perk up in your seat, it’s hard not to be won over by the new musical comedy. From the candy-colored costumes, to the twee sets, to the incredibly catchy songs, it’s the closest screen equivalent to an all-out, old-school musical in recent memory, even as—like Daniel Fish’s Tony-winning 2019 revival of Oklahoma itself, which exposed the seething underbelly of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s debut—it doesn’t try to hide how contrived and problematic those mid-century artifacts can be. In other words, even if it’s a love letter, that doesn’t mean it’s afraid to uncap its poison pen.
Key and Saturday Night Live’s Cecily Strong—neither of whom are strangers to spoofing Broadway—star as Josh and Melissa, a perfectly normal couple whose relationship, despite a magical start, has stalled out after a few years of dating. In an attempt to rekindle the flame, they set out on a camping trip, and end up stumbling upon—and becoming trapped in—the town of Schmigadoon. Melissa, a musical theater nut, finds it charming, at least at first, but Josh has no patience for any of it. The only way out of Schmigadoon is apparently to cross a bridge with one’s true love, but when they attempt to leave, they find themselves right back in musical land. Are they not meant for each other?
Schmigadoon is both tart enough and tight enough to sustain itself through the six, roughly 30-minute episodes of its first season.
Though the final answer may already seem apparent, Schmigadoon is both tart enough and tight enough to sustain itself through the six, roughly 30-minute episodes of its first season. (The first two episodes will be out on July 16, with one new episode per week after that.) The musical world makes no attempt to hide its artifice in the same way that a grand stage set doesn’t, and the way the songs, performed by a handsome ensemble sporting rictus grins, mix together with the more bitter conversations that Josh and Melissa have, counterbalances the saccharine quality of the Golden Age productions on which it riffs. And when the pastel backdrops and neatly pressed costumes barely mask the misogyny and racism that’s common in these relics, our protagonists, who hail from modern-day New York, don’t hesitate to interrupt to point it out. (An early song features the town’s men singing about how they spank their girlfriends when they’re cross with them, and a character repeatedly alludes to her disapproval of interracial relationships.)
What the musical framing finally does, however, is not just make an excuse for the cast—which includes such Broadway veterans as Alan Cumming, Kristin Chenoweth, Aaron Tveit, Jane Krakowski, and Ann Harada—to burst into song, but provide a way for these characters to project their innermost thoughts to the rafters. In that sense, the show is something of a successor to shows like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Galavant, Glee, and even Smash. The songs may be cheesy, but they’re a way of getting characters to express aloud how they feel, even when the topics are heavier than those one might find in the most anodyne old productions. With that in mind, it’s crucial to the series’ success that Key and Strong play their roles absolutely straight—at one point, they even discuss the plots of a few classic musicals in order to figure out what they’re expected to do next (e.g. buy a trumpet, à la The Music Man). Unlike the characters in Glee, who are already high-school caricatures, and the characters in Smash, who are involved in a metanarrative about the musical-theater industry and the process of making art, the characters in Schmigadoon lean more toward the example set by Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, in that they deliver the songs with a more ironic twist—and only engage in songs, at least on Melissa’s part, in self-effacing ways (though she commends the town, early on, for its colorblind casting).
And the songs—oh, the songs. Many are dead ringers for other famous numbers (the Schmigadoon versions of “Oklahoma” and “Ya Got Trouble” are immediately recognizable even though the melodies aren’t precisely the same, not to mention the fact that Henry Higgins and Baroness Schraeder are ported in almost unchanged, as archetypes), and part of the pleasure of the show is spotting the references while enjoying the belting of some of Broadway’s biggest stars. But even for musical neophytes, the show takes care to explain a little of what it’s lampooning, and in the end, the real heart of the show is Josh and Melissa’s relationship, and the dysfunctions within. Though the series clearly winks at musical-theater conventions and how silly they can be, it’s not cynical, tapping into the same winking but ultimately sincere tone that makes classical musicals so appealing to begin with. Magic, the show seems to argue, isn’t solely the provenance of fiction, especially when it comes to love. Each episode opens with a flashback to Melissa and Josh’s lives in New York, and though the color palette is considerably muted for these scenes, there’s still an intimacy about the little moments they share that feels special. Schmigadoon’s wholehearted embrace of that philosophy is exactly what makes it so difficult to resist. At just six episodes, it neatly wraps up its story in a way that seems to shut down any questions about a second season, but it’s hard not to wish for an encore performance, if only because Paul and Daurio have created a musical paradise that highlights the magic of what we consider to be everyday and mundane.
Costume Designer: Tish Monaghan