As a genre, musicals are up there with the Western: You either love them or hate them. They’re also genres that are easy to mock and/or subvert. Thus is the case with the new Apple TV+ series, “Schmigadoon,” an ambitious show that hopes to both modernize the musical while humorously poking fun at some of the more obvious narrative flaws of the genre. With hummable songs and a stellar cast of Broadway and comedy veterans, it’s almost enough to make you forget how surface-level the conceit comes across.
Melissa and Josh (Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key, respectively) have been together for several years but are in a rut. Melissa sees their relationship in extremes of utter perfection or complete failure, while Josh puts in the bare minimum of effort and remains closed off. In a last ditch effort they go on a couples retreat only to get lost in the woods.
The couple eventually stumbles upon the town of Schmigadoon, where everyone dresses in pastel-perfect turn-of-the-century costumes and bursts out into song about everything from lover’s spats to corn pudding. Melissa finds the entire thing charming while Josh can’t wait to escape. The problem is the pair can’t leave the town until they find true love, and it might not be with each other.
The immediate appeal of “Schmigadoon” is for Broadway babies and classic film aficionados — and with them in mind, much of it works. Creators Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul attempt to appeal to a broad swath of musical fans, mostly those who have seen the works of Rodgers and Hammerstein, and maybe “West Side Story.” The minute Melissa and Josh enter the town they realize they’re in a musical, and Melissa, especially, feels invigorated by her understanding of how things will go, per her understanding of the genre.
The first half of the series is charming in its faithful adherence to musical tropes. Schmigadoon is trapped in a time where money is counted out as “bits;” the town flirt (Dove Cameron) is an age that could just be summed up as ambiguously “young”; and the local rapscallion (Aaron Tveit) maintains that no woman can tame him. All of these archetypes and moments are accompanied by songs, of course.
At the same time, there’s just enough social commentary to make the audience aware that the writers are in on the genre’s historical problems, like the rampant conservatism promoted by Margaret Layton (Kristin Chenoweth), or the sexism that forces Melissa into being a nurse when she’s actually a doctor.
But while the series wants to say it’s aware, it doesn’t technically want to dive too deep into waters that would require actual explanation. Melissa, at one point, brings up the town has “colorblind casting” as a means of ignoring the very real facts that most classic film musicals were whitewashed. When Margaret becomes hellbent on kicking Melissa and Josh out, there’s a musical line about “miscegenation” but it comes in the literal final episodes of the series, as to be completely unnecessary. It limits the true impact of how people who love the genre often have to compartmentalize.
That being said, there are far more moments where the unification of Melissa and Josh’s story and the attempt to tell a 1950s-era musical dovetail wonderfully. Strong conveys all of Melissa’s happiness at being trapped in a musical, clapping every time someone in the town gives a performance. But as a woman in a musical of the era, Melissa is forced to tamp down her intelligence and hide her sexuality, making the moments where they bubble up to the surface all the funnier.
When she catches the eye of Tveit’s town carny, Danny Bailey, it both hearkens back to the chaste, quickly developing romances of the era but carrying an added sexual chemistry. The two’s dance performance is one of the series’ highlights, with Tveit being a perfect combination of Gordon MacRae in “Carousel” and Howard Keel in “Seven Brides From Seven Brothers.” (He’s the charming misogynist that can only work in a musical.)
But his clinginess also gets to Melissa in a hilarious song that sees her explaining IUDs. Later on, when Melissa tries to help an outcast unwed mother, she gets to pull a page from the “Sound of Music” and do a do-re-mi song about reproduction.
Key, to his credit, gets the harder role of being completely apathetic to everything. Josh doesn’t want to sing, he doesn’t want to dance, and he doesn’t really seem to care about Melissa’s feelings. Upon realizing the two can’t just leave, Josh takes it upon himself to try getting out of the city with other women, eventually settling on schoolmarm Emma Tate (Ariana DeBose).
Where Josh and Melissa’s backstory is given at the beginning of every episode, Key and DeBose have chemistry right away. DeBose is clearly drawn from the Shirley Jones/”Music Man” mold, but she takes it further with a sensitivity (and backstory) that enhances her character’s isolation. Really, the use of Broadway stars here can’t be stressed enough because they dominate this series so much you’d wish it didn’t have “modern” characters to show how backward they are. I mean, even the name “Schmigadoon,” a silly rhyme on the Lerne and Lowe musical “Brigadoon,” lets you know who you’re supposed to connect with and it ain’t the residents.
That being said, with Broadway closed down, where else can you currently see stage actors like Cumming, Chenoweth, Tveit, Cameron, and Ann Harada all in one place? And their songs are the best of the bunch, particularly Harada’s hilarious performance of “Queer One,” a loving ode to her character’s husband, Cumming’s Aloysius Menlove.
The limitations due to the pandemic are on clear display and, by the end of the series’ six-episodes, you can almost see the strings of production straining to get to the finish. The final episodes feature a bonafide crusade by Chenoweth’s Margaret that is resolved in minutes, as well as a cameo appearance from Jane Krakowski that’s so brief it’s egregious (though her song is still amazing). It’s also evident that the finale sees Cameron and Tveit spliced into scenes, leading to a lack of cohesion in the show’s final moments. If anything, the series would have benefited from being eight episodes as opposed to six.
“Schmigadoon” is a gamble, but it’s one I hope pays off. If this was a one-season wonder that’s fine, as the actors and story work perfectly in a bubble. However, if it chooses to go forward, it would work to the show’s advantage to lean on its Broadway cast more and not be afraid to find the humor in darker topics. Either way, I’m off to sing “Corn Pudding” one more time!
“Schmigadoon!” premieres Friday, July 16 on Apple TV+ with two episodes. New episodes will debut each Friday for the remainder of the six-episode first season.