Welcome to ‘Schmigadoon,’ SNL’s Woke Homage to Musicals I Can’t Believe Exists
In “Schmigadoon!,” a modern couple is trapped in a town where everyone thinks they’re in a classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. It’s so strange and niche, it may actually work.
Melissa (Cecily Strong) and Josh (Keegan-Michael Key) are a couple struggling to keep the spark alive three years and change into their relationship, at just about the time they should be making the commitment to an eternal flame. In hopes of rekindling things, they attend a couples’ retreat in the wilderness, an experience with the grand promise to be their relationship’s great white hope when things are starting seem like a great big bummer.
Cue the thunder strike and the torrential downpour, soaking the couple as they get lost in the woods. Some bickering later, they hear church bells and follow the sound to what they hope is shelter. When they cross a moss-lined cobblestone bridge, the bucolic kind that only seems to exist in classic movies, they come out of the fog to the oversaturated, brightly-lit rolling hills of Schmigadoon.
Greeting them at the town square, a turn-of-the-century utopia as perfectly manicured as a Hollywood soundstage, is a population of people milling about in prairie dresses and petticoats, with the men in vests, bowties, and thick brown boots. Like performers at a theme park inspired by Golden Age movie musicals like Oklahoma!, Carousel, and, yes, Brigadoon, they break into song welcoming the visitors, complete with acrobatic choreography. (If you’ve ever seen the musical Oklahoma!, the number’s arrangement should sound familiar.)
Melissa and Josh are alternately delighted and irritated by the peculiar, hyper-specific tourist attraction, which is what they assume (wrongly) this discovery must be.
Sure, it’s a bright and cheerful—almost gratingly so—haven after a literal and emotional storm. But it’s a lot to take in, and they haven’t even realized yet that they’re stuck in Rodger-and-Hammerstein purgatory—or heaven, depending on your affinity for hoop skirts, character shoes, and basket auctions at box socials. But that doesn’t happen until later, when a magical leprechaun appears to tell them that, in order to leave, they must find true love, even if that may not be with each other. (Imagine the tension that causes.)
Needless to say, they’re in disbelief that this place even exists. Join the club.
In an ever-changing TV landscape in which the volume of content multiplies with the speed of a chorus dancer’s pirouette, what once seemed to be the promise of stranger, more ambitious content has transformed into a depressing dash to the middle.
But as with Melissa and Josh, just when the future of the relationship seemed too hopeless to survive, along comes, so unexpectedly, this vibrant, unusual, song-and-dance bizarro world of Schmigadoon!—a series so unique and tailored to such specific interests that, at a time of such blah tedium on TV, it’s a shock that it is even a show at all.
The series was co-created by Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul of Despicable Me fame, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld (Men in Black), and executive produced by Saturday Night Live maestro Lorne Michaels, with Paul writing the original music. Debuting July 16 on Apple TV+, the series is both a parody and heartfelt homage to the Golden Age Hollywood musicals of the 1940s and ’50s.
Tropes and stock characters, even the now-offensive ones, are interrogated, sent-up, and celebrated. The songs are a near mimicry of classics from the scores of Lerner and Lowe, Meredith Wilson, and the aforementioned Rodgers and Hammerstein. You’re even greeted each episode with a jaunty overture.
You’ll spot references to these shows’ characters: an Ado Annie here, a Marian the Librarian there; a Billy Bigelow and a Baroness Elsa von Schräder. But the people of Schmigadoon aren’t performers in a tourist attraction. They live and breathe as if they existed in one of those throwback productions. The arrival of Melissa and Josh throw their musical lives into a tailspin, as they’re slowly introduced to the woke norms of the modern-day interlopers.
As a result, Schmigadoon! exposes, but also lovingly subverts, what may be considered problematic themes and blindspots when it comes to diversity and gender politics from these classic productions, all the while amplifying the ways in which the beloved genre can still shepherd the most cynical versions of ourselves—and our art—toward our best, most inclusive versions.
In a tweet, critic Soraya McDonald described the show as, “What if Daniel Fish’s Oklahoma! and The Good Place had a baby,” referencing the Tony-winning revival that stripped the musical to its starkest insights on violence, justice, and human nature and the NBC fantasy-comedy series that pondered morality and how people could change.
In interviews with cast members from Schmigadoon!, we learned how the strict embrace of its apparent niche appeal should actually help the series translate for a mainstream audience and what the entertainment industry, especially Broadway, could learn from the series’ inclusive casting—a course-correction for what’s long been an issue with these musicals, not to mention Hollywood storytelling in general.
Whatever nostalgic, unattainable utopia those old musicals portrayed, Schmigadoon!—as sharp, fearless, and at times even crude as you’d imagine from a Lorne Michaels production—imagines a new one. And, for the love of all the wind that comes sweeping down the plain, it’s so delightfully weird.
There’s an argument to be made that Schmigadoon!, with its lacerating humor and skilled world-building, should appeal to everyone.
But, should you have grown up on repeat viewings of Sound of Music VHS tapes, maybe played Will Parker in a high school production of Oklahoma!, and, to this day, perhaps find yourself instinctively gravitating toward a YouTube video of Audra McDonald singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel at the 2013 AIDS Walk New York when you’re feeling particularly emotional, Schmigadoon! appeals specifically to you.
“Yes, we made it especially for you, Kevin,” star Aaron Tveit, who plays the town’s handsome, irresistible bad boy (very Billy Bigelow), jokes in a recent Zoom interview.
The truth is, there is an astounding number of people for whom the above embarrassing description rings true. If there was a journey from Glee to Smash to the resurgence of movie musical adaptations (for better or worse) in recent years, Schmigadoon! may be the next stop on the trail.
“I think a lot of us probably were on the same journey, that when we started doing musicals in high school it was something that was a little more niche, and then we’ve watched them cross that cultural barrier into something that’s much more widely accepted,” Tveit says. “Now with this, we have the producer of SNL making a musical television show. We’ve really made it, you know what I mean?”
Schmigadoon! might elicit more of a chuckle if you can recognize the classic musical number each new song is referencing and the specifics of the style it is sending up, say when Kristin Chenoweth, playing the reverend’s wife, breaks into a song obviously inspired by “Trouble” from The Music Man, or when Strong’s Melissa educates one of the town’s young women to a tune reminiscent of “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound of Music. And even if you don’t, the song’s lecturing on the birds, bees, and the female anatomy is funny on its own, regardless of the obvious homage.
The attention to detail is very much the point. Everything from the set design to the phrasing of the singing was specific. Tveit says, “I got a note from [showrunner] Cinco Paul to do the next take ‘a little more Gordon McRae,’” as in the actor who starred in the film versions of Oklahoma! and Carousel. “So I was really trying to get to that place.”
Dove Cameron, who plays Betsy, a figure cut from the same obsessive, man-crazy cloth as Oklahoma!’s Ado Annie, has a theory for why Schmigadoon!, with all these citations from the musical canon, works as modern television, especially in the streaming age.
“Things that are created these days are trying so hard to hit so many key demos that they end up hitting none of them,” she says. “There are so many people that are creating things that are trying to break through and just like really be the next big thing by being so general and by trying to take pieces of the zeitgeist and piece them together in ways that the audience is far too smart for. So everybody goes, ‘That’s a mess! I don’t want to watch that.’ Nobody likes that.”
That the former Will Parker in me felt so seen by the series is the key. “You say, like, ‘It’s created just for me,’ and I’ve heard something similar for so many people,” Cameron says. “Well, really it’s just for the lot of us that feel touched by something that has been crafted to be, you know, human.”
Both Tveit and Cameron are musical theater stars, having appeared on stage in shows like The Light in the Piazza and Moulin Rouge!, in the live TV musical versions of Grease and Hairspray, and on film in Les Misérables. But what’s remarkable is how they’re surrounded by stars with similar musical theater roots: Chenoweth, Alan Cumming, Jane Krakowski, Ann Harada, and Ariana DeBose.
That makes Schmigadoon! somewhat of an anomaly when it comes to on-screen musicals. You don’t know what a pleasure it is to watch something like this in which the actors can actually dance and sing—really sing, not in the barely serviceable way that’s so often excused when it comes to star casting.
Harada, for example, plays the wife to Cumming’s town mayor, who, thanks to Melissa’s observations, begins to question his sexuality. The Broadway vet (Avenue Q) sings a gorgeous ballad with winking lyrics about what a “queer” man her husband is.
When I ask her if she’s ever felt frustrated by the confusing lack of Broadway talent in these movie musicals, she deadpans, “Well, did you see Cats?” I nod. “Then I think you know the answer.” She adds, “You know, it’s a little shocking to me that people don’t feel like stage actors can be in other media.”
Besides, she says, when you’re filming a giant production number in which the lead vocalist needs to understand every beat of why it’s funny that the reverend’s wife is spoofing “Trouble” from The Music Man, with a whole chorus of dancers behind her, why wouldn’t you want a talent like Kristin Chenoweth, for whom a Herculean task like that is second nature, rather than a starlet cast just because she’ll make the cover of Us Weekly?
“To have to try to teach somebody who doesn’t know what that number is supposed to be, they would have so much to catch up on,” Harada says. “But because she’s such a theatrical animal, it was easy for her. And it makes it easier for the whole production.”
There’s a certain poignancy, too, in Harada’s casting. If you look at any scene of Schmigadoon!, you’ll see the kind of diverse ensemble that has historically been rejected for all-white productions of the classic musicals that, while perhaps period-accurate, reflects a dated imagination and vision.
“I love all those shows, and I grew up on those movies,” Harada, an Asian American actress who was born in Hawaii, says. “But I have not found it—I don’t know how to put this—it hasn’t been so easy, necessarily, for someone that looks like me to be in some of those Golden Age shows.”
She counts herself lucky enough to star in Broadway productions in which “I was not cast traditionally, for lack of a better word,” for example as a stepsister in a recent revival of Rodger and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. “I’ve had my chance. But a lot of people haven’t. And I think that any representation we can do proves to everyone that it’s perfectly normal and fine and good.”
It can’t be stressed enough that, at its heart, Schmigadoon! is a fun and surprisingly smart love letter to musical theater. But there’s also something larger at play. Like any of the themes in these classic works, it may not even be that subtle.
Artists and fans often wonder how to reconcile the failings of classic endeavors. Alternating between celebration, satire, and almost dramaturgical dissection, Schmigadoon! shows how we can maintain the integrity of these traditional works and keep them relevant for the future.
“You realize when watching that this series is about inclusion and accepting everyone around you, and those things might not have actually been as true when these musicals first came out,” Tveit says. “So we’re now revisiting them and giving them a new voice. We’re letting people be seen the way that they probably should have been then, which wasn’t necessarily the case. As the stories go forward, they’re rewritten and retold for what’s hopefully a better world than we live in today.”