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Apple TV+'s Schmigadoon! is a joy to watch, but it's as blinkered as the musicals it so lovingly mimics

  • "The new Apple TV+ comedy Schmigadoon! is 12 kinds of absurd, excessive, self-referential, and overly winking jokes about musicals, stuffed into pastel petticoats and sent spinning out onto a TV set designed to look like a stage, complete with a false blue horizon line," says Kathryn VanArendonk. "There is no end to its willingness to pander to those literate in Golden Age musicals. There are jokes about thinly written female characters, and a group dance number about a weird food celebration. Alan Cumming plays a closeted character with the last name Menlove. Detailed medical lyrics about reproduction are set to the melody of a famously simplistic pedagogical musical number. Characters who are direct take-offs from Carousel, Music Man, King and I, and others keep cropping up, bumping up against one another in awkward, discombobulated genre pastiche. Most exhausting, Schmigadoon! is perpetually and glibly aware of how mannered and bric-a-brac it feels. It loves the visibility of its false-stage TV set, the throwaway jokes about color-blind casting, the characters in a musical wondering aloud what musical trope is about to happen. It is so sweet, so innocently knowing, so pleased with itself. Frankly, the whole thing is mortifying. I love it. I love it with the helplessness of a musical protagonist being yanked into an indulgent, unnecessary dream ballet." VanArendonk adds: "If your hope for Schmigadoon! is that it skewers either its source text or the stereotypical musical audience, you will come away disappointed. Schmigadoon! has no pointy edges with which to skewer anything. Even its harshest angles are eventually wrapped in a warm, four-part harmony embrace. It is a musical pastiche, yes, but it’s mostly a bowl of corn puddin’ — wholesome and familiar and maybe a dash too sweet. I’d happily take a second helping."


    • Your inclination towards Schmigadoon!, at least in its early going, will likely be determined by your reaction to its title: "If you think it’s a clever, charming wink to Brigadoon — the Lerner and Loewe musical about an enchanted village, don’t you know? — then you may very well be along for the ride from the first moment," says Daniel D'Addario. "If, like this critic, you think there’s something ineffably cringey about it, with a bit too much effort contained within that exclamation point: Well, you may not find yourself on the wavelength of a show defined by its strenuousness." He adds: "There’s something miscalibrated about Schmigadoon! After having borrowed quite so heavily from traditional forms, the show only haltingly and gradually, and without much of the help that the neglected (Keegan-Michael) Key and (Cecily) Strong might have provided, arrives at something that can stand on its own. Much of the effort the show expends — to great and striking effect — seems to be working around its lack of a truly compelling core idea. The show is well worth watching in many particulars, but it may elicit more nods of appreciation for what it mimics well than standing ovations for how it transcends."
    • Schmigadoon! generally has nothing to say, even though it brings up oddities of classical musicals: "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," says Daniel Fienberg. "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." He adds: "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."
    • Schmigadoon! is simultaneously an adoring homage to classic Broadway musicals and a spot-on satire of them: "every trope is lovingly upended, every plot difficulty laid bare," says Amy Amatangelo. "(Let’s be honest, women didn’t fare too well in the classic musicals. I mean there is a 'what can you do but love him?' song about an abusive husband in Carousel.) Melissa explains the reproductive system in a little ditty that’s very similar to 'Do-Re-Mi' from the Sound of Music. 'Why are they laughing? Nothing even remotely funny just happened?' Josh wonders at the end of one number. There’s references to 'color-blind casting' and at the start of a dream ballet, Melissa exclaims, 'We’re not having a dream ballet. They’re annoying and stupid and slow everything down.' Will you enjoy the show if you’ve never seen a musical and have no context for what’s being spoofed? Maybe. But this truly is a series for Broadway fans." 
    • Schmigadoon! is a little too self-satisfied with the premise and its cleverness in evoking the past: "Simply put, it's sporadically fun but a little too cute for its own good," says Brian Lowry. "Working in the confines of streaming affords Schmigadoon! the luxury of appealing almost exclusively to the high-school-drama geek contingent, a reasonably small if generally desirable demo. The series also happens to tread the boards in a year that will see an inordinate number of musicals hit movie theaters -- West Side Story and Dear Evan Hansen among them -- after the disappointingly tepid box-office reception for "In the Heights" despite stellar reviews. Somewhat spared from traditional commercial pressures as a streaming entry, it's nice that an outfit like Apple had the latitude do produce Schmigadoon!, even if the project feels fairly disposable."
    • Schmigadoon! is a showcase for Cecily Strong: "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...," says Robert Lloyd. He adds: "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."
    • In less deft hands, Schmigadoon! would not work: "It would be either a mean takedown of a celebrated art form, musical theatre, or a non-stop parade of irksome in-jokes and mugging for the camera," says Meghan O'Keefe. "But Schmigadoon! marries the earnest sensibilities of its creators with the sharp humor of comedy writers like Julie Klausner and Bowen Yang. Beloved Broadway stars like Kristen Chenoweth, Ann Harada, and Ariana DeBose deliver enthusiastic musical performances free of irony while Strong and Key play their parts with hilarious levels of incredulity. Schmigadoon! is a marriage of comic voices all working in harmony to deliver absolute bliss. It’s hard to say what’s the best part of Schmigadoon!: the songs, all written by Cinco Paul, or the performances. Each episode of Schmigadoon! features original numbers that carefully thread the needle of being pitch perfect homages of classic Broadway standards while also hilariously propelling the story forward."
    • Schmigadoon! is a sweet, tart treat for musical junkies: "The cast is top-to-bottom fantastic, the enthusiasm is infectious, and the sharp jabs it takes at the genre’s wheezy old clichés give it a distinctly meta edge," says Dave Nemetz. He adds: "The actors are clearly having a ball, too. Strong is great and goofy here, in one of her best roles yet. (The Sound of Music-esque tune that Melissa sings to teach the locals about a woman’s reproductive anatomy is a hilariously naughty highlight.) We know Key is a tremendously gifted comedian, so it’s frustrating to watch him mostly play the humorless straight man here, but he does have a few zany moments. And the supporting cast is almost embarrassingly stacked: Tveit and Cumming are especially good, as are Jane the Virgin's Jaime Camil as the dashing town doctor and 30 Rock's Jane Krakowski as the glamorous Countess. Most of them only get a scant few minutes of screen time, though, unfortunately. I almost wanted the show to be longer than six episodes, just so we could see more of these great actors inhabiting this weird world."
    • The immediate appeal of Schmigadoon! is for Broadway babies and classic film aficionados — and with them in mind, much of it works: "The first half of the series is charming in its faithful adherence to musical tropes," says Kristen Lopez. "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."
    • Schmigadoon! never quite adds up to the sum of its parts: "What seems like a strength at first, of having every song and dance as a full production number, quickly becomes wearing after the initial impressiveness wears off," says Lucy Mangan. "None has the comic spin to sustain it. Strong and Key are largely relegated to merely commenting on the quirk around them, and showing then telling isn’t any less wearisome in parodyland than it is elsewhere. Any tension that might start to build between the couple and the Schmigadooners – either because of their modern ways or because they are effectively prisoners and jailers – dissipates as soon as it arises. The stakes remain remarkably low. The only real jeopardy comes from Key’s frustration at being forced into a snarky role as a humourless, discontented straight man instead of being allowed to bust his comic chops out all over. You do start to long for the wit of any My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend number, or any three minutes from the Buffy episode 'Once More, With Feeling,' or even the increasingly clever and extensive musical interludes that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt enjoyed as Jeff Richmond was given more of his druthers every season. Schmigadoon! passes the time harmlessly enough but overall, it is a one-note show and even that is too often flat. Must hit that exclamation mark harder next time."
    • Schmigadoon! desperately needs a point of view: "It's not that a show like Schmigadoon! needs to make some grander point, but it aches for more of a point of view, perhaps less about musicals and more about its own characters," says Linda Holmes. "Even in a romantic comedy, which is essentially what the Strong-Key relationship is here, you need a little more of a dramatic spine to the relationship than most of these six episodes can deliver. Given that it is based on Broadway musicals, you know these people will find their way back to each other; the question is how. And here, the answer to that question could have used a little more of the specificity that went into writing the songs. Created and written by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio (Paul also wrote the songs), Schmigadoon! is a sharply written parody that eerily nails the structure and the mood of musical numbers that debuted over quite a few decades, and it's a good time for show-tune people. It's just hard not to wish that this terrific cast could have gotten a little more support from the writing that comes between the singing."
    • Schmigadoon! exposes, but also lovingly subverts, what may be considered problematic themes and blindspots in classic musicals: "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," says Kevin Fallon. "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."
    • Schmigadoon! is a musical you didn't know you needed: "It is not necessarily the most groundbreaking or experimental comedy, but it's thoroughly enjoyable and sweet, the kind of uncomplicated series that makes an easy summer watch," says Kelly Lawler, adding: "Schmigadoon! can't quite cross over from the realm of good to great, because the writers never take the premise beyond a surface-level story of singing and love. The series might have been better served as a feature film, considering its structure and short length (at six half-hour episodes, it's not much longer than most movies). As wonderful and fun as the show is, I couldn't help but want more from the writers and actors, another twist or explanation of the magical musical moment." 
    • Schmigadoon! has its moments of good honest fun, but it is more inclined toward ironic and satirical fun: "It’s in on its own joke and routinely mocks its own corniness," says Margaret Lyons. "(There’s even a song called 'Corn Puddin’,' which, like all the other songs on the show, is pretty darn good.) The vibe works, particularly the jabs at classic musicals’ rigid sexism. The show’s credited writers, Bowen Yang, Julie Klausner, Allison Silverman and Kate Gersten, are best known for their work in sketch comedy and sitcoms, so unsurprisingly the punch lines are clever and often acidic. But it does sometimes feel as if Schmigadoon! had only one real joke: Musicals, especially those of the ’40s and ’50s, are similar to one another, and cheesy. We love these musicals not in spite of those qualities but because of them, and Schmigadoon! embodies why whimsy can be so appealing. The more the series focuses on Melissa and Josh’s conflicts, particularly on Josh’s sour avoidance, the more one longs for goofy elation and purposeless giggling. Sure, the town is prim and smothering, but wouldn’t you rather dance your troubles away than return to that pile of tedious self-help books about how to save a lukewarm relationship? Naïveté can be a vice, but so can obstinance. Is falling in love over a trumpet really dumber than any other way people fall in love? Isn’t it good to sing what you can’t say, especially when you can’t seem to say much at all?"
    • Schmigadoon! somehow manages to find to find the intersection between the dearly departed Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Pushing Daisies: "Schmigadoon! is boisterously fun while putting forth a self-aware sense of humor that sends up Broadway from a place of knowing love and contemporary perspective, even if it somewhat runs out of steam by the end," says Brandon Katz. "It’s the type of weird little gem you need to watch once to enjoy, and twice to memorize all the catchy numbers."
    • Schmigadoon! is in a class of its own: "Is it WandaVision with musicals instead of sitcoms?" says Gregory Lawrence. "Pushing Daisies meets Crazy Ex-Girlfriend? The Pleasantville of the golden age of movie musicals? Somehow, despite being superficially similar to all these other classic genre-busters, and despite being an explicit homage to movie musicals in every facet of its formal construction, Schmigadoon! is like no other show I've ever seen. Don't get me wrong; the formal homages are plentiful, and they are beyond exquisite to absorb, leaving other modern pastiches like La La Land in the dust."
    • Barry Sonnenfeld was a curious choice as director since he admits "I am not a fan of Broadway musicals...I don’t understand why people would stop talking and start singing": In fact, co-creator Cinco Paul was unaware of Sonnenfeld's aversion until they were on set. “Here we are on the set,” Paul recalls, “and he’s half jokingly saying, ‘Why are there so many songs?’” Sonnenfeld adds: "For me, it was a real learning experience. I actually was forced to watch a few more musicals, and I would come back to Cinco and go: 'Well, hated that one. Hated Carousel.' 'Don’t understand Brigadoon, makes no sense to me.' 'What do you like about Seven Brides for Seven Brothers?" Ultimately, Sonnenfeld was happy with the final product. "I loved the cast and the crew, and the songs are really peppy, but there’s a lot of artifice there," he says. "The interesting thing about directing it is, how do you embrace all that artifice but keep the acting totally real? What was nice is that we pulled off a very stylized show that also is sort of weirdly real."
    • Sonnenfeld says the toughest part was the choreography, which had to be mastered on a second soundstage due to COVID protocols: "The choreographer (Chris Gattelli) had a group of core dancers wearing masks, so you never knew what character was who under the mask,” Sonnenfeld recalls. “They would film rehearsals on another stage, and then at night, Chris would send (recordings) to myself and Cinco, and we would talk. I would say, ‘I don’t want to pan, I want to track.’ ‘I think the framing is too wide, we should do this.’ ‘I don’t think we need that cut, I think it would be better if we pulled back.’ And then we’d give those notes to Chris, Chris would re-choreograph it, he would film it again, and we would (provide additional feedback).” On the bright side, “by the time each day came to actually filming on the real set, it was a piece of cake,” Sonnenfeld says. “Because we had rehearsed it so much, we had seen the rehearsals (and) we had cut the different angles together, we knew exactly where we were going to use what shot. So, like that huge dance number — the opening number — we probably finished that three hours ahead of schedule.”
    • Co-creator Cinco Paul admits he had actually not seen the 1954 musical comedy film Brigadoon or the play it is based on: Paul says his love of musicals in general inspired the series. “Those old musicals were big and they had huge ensembles and we wanted to pay tribute to that,” says Paul. “I always felt the more authentic the musical numbers were, the better the comedy and then the show as a whole would be.”
    • Lorne Michaels suggested Martin Short play a crazy, random leprechaun: “Originally it wasn’t a song, and once we had Marty it was like, ‘Oh, he has to sing! So I’m going to turn this verse into a song so he can sing it,'” says Paul. “And I just love the idea of this. It’s so crazy and also random and then… I think part of the fun of it is he appears and then disappears and you never see him again.”
    • How Cinco Paul tackled writing the songs: "The first thing I did was, I got the scores to a bunch of the old musicals — The Music Man, South Pacific, Oklahoma, Carousel, and I just played through them on the piano, so that I would have them in my bones. There are a couple of songs that are very specific parodies, but most of them, I wanted to just emulate the genre as opposed to be super specific. There was a lot of playing through the scores on the piano and listening to the songs. Once we were in the writers' room and writing the episodes, finding the places it's a perfect place for a song. There's just certain songs that I love so much for musicals. I love 'Brotherhood of Man (from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) and 'Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat' (from Guys and Dolls). So, I wanted a Frank Loesser gospel number in there somewhere. Things like that. Loving, 'You Got Trouble' from Music Man, and wanting to do something like that. It was kind of like, 'What are my favorite musical theater songs? What would be fun to place in Schmigadoon somewhere?'"
    • “My whole life has been leading up to Schmigadoon!” says the 57-year-old Cinco Paul, a Broadway fiend: “I had three thoughts right away,” he says. “One: It shouldn’t be friends; it should be a romantic couple. Two: They’re stuck there until they find true love. Three: It should be called Schmigadoon!.” The central relationship was the key. “Two people who needed to change to become better partners," he says. "That was the real breakthrough, and the opportunity to nod to all the musicals I loved was the fun part.”

    TOPICS: Schmigadoon!, Apple TV+, Barry Sonnenfeld, Cecily Strong, Cinco Paul, Keegan-Michael Key, Ken Daurio, Martin Short