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“It’s like if The Walking Dead was also Glee.” That’s the despairing cry of Josh (Keegan-Michael Key, of sketch show Key & Peele), when, along with girlfriend Melissa (Saturday Night Live’s Cecily Strong), he finds himself trapped in a 1940s small town-cum-musical, Schmigadoon, where residents frequently break into song. Some viewers might share his horror.
Curiously, Barry Sonnenfeld, who directs this new Apple TV+ comedy series, is among them; he is, he’s declared, not a fan of musicals. But then Schmigadoon! (exclamation mark very much earned) is as much a critique of classic Broadway as it is a loving homage to the likes of Oklahoma!, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, The Wizard of Oz, Kiss Me, Kate, and Brigadoon.
Josh and Melissa, both New York doctors, are in a relationship slump. She’s fixated on a romantic fantasy; he’s lazily content with the status quo. They attend a couples’ hiking retreat to reconnect, but, after getting lost, stumble upon this all-singing, all-dancing community – and can’t leave. The only way out is to cross a magical bridge with your true love.
It’s a fun premise, and immediately highlights the couple’s divisions. Melissa is charmed by what she assumes is an immersive tourist attraction and open to the experience, while the cynical Josh’s first thought is “Wicker Man”.
But it’s not just the couple who are trapped. Schmigadoon initially seems idyllic, with its candy-coloured costumes, charming town square and rolling emerald hills, plus a beaming community adhering to the town motto “We always strive for peace and happiness.”
Yet dig deeper and secrets emerge: closeted gay men, children born out of wedlock, and people longing to escape their prescribed roles. The arrival of these strangers sets a process of change in motion: our central couple need to grow in order to be better partners, while Schmigadoon needs a revolution.
It’s not a radical concept, essentially merging Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s musical episode, which forced people to reveal their feelings through song, with the movie Pleasantville, which deconstructed a seemingly perfect 1950s TV show. Like the latter, or the recent Marvel TV series WandaVision, you’ll get the most out of the show if you know its source material.
There are musical references galore across Schmigadoon!’s six half-hour episodes. The resident rapscallion is a riff on Carousel’s Billy Bigelow; a bravura patter song parodies The Music Man; there’s Oklahoma!’s basket auction; a glamorous baroness sashays out of The Sound of Music; and Mary Poppins gets a practically perfect rival. Much of the humour comes from theatre geek Melissa’s knowing commentary.
Yet the series also interrogates the genre’s problematic elements, particularly the horrendous gender politics. A song about lovers arguing sees the husbands spanking their wives, while the town doctor refuses to treat an unmarried pregnant woman, and the inn’s waitress is a queasy combination of pouting, buxom sexpot and too-young ingénue. An outraged Melissa gives an impromptu sex education lesson in the style of Maria von Trapp.
However, to its cost, the series tries to have it both ways. There’s a half-hearted critique of racism in this gosh-darn folksy world, yet Schmigadoon is notably diverse. Co-creators Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio’s songs are accomplished (down to the June/moon rhymes) but toothless pastiches: too hidebound to be original, but lacking a really penetrating comedic spin. You’re best off enjoying them as Rodgers and Hammerstein-lite.
The same applies to Bo Welch’s production design, which has a sheen of theatrical artificiality, yet seduces you into its jazz-hands joy. A well-drilled ensemble knocking out Christopher Gattelli’s slick routines really does evoke the Golden Age MGM musicals, from high kicks to thigh-slapping hoedowns. And the cast is packed with Broadway veterans: Alan Cumming plays the pining Mayor Menlove, Kristin Chenoweth the censorious preacher’s wife, and Aaron Tveit the hunky bad boy, while Jane Krakowski supplies a marvellously unhinged turn later in the series.
But it’s Ariana DeBose, as the quick-witted, twinkle-toed and emotionally stirring schoolmarm, who steals the show. That bodes well for Spielberg’s upcoming West Side Story remake, in which she stars as Anita.
However, the two dynamite comedian leads are reduced to mere observers, with Key particularly limited by his straight-man role as a grumpy jerk. Strong does get to share a pleasant singing voice, but is upstaged by the Tony Award-winners surrounding her.
Schmigadoon! also takes a simplistic approach to addressing people’s problems. Speedy musical solutions – a product of this brief run and teeming cast – flatten character development, and the central couple spend too long apart.
The series is executive produced by SNL boss Lorne Michaels, and has the feel of an extended sketch. It certainly doesn’t match the great musicals for dramaturgical sophistication or specificity, nor will it convert those who’d rather cut off their own ears than listen to a dreamy Lerner and Loewe ballad.
But, after a barren year for Broadway and the West End, this good-hearted show is a welcome musical reprise.