Being stuck is not necessarily a bad thing inside the world of “Schmigadoon!”, the star-studded musical series parodying Golden Age musicals, the first two episodes of which launched on AppleTV+ today. It is how the two main characters meet, after all. It’s also what drives all six half-hour episodes of the series. But from the vantage point of theater lovers outside the show, the creative team seems stuck a bit too, and that’s not so good.
Melissa and Josh (Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key) are two New York City doctors who meet in front of a hospital vending machine, where Melissa has put change in for a Snickers bar, but it gets stuck. Josh advises Melissa to kick the machine. She does so and all the candy bars in the machine cascade onto the floor. The two of them instantly become sweet on one another.
Three years later, they are still a couple, but Melissa feels their relationship is stuck in a rut, so they go on a therapy weekend in the woods, where the old hippy therapist couple in charge sends them on a hike, where they get lost, cross a stone bridge and stumble onto an old-timey town called Schmigadoon. The pastel-clothed residents burst into song and dance in greeting.
“We did not buy tickets. We’re not ticketholders,” Josh, who is not a fan of musicals, tells them. Melissa, who does like musicals, is entranced.
But they don’t understand. These are not performers putting on a musical. Life is now a musical, and Josh and Melissa are stuck in it — and they won’t become unstuck unless and until they find true love. This spell is explained to them by a suddenly-appearing leprechaun, portrayed by Martin Short.
You probably don’t need to know much about theater to recognize elements from the 1947 Lerner and Lowe Broadway musical “Brigadoon” (the title is a strong if weird clue.) In that musical, which was made into a 1954 movie starring Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse, two American tourists stumble upon a hidden Scottish village that appears for only one day every 100 years. But “Schmigadoon!” is like those cascading candy bars; it quickly piles high with Broadway allusions. Real Broadway stars portray familiar Broadway character types in pastiche musical numbers from what feels like decades worth of Broadway musicals: Aaron Tveit as a “Carousel”-like sexy carnival barker, Jane Krakowski as a “Sound of Music”-like countess, Ariana DeBose as “The Music Man”-like librarian. “The Music Man” seems heavily represented: Kristin Chenoweth is a book-burning minister’s wife, Alan Cumming, the town’s mayor, Ann Harada, the mayor’s wife.
Most of the songs are composed by series co-creator and showrunner Cinco Paul. They include lively ensemble numbers choregraphed by Tony winner Christopher Gattelli (Newsies, South Pacific, Spongebob Squarepants.) Paul’s music is often tuneful, and the lyrics are frequently hilarious because they’re so spot on. In that opening number, the ensemble sings (in obvious homage to “Oklahoma!”)
Where the sun shines bright from July to June
And the air’s as sweet as a macaroon
Later, when Melissa and Josh have lunch and the waitress suggests the corn puddin’, Melissa asks her what that is. “Oh no,” Josh says, “You just started another song.” And sure enough, the ensemble sings:
You put the corn in the puddin’
And the puddin’ in the bowl
You put the bowl in the belly
‘Cause it’s good for the soul
Josh’s alarm at the corny musical number is typical of “Schmigadoon!” At one point, he tells Melissa: “People don’t just burst into song in real life!” At another, he comments:
“It’s like if the Walking Dead was also Glee”
“You watched Glee?”
“I was aware of it.”
“Schmigadoon!” is not like “Glee,” or most of the other popular musical TV series of the past decade. It certainly has none of the depth or commitment of the musicals it parodies, but it’s also unlike other musicals that parody/pay homage to their predecessors, such as “The Book of Mormon.” These other shows get past worrying about the artifice, and have more of a purpose than just mocking and copying old musicals. “Mormon,” for all its guffaws and flaws, is an exploration of religion. “Schmigadoon!” remains self-conscious about being a musical, keeping Josh apart from the rest of the characters. Melissa is more tolerant; she even sings a few numbers; but when she does so she is ever-conscious of the artificiality of the set-up. “Am I about to get my own song?” she asks a character before she launches into one. It’s as if Josh and Melissa are stand-ins for the TV audience; perhaps as if the creative team is reassuring the non-theater geeks who have somehow stumbled onto this show, “We know you’re too cool for musicals.”
This standoffish attitude is reflected in the show’s specific lampoons of Golden Age musicals for being outdated, and worse. The cleverest example of this is Cumming’s song to Melissa about how she’ll find true love, but suddenly the lyrics start to sound as if he’s singing about himself, not her, and that he’s a closeted gay man. (“He’ll hold you close in his strong, tanned arms”…”At last a love that was forbidden/No longer must be hidden.”) In some ways it’s a terrific song, and Cumming’s rendition is both beautiful and amusing. It’s hard to call it subtle – Cumming’s character is named Aloysius Menlove – but there is a subtext here on the suppressed sexuality of the age in which the Golden Age musicals were introduced, as well as in the musicals themselves. There are similar moments commenting on the sexism of the era and in the shows themselves. (There is little about the racism, perhaps because the production opts for an inclusive cast.)
The problem here is that none of this analysis is novel or even controversial. It would be hard to find anybody who would disagree – including the theater artists who revive these shows, having grappled with such issues in recent “reimagined” Broadway productions of “Carousel” and “My Fair Lady,” for example. Such musicals continue to be produced not just because of the beautiful scores, but because they say something. “Schmigadoon!” doesn’t say much. To the extent that there is an effort to engage us in the story, the focus is on Melissa and Josh; over the course of the season, they break up and each find other partners, but remain emotionally attached to one another, with (ultimately) predictable results. (It seems telling that each episode begins with a flashback scene between the two of them in the real world, before they arrive in Schmigadoon, which feels like the creative team’s acknowledgement that the musical world they create is too artificial to draw us in on its own.)
I notice that the executive producer of the show is Lorne Michaels of “Saturday Night Live” and several of the series’ writers have backgrounds in sketch comedy. It’s possible to enjoy “Schmigadoon!” as light entertainment, a three-hour sketch — not as savvy or succinct, perhaps, as “Forbidden Broadway,” but in places very funny, and enhanced by a deep well of talent. These theater artists will soon, if all goes well, return to performing in actual musicals.
Meanwhile, here’s a short clip from the opening number of “Schmigadoon!”