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A tale of two critics: Is 'Schmigadoon' for musical lovers or haters?
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A tale of two critics: Is 'Schmigadoon' for musical lovers or haters?

Old Broadway pizazz collides with 2021 in 'Schmigadoon!' (copy)

Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key (center) play a couple trapped in a small town where life is like a musical in Apple TV+'s "Schmigadoon."

Say you found yourself lost, deep in the forest, only to wander into a magical land that seemed straight out of a corny 1940s musical. Would it be a dream, or a nightmare?

That's the premise of Apple TV+ "Schmigadoon!" which premieres the first two episodes of its six-episode first season Friday on the streaming service.

Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key play a longtime couple who, on a backpacking trip aimed at rekindling their relationship, end up trapped in the colorful town of Schmigadoon, where everyone sings and dances.

Created by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, the show is both a joyful ode to golden age musicals like "Carousel" and "Hello Dolly!" and an affectionate sendup of their tropes and questionable gender politics.

Features editor Rob Thomas, writer of the "Bingeworthy" streaming column, and arts writer and musical expert Lindsay Christians met via Google Doc to hash out their thoughts on the show. 

Rob Thomas: This feels like a conversation about “Star Wars” between someone who has read all the books and has all the toys and someone who is like “Chewbacca — that’s the furry one, right?”

Lindsay Christians: In the “Star Wars” example, I’m that second person (Wars? Trek? Gate?). But the tables! How they turn! As Cecily Strong’s character says, “I’m torn between really not wanting to help you and showing off how much I know.” In my case only half of that is true.

Rob: That divide is appropriate for “Schmigadoon,” which I think is presented as a show for people who don’t think they like musicals (at least the corny Technicolor ones of old). But is really a show for (and certainly made by) people who REALLY like those musicals.

Lindsay: Oh, I definitely think this is preaching to the choir. Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio have made a musical television show for lovers of the classic age musical who are also adults in 2021. We notice things like the uncomfortably outdated gender roles, and that was a time when “gay” meant “happy.”

Rob: But there’s also a doorway in for the viewer who won’t get the deep-cut references. A lot of viewers will enter from Keegan-Michael Key’s perspective: “What is this, and why is there music coming from everywhere?”

Lindsay: That’s exactly what this series is trying to address, right? That musicals are unbelievable (more, apparently, than Thor’s magical wrench or whatever) and as sickly sweet as “Corn Puddin’.” But this one is quite lovely! Instead of a meet-cute/ instant love story, we have a couple of doctors — Key and Strong — who go into the woods to try to save their relationship. They get stuck in this magical, musical world and have to figure out who they want to be to each other when, or if, they get out.

Old Broadway pizazz collides with 2021 in 'Schmigadoon!' (copy)

Alan Cumming (center) plays the mayor of a mythical town where life is a nonstop musical in Apple TV+'s "Schmigadoon!"

Rob: One of the funny things is that Key and Strong have already proven themselves in their careers to be gifted musical comedic performers, so there’s a tension in them NOT singing in the first episode or two and have them be the skeptic outsiders. You just know the big number is coming.

I think their parts are a little underwritten — I’d like to know WHY I should be invested in their relationship beyond a mutual love of vending machine candy — but they are both so appealing (especially Strong) that it doesn’t matter very much.

Lindsay: Musical theater lovers are going to flock to this show like teens to “Glee” and find Easter eggs within Easter eggs. We’ve got Ariana DeBose — the bullet in the original production of “Hamilton” and, more recently, Alyssa Greene in “The Prom” on Netflix — as a schoolmarm who can tap dance and disassemble a gun. Ann Harada, who originated the role of Christmas Eve in “Avenue Q,” plays the mayor’s wife and sings a song I could have sworn was in both “King & I” and “Showboat.”

Rob: I assume the reason that the Mayor sings in an inexplicable German accent is because of Alan Cummings’ role in “Cabaret”?

Lindsay: Scottish! He’s Scottish! And yeah — Cummings made me think about when I first saw an actual gay character in a musical. The film of “Cabaret” came out in 1972, well past the inspiration for most of this. Early musicals didn’t have openly gay characters.

Rob: What did you think of the line the show walks in sending up the cultural stereotypes of a bygone era (Strong says of the townspeople: "It’s kind of modern — color-blind casting”) but doing so with such affection?

Lindsay: I mean, it’s sort of how I feel about musical theater. I adore “Carousel” while also recognizing that, when Julie Jordan sings a song about how abuse is kind of fine because Billy loves her! and he can’t help it! — that’s problematic. “South Pacific” is both anti-racist (“You’ve got to be carefully taught”) and pretty racist (“Bloody Mary”). But it gets to a point I make a lot about musicals, which is that they can be complex, and they can be about anything.

I wonder what musical references you specifically got? And did it matter?

Old Broadway pizazz collides with 2021 in 'Schmigadoon!' (copy)

Broadway veteran Aaron Tveit plays a local "bad boy" (heavily inspired by Billy Bigelow in "Carousel") who woos Cecily Strong in Apple TV+'s "Schmigadoon!"

Rob: I’m sure I missed a whole bunch — like calling a local business “Hammerstein & Sons” was so obvious it was like they were throwing viewers like me a bone to feel smart. But I think even if you are only casually aware of old-fashioned musicals, it captures the general feel of them — the colors, the energy, etc. — that you get the reference even if your only reference point for “Hello Dolly!” is the clip in “Wall-E.”

Lindsay: The colors and energy, that’s “the noise!” Big production numbers, like in “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” when they raise a whole barn (with dancing). I think it also probably helps that some of these actors, like Kristin Chenoweth as the villainous church lady, have had crossover success in films and TV. Aaron Tveit, who recently starred with (Madison’s own!) Karen Olivo on Broadway in “Moulin Rouge,” plays a Billy Bigelow-rapscallion type that’s pretty easy to identify, even if you didn’t catch him as the best part of that very-close-up filmed “Les Miserables.”

Rob: That reminds me of a question I had — do you think “Schmigadoon” would work as well if it was a stage musical instead of a streaming series? I think it would be a lot of fun, but also there’s something enjoyably discomfiting about the close-up, sing-into-the-camera aesthetic of the TV show that works. I think that might have gotten swallowed up by the “noise” onstage.

Lindsay: I think this would work onstage — it’s “fish out of water” and a classic love story, both of which musicals do very well. I bet it could work in the same way “Bombshell,” the show-within-a-show in “Smash,” could work, with some adjusting.

Rob: So, final thoughts: Would you recommend “Schmigadoon” to somebody who has never seen a musical? And would you recommend “Schmigadoon” to someone who has driven long distances to see a musical (hypothetically)?

Lindsay: No to the first one. I think I can confidently say this TV show was made by and for people like me and my mother, who played Widda Paroo no fewer than four times at our local community theater. (That’s a “Music Man” reference. So is the kid who lisps, but you got that one, yeah?)

And a huge yes to the second. This is “Spaceballs” for musical lovers. You’re gonna get all the jokes and feel smug about it.

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