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‘Schmigadoon!’ and the Charm of the Meta-Musical

What makes a musical work for the musical-averse? A healthy dose of skepticism toward the very genre it’s operating within.

Apple TV+/Ringer illustration

Schmigadoon! is, in theory, for people who love musicals. The limited series, now streaming two of an eventual six episodes on Apple TV+, is billed as an homage to 1940s spectaculars. It mostly delivers. Starring Keegan-Michael Key and Cecily Strong as a New York City couple who find themselves trapped in a mysterious rural town prone to group sing-alongs, the show’s very premise is a riff on Brigadoon, the Scotland-set Lerner and Loewe production that debuted in 1947. In just three hours, cocreators Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul weave a rich tapestry of references, including The Music Man, Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music, Guys and Dolls, South Pacific, Camelot, and more. It’s catnip for musical theater nerds—and, one would also assume, anathema to the musical-theater-averse.

As someone who falls into that category myself, Schmigadoon! ought to be as much a nightmare for me as for Key’s Josh, who’s so put off by the genre—“People don’t just burst into song in real life!”—that Strong’s Melissa has to sneak a rewatch of Singin’ in the Rain when he goes to sleep. But it’s the very presence of Josh and the skepticism he represents that makes Schmigadoon! work for a wider audience than those who can hum “Shipoopi” with a straight face. That’s because Schmigadoon! isn’t a straightforward musical, but rather a gentle parody that spoofs its medium’s quirks and shortcomings even as it tells its own straightforward story. (A leprechaun played by Martin Short informs Josh and Melissa they can’t leave the namesake town until they’ve found “true love,” whatever that means.) It is, in short, a meta-musical, one that adds just enough acid to cut through the tooth-aching sweetness of pastel plaids and apple-cheeked ensemble players.

Schmigadoon! hardly invents the idea of a musical parody. In adapting Monty Python and the Holy Grail to the stage, 2005’s Spamalot could thumb its nose at the musical Camelot as well as the mythical one. On TV, the cult hit Galavant—aired on ABC and created by Dan Fogelman of This Is Us—brought the Spamalot feel into 2015, when networks were getting just adventurous enough to put singing monks onto prime time. (Though not adventurous enough to support the show for more than two seasons.) That same year, Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna launched Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a show that dramatized its protagonist’s mental health with a head-spinning array of original numbers cowritten by Oscar nominee Adam Schlesinger. Rather than focus on a single source text, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend borrows freely from all parts of the pop canon, whether classical throwbacks like Fiddler on the Roof or a full-blown EDM track.

These riffs on the musical don’t condescend to their forebears; the effort it takes to write and perform an original song can’t be mustered entirely out of irony. But they do show a self-awareness that lets the curmudgeonly viewer know they’re not alone in their reluctance to take the fantasy at face value. Musical comedy is a category unto itself, from Tom Lehrer to “Weird Al” Yankovic to Bo Burnham, yet when fortified by story and extended structure, it crosses into an even narrower classification. Burnham’s own special Inside, from earlier this year, has a narrative arc and unifying theme that puts it as close to his scripted feature Eighth Grade as his previous live performances like what. and Make Happy. For every self-contained bit like “How the World Works,” a poke at peppy children’s shows, there’s a soaring crescendo like “All Eyes on Me.” The cynicism of one helps to compensate, or at least lay the groundwork, for the earnestness of the other.

Earnestness is exactly what can make musicals such a hard sell—sometimes literally. In the Heights, Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s pre-Hamilton breakout hit, was supposed to be a triumphant, post-pandemic return to the multiplex; instead, it underperformed expectations. While some have attributed the disappointing outcome to the film’s simultaneous release on HBO Max, the low turnout could also be explained by audiences not being especially enticed by the concept: a musical without the name recognition of Steven Spielberg’s upcoming West Side Story, or the zeitgeist-shifting power of Hamilton. (Even the filmed version of Hamilton had a streaming-led release, one that drove sign-ups for Disney+ and charmed Emmy voters but doesn’t translate seamlessly into box office success.)

Schmigadoon! is earnest where it counts, especially when it comes to the larger story about Josh and Melissa’s struggling relationship. The show advances a sweet, unconventionally romantic view of long-term commitment: “It’s probably not something you find,Fred Armisen’s repressed reverend character says of true love. “It’s probably something you make.” But it also does so by patiently easing the viewer into musicals’ magical realism, as Melissa does for Josh. “That’s how musicals work,” she tells him. “When you’re too emotional to talk, you sing. When you’re too emotional to sing, you dance.” Schmigadoon! also readily cops to its influences’ less subjective shortcomings. “Women were so underwritten in early musicals,” Melissa sighs as a bunch of young girls swoon over a ring.

Daurio and Paul are longtime partners whose CV (Despicable Me, Horton Hears a Who!, The Secret Life of Pets) contains mainly animated features. Even if they weren’t avid theater fans long before they’d found success in Hollywood, there’s a traceable line from Despicable Me’s chattering Minions to Schmigadoon!’s chattering townsfolk (though Schmigadoon! isn’t exactly for kids; Melissa reminds one suitor she has “this magical thing called an IUD”). Animation and musicals are both ways to bring internal emotions to the outside world. Just as Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was about the myth that love will save you, or Inside was about struggling to connect with a world you can neither access nor understand, Schmigadoon! is about trying to tell whether a relationship has fizzled because it’s bad or if it’s bad because the couple let it fizzle. It just breaks through the fourth wall to get to its answer.

In person, musical theater requires an abrupt shift in perspective. One moment, an actor is just another person in a room, the same size and scale as everyone else; the next, they’re belting out high notes like it’s a typical way to communicate. On film and TV, there’s a built-in assumption that what we’re watching is manufactured, leaving wiggle room to push at boundaries and comment on what is, at its heart, an inherently absurd undertaking. Schmigadoon! and its kind lean into the artifice of it all, giving viewers permission to go along for the ride. Josh and Melissa may not be in Schmigadoon of their own volition, but it isn’t long before they’re singing songs of their own.