Because life is not entirely a series of disappointments and heartbreaks, the TV gods have granted us a second season of Schmigadoon!, with the first two episodes now streaming on Apple TV.
What’s that? Are you not familiar with this hilarious musical satire? Do you not know your Rogers from your Hammerstein? Your Sondheim from your Schwartz? Don’t worry, I’m here to help and let you know if this show is right for you.
So, what is “Schmigadoon” anyway?
Schmigadoon! (don’t forget the exclamation point) is a satire of movie musicals. Season one focused on the golden age musicals, like Brigadoon, Carousel, Sound of Music, and Music Man, and lovingly poked fun at the tropes popularized by creators like Rogers and Hammerstein. Season 2, subtitled Schmicago!, is centered on the grittier shows of the ’60s and ’70s, like Pippen, Chicago, and Cabaret with lots of Bob Fosse jokes and references thrown in for good measure.
If I don’t like musicals, will I enjoy this?
Oh god, no. You will sit at the screen staring incomprehensibly at inside jokes that your theatre kid friends are falling out of their seats laughing at. A running joke in season two has an older woman with a martini glass and gravelly voice popping up at random intervals to shout out “I’ll drink to that,” and if I have to explain the concept of Elaine Stritch to you you are not going to understand why I am howling with laughter.
Ok, so what if I kind of like musicals and had to go sit through my niece’s production of Legally Blonde at her high school?
Look, I’ll be honest. This show is best enjoyed by people who love musical theatre. People who hum “Another Hundred People” as they get on the subway in the morning. People who are camping out for rush tickets to see Phantom of the Opera just one more time before it closes. (Hi, Mary Fan!) It is a love letter to musicals and the people who adore them in spite of the many, many, problems they can have. (Like retrograde gender roles, romantic stereotypes, and plots that are often on rails)
People like Cecily Strong’s character, Melissa. In the first season, she and her long time boyfriend Josh (Keegan Michael Key) got lost on a couples bonding retreat and wound up in Schmigadoon!, a magical town populated by many Broadway stars (Alan Cumming! Kristen Chenoweth! Ariana DeBose! Aaron Tveit! Ann Harada!) that only appears to people who need to find it. It’s a real life musical and Melissa is tickled. A leprechaun played by Martin Short tells them they cannot leave the town until they find true love, your standard musical theatre plot. Josh doesn’t care for musicals (hey look, imaginary person I’m talking to, you are represented!) but reluctantly plays along. Eventually, they of course realize they love each other and are allowed to leave.
That sounds, well pretty basic.
Sure, but did I mention the songs? The original songs by show co-creator Cinco Paul are spectacular, perfectly evoking the spirit of the shows they’re mocking while also being funny and clever in their own right. For example, the Emmy-winning “Corn Pudding” could’ve been plucked directly out of Music Man or State Fair.
And, look, if you aren’t tapping your toes and singing “you put the corn in the pudding and the pudding in the bowl” after that, I can’t help you. Go watch that new political spy show on Netflix.
Ok, that was fun. So if they got out of the town, what’s season two about?
Well, Melissa and Josh are now married, but they’ve fallen into a bit of a rut. They’re back in their medical jobs, trying to have a baby without success. The cinematography does a great job here, as the bright colors of Schmigadoon fade away into the blues and grays of their working life. Depressed, they both decide to head back to the woods and find Schmigadoon again to regain a bit of color in their lives.
Wait, so they’re going back to the town they couldn’t wait to escape from?
Have I mentioned how terrible the plots of a lot of musicals are? One of the longest running shows in Broadway history is about kitty cats arguing over who gets to go to kitty cat heaven.
Thank you. So they can’t find Schmigadoon, but they do stumble into Schmicago when their car gets a flat tire. And, wouldn’t you know it? Leprechaun Martin Short is back to tell them they can’t leave until they find a “happy end.” Which is nigh impossible, since these shows don’t usually end happily… (Think Sweeney Todd, which ends with Angela Lansbury being burned in a furnace. Spoilers!)
Where Schmigadoon was an idealized version of the small town in a golden age musical like River City in Music Man, Schmicago is the uber-stereotype of the gritty, Bob Fosse esthetic. Dirty streets, skinny dancers that are both slinky and full of sharp angles and dressed in ratty lingerie, ominous narrators, and lots of minor keys.
Oh and lots of white gloves. I can’t even begin to describe the smile on my face when Titus Burgess emerges from a cloud of glowing white gloves.
Burgess is playing the Narrator, essentially Ben Vereen’s character of the Leading Player in Pippen, and now I really want to see him in a full production of Pippen.
And that goes for most of the cast here as well. Everyone has a list of stage credits as high as an elephant’s eye.
Look, if you can’t hit the softballs I’m lobbing at you… *Deep sigh* It’s a lyric from South Pacific, dude.
Oh! I’ve heard of that one! That’s a classic musical!
Now you’re getting it!
So why are you referencing a golden age show when the season is about the shows of the ’60s and ’70s?
Oh, now you’re really getting it! That’s just the kind of specific knowledge you’re going to need to get all of the jokes.
Anyway, the cast. Dove Cameron, who is escaping the Disney Channel in a big, bad way, is here playing Jenny Banks, a version of Liza Minelli’s Sally Bowles from Cabaret. The moment she bursts into Josh and Melissa’s hotel room in her tattered dressing gown going a mile a minute about how she’s desperate for a cigarette and then incites them to the club to watch her show, you know you’re in great hands. She absolutely nails the mannerisms, and her number is a highlight of episode one. “Kaput” is a mash up of Cabaret’s “Mein Herr” and Blazing Saddles “I’m Tired,” and Cinco Paul should clear a space for another Emmy.
The club is hosted by emcee Ariana DeBose, who is being even more overtly sexual than Alan Cumming was on Broadway. While there, Josh comes across the body of a dead showgirl names Elsie (Cabaret fans know), and gets arrested. Melissa hires lawyer Bobby Flanagan, played by Jane Krakowski. She is playing a riff on Chicago’s Billy Flynn, and is having a blast doing the Fosse arms while the notes of Roxy’s Theme play in the background. Tony winner Aaron Tveit is Josh’s cellmate Topher, playing a refugee from Hair (although the policeman arrests him for “telling parables that have no point,” which is a pretty fair summary of Godspell) and he sings the absolute best parody of Corner of the Sky I have ever heard. The line “poets play with starlight, kittens play with string” just nails what an entitled goober Pippen is in the play, and (most likely) Topher as well.
I think I understood about half of those references.
Ok, if you are intrigued by this show but are worried you don’t know all the references, give it a try! The songs are good enough to stand on their own. The jokes are solid and the cast is great.
If you decide you want to get a little more background on the era of shows being parodied, go watch Chicago, Cabaret, and Pippen. All are available to rent on various platforms, and this will give you a good base for like 75% of the references.
But even I didn’t catch everything! An eagle-eyed viewer on Twitter noted that all the girls in the seedy cabaret are named after the orphans from Annie. Hard knock life, indeed.
So bottom line, should I watch this?
If you like musicals even a little, yes. You will enjoy it.
If you love musicals, it is the best thing ever and it was made just for you. I will see you at Schmiga-con. Be sure to bring your white gloves and corn pudding recipes.
There’s a convention?
Not yet, but we can dream…