For a while there, it looked like just about every new piece of musical theater was spoofing old musical theater.
Spamalot” spoofed Camelot, The Producers paid homage to Gypsy, The Book of Mormon mocked The Lion King, Urinetown playfully pissed on The Cradle Will Rock, Bat Boy blew kisses to My Fair Lady and Something Rotten! systematically name-checked a slew of them in a single song. And that’s not even going into the shows such as Steven Sondheim’s Follies that offered pastiches of once-popular styles,
On the one hand (or foot, as the crutch metaphor may be), such musical references can provoke an easy laugh from in-the-know audience members. On the other, it can be the kind of clubby, insular approach that can make the musical-theater genre seem like it’s stuck in the past. Or out of fresh ideas.
Now along comes Schmigadoon!, an Apple TV+ series of six roughly half-hour episodes that embraces musical-theater history with an intensity not seen since The Musical of Musicals: The Musical. (Yes, that’s an actual — and a funny but exhausting — stage show.)
Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, of Men in Black and The Addams Family flick fame, and created by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio (Despicable Me and Bubble Boy), Schmigadoon! mashes together not just the songs, but also the characters and plots from, among others, The Music Man, Carousel, Oklahoma! and, of course, Brigadoon into a story involving a troubled couple (Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key) who stumble onto a town where a song could break out at any moment.
The catch: They can’t leave until they find true love, something they assumed they had with each other.
The premise is no thinner than that of most musicals. And thanks in large part to Strong’s performance, there seems to be something real at stake, even amid all the silliness. That silliness comes quickly, thanks to a snappy score that not only echoes the targeted originals but also comes packed with laugh lines.
Sometimes the anticipation of a song is enough to provoke those laughs: When the townsfolk seem overly enthusiastic about their corn pudding, for instance, even lesser theater geeks will know that we’ll soon be in “A Real Nice Clambake” (from Carousel) territory. And when the backdrop turns mountainous, a Sound of Music-ish tune is on the way — in this case, one that deals with anatomy rather than female deer and drops of golden sun.
But a working knowledge of musical-theater history isn’t essential to enjoying Schmigadoon! Like the horror-comedy Scream, it manages to underline the genre’s tropes while also tapping into the pleasures of the genre. If you don’t catch the references, there’s still plenty of fun to be had. Within its own wacky reality, you’ll care about the characters.
Those characters are smartly cast with musical theater veterans, including the mass-market familiar (Alan Cumming, Kristin Chenoweth, Jane Krakowski) and the lesser-known but highly talented (Aaron Tveit, Ariana DeBose, Ann Harada).
Plus Fred Armisen, fitting in nicely.
Deserving equal notice is the ensemble casting by Bernard Telsey and the choreography by Christopher Gattelli. Both seem to understand completely that making this show work means that the cast, not just the leads, needs to be sharply etched and their moves have to be as fun and funny as the lyrics. It’s not just about being over-the-top earnest. It’s about being over-the-top earnest and specific and funny and terrific dancers.
The brisk episodes clock in around 25 minutes, including credits, and never overstay their welcome. Episodes will roll out weekly — after a two-episode premiere on Friday — and that’s a downside. This sort of absurd other-worldness plays better without seven days of reality in between viewings. If you wait for all to be available for a binge watch, though, there’s a good chance that someone will spoil the best bits for you.
If it sounds like I’m dodging details, so be it. I binged a preview of the show, and a large part of the pleasure was not knowing what twist was around every corner of this music-crazy town. I could diminish the fun by giving you a top-10 favorite moments from the show and still have plenty I leftover. But I’m not going to spoil it for you.
Final thought: Schmigadoon! could actually work as a stage musical … as long as there’s corn pudding available in the lobby at intermission.