Sequels to stage musicals have a rough track record. Even avid musical theater buffs are unlikely to have the cast recordings of The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public or Bring Back Birdie in their collection. And despite the blockbuster success of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, its sequel (Love Never Dies) never even garnered enough faith for a producer to mount a Broadway run.
In the movies, there have been a few more. Mary Poppins came back years later, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again milked the success of the original and Funny Girl grew into Funny Lady. But otherwise, cinematic tuner spinoffs are pretty much limited to animated Disney sequels. We never saw what happened once the von Trapps crossed the mountain or journeyed to 43rd Street.
But thank goodness those precedents weren’t taken into account by the makers of Schmigadoon!, the glorious series that mocked and celebrated the clichés of golden-age musicals such as Oklahoma! and The Music Man. (Here’s my 2021 review of the first season of the Apple TV+ series.)
The creative team — and most of the cast — of that series is back for a second season, titled Schmicago! Rather than stick with those relentlessly sincere classics, the targets / honorees this time are the musicals that came after. As the 1960s ended and the 1970s stumbled in, many musicals took a darker, more inward look. At the same time, they tried to embrace more contemporary sounds and themes. It’s a period that gave us Pippin, Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, Cabaret, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and, of course, Chicago — all of which have been put into a creative blender to produce Schmicago! (The first two episodes debut today on Apple TV+, with weekly episodes to follow through Wednesday, May 3.)
The plot is set up early in the first episode. Not long after leaving Schmigadoon, spouses Melissa (Cecily Strong) and Josh (Keegan-Michael Key) find themselves dissatisfied with their lives. Maybe a return trip will help. But instead of finding the mythical land they stumbled on previously, they end up in a dank city populated by a motor-mouthed singer a la Sally Bowles, a butcher with an attitude akin to Sweeney Todd and a relentless narrator with the gestures and inflections of Pippin’s Leading Player.
To its great credit, the Schmicago! creative team doesn’t just offer one-on-one parodies. That’s been done before. A big part of the pleasure here is the way they mash up not just musicals but the characters from them. Kristin Chenoweth plays a woman who’s equal parts Miss Hannigan and Mrs. Lovett. Aaron Tveit’s dude has the look of Berger (from Hair) but has the longing of Pippin, all sprinkled with some Jesus Christ Superstar.
The music, too, goes above and beyond straight parody. One song starts as a riff on “Dance: Ten, Looks: Three” from A Chorus Line but makes room for Company’s “Getting Married Today.” A number I thought was heading into something from Follies took a hilarious turn into Sweet Charity’s “The Rhythm of Life.” As in Schmigadoon!, the score of Schmicago! is worth listening to independent of the series. Another highlight: An episode-one tune that not only ribs Bob Fosse’s choreography and the cinematic style of Cabaret in a gloriously entertaining scene but also offers an original, spot-on observation about how hard it is for anything to stay shocking. (OK, they aren’t all home runs. A sincere song between the Berger and Bowles equivalents goes on too long without punchlines. And Ariana DeBose, on a limited schedule, seems airlifted in for two standalone numbers that don’t add to the plot.)
Ah, and so many grace notes — quick-hit jokes and visual gags encouraging repeat screenings. The minor character Alice seems cloned from the equivalent character in the Godspell film version. Melissa asks the Pippin chorus not to all talk at once. Conrad Birdie shows up for a one-liner.
Is it as good as Schmigadoon!? It’s damn close.
Will it still work if you aren’t as much of a musical-theater geek as I am — if you don’t instantly smile at the Sondheim underscoring or a line like “I’m a doctor / and a doctor doctors”? I think so, although perhaps you should avoid watching it with hardcore genre fans to avoid feeling like you are missing something.
Is it even better when you consider the other recent musical series, Up There — a trainwreck on Hulu that I shut off after two painful episodes? Absolutely.
Is there room for another series? Well, you know, there are those big musicals (Les Misérables, Miss Saigon, etc.) that dominated Broadway in the 1980s. Schmantom of the Schmopera!, anyone?