‘Schmigadoon!’ Creator on Shooting for the ‘Highest Form of Parody’

“Schmigadoon!” creator Cinco Paul may have based the premise of his six-episode Apple TV Plus comedic musical on “Brigadoon” (and parodied the title, too), but he hadn’t actually seen the Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner play, nor the 1954 film, when doing so. His love of musicals in general inspired the series. And as he was developing his lead characters and their relationships, he drew on musicals from “The Sound of Music” to “The King and I.”

“Those old musicals were big and they had huge ensembles and we wanted to pay tribute to that,” Paul tells Variety. “I always felt the more authentic the musical numbers were, the better the comedy and then the show as a whole would be.”

“Schmigadoon,” which launches with its first two episodes July 16 on Apple’s streamer, follows couple Melissa (Cecily Strong) and Josh (Keegan-Michael Key) as they stumble into a seemingly magical town where everyone breaks out into song and dance. “It’s a comedy about being in a musical that becomes a musical,” Paul explains. But soon enough the couple realizes they are trapped in the town, only able to leave by crossing the bridge with their true love. Melissa, a fan of musicals, is charmed by much of what she sees, but Josh is more cynical and uncomfortable with people singing at him and expecting him to join in. At least at first.

Soon enough their relationship is tested, not only by the weird circumstance they are in, but also by attractive townspeople. This enhances the drama from the original conceit of “Brigadoon,” which was that two friends stumbled into the town together and got pulled into relationships.

“I wanted to have two relationships with classic music theater tropes,” says Paul. “So, Josh has the classic flirtatious farmer’s daughter and then the more substantial, classic ‘Music Man,’ ‘King and I’ uptight progressive school mama who thinks she’s too smart for love. That was always designed as, she’s in some way a musical theater version of Melissa so she’s a real rival in a lot of ways [because] I wanted Josh to have to make a real decision. And then for Melissa, first there’s this fling with the bad boy and then she gets pulled into what is kind of her ultimate fantasy: the classic, stern father figure that’s very familiar from ‘Sound of Music’ and ‘King and I’ and ‘South Pacific.’”

Throughout the season, Paul weaves in quite a number of flashbacks to Melissa and Josh’s real-life dating experience “to establish the relationship — especially because they spend so much time apart and broken up we wanted to show the audience what they were like together. It wasn’t all bad,” he says. These are moments that stay grounded in tone and feature the characters in scenarios that include everyday dates such as going to the movies. It is only within the magical town that things are heightened and musical — and set back in time.

The town was a small one, which means Paul limited the real-life musicals from which he drew. (“We weren’t able to deconstruct the city-centered classic musicals,” he points out, citing ones such as “Singing in the Rain” as ones not brought into the world of “Schmigadoon!”) But its period elements, which may seem quaint from a distance, are challenged by two people stepping out of modern society and into their world.

“I love musicals with all my heart and I didn’t want to take cheap shots or be mean. But it’s also fun to poke and prod at the thing,” Paul says. “I was shooting for the highest form of parody — an elevated parody.”

Playing in the parody genre allows for a bit more creative license around everything from relationship tropes depicted in the show to the songs themselves.

Paul wrote original songs for the series, mostly building them out of character first. (Although he does admit “there were types of songs that I really wanted to have in the show” and that led to some specific numbers, such as Emma (Ariana DeBose), the school marm, and her students singing and tap dancing on desks because the visual was striking to him.) But as the series was cast and staffed up, numbers developed lives of their own. Jane Krakowski being cast as the Countess, for example, turned the number for that character into more of a “sophisticated Cole Porter song,” Paul says, simply because of her style and range. “This song’s going to be a little different than the other songs we have in the show,” he recalls thinking after writing the role and song for her and then actually getting to bring her onto the show.

Kristin Chenoweth, meanwhile, was tasked with an 18-page patter song that, once director Barry Sonnenfeld and choreographer Christopher Gattelli put their heads together, turned into one continuous shot. And the opening number was rewritten a lot, Paul says, as he worked out how to best fit in all of the explanation in addition to the joke that “it goes on forever, but at what point do you lose the entire audience because it goes on forever?”

The commitment of the cast and crew proved key to Paul to making these elements really, well, sing. Because in addition to having to nail complicated melodies and choreography, there were also essential emotional beats to drive home.

“Ultimately the show is less about who you should be with and more about who you should be,” Paul says.

“The idea was that both of them need to be better people in order to make this relationship work and that being in a musical is going to be helpful for both of them. For Josh, it’s pretty clear that he’s closed off emotionally and he’s more aloof, and being in a musical where people are singing their feelings is pushing him towards something that he’s very uncomfortable with but ultimately needs to open himself up to. And then for Melissa, she has this unrealistic fantasy version of what love should be and when you’re thrust into the fantasy sometimes you get a better understanding of how this isn’t ideal; it’s ‘be careful what you wish for.’ And so, both of them really, by being stuck in this musical, are forced to reappraise their lives and how they are treating each other and what their ideas of love are.”

“Schmigadoon!” streams episodes on Fridays beginning July 16 on Apple TV Plus.

 

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