“I am not a fan of Broadway musicals,” he grumped affably over the phone. “I’m not a fan of filmed musicals. I don’t understand why people would stop talking and start singing.”
So Sonnenfeld, who is best known for the “Men in Black” movies, was a curious choice to direct the new Apple TV+ comedy “Schmigadoon!,” a series whose very title screams musical theatre spoof.
The showrunner, Cinco Paul, a fan of Sonnenfeld’s work on the highly stylised and intermittently musical cult series “Pushing Daisies,” was unaware of the director’s aversion until they were shooting last fall, mid-pandemic, in Vancouver, British Columbia, with a blockbuster cast filled with Broadway stars.
“Here we are on the set,” Paul recalled, “and he’s half-jokingly saying, ‘Why are there so many songs?’”
If you count reprises, they number nearly two dozen — composed by Paul, who created the show with Ken Daurio — spread over six half-hour episodes that air starting July 16.
An affectionate, knowing sendup of classic American musicals, “Schmigadoon!” stars Cecily Strong of “Saturday Night Live” and Keegan-Michael Key, late of Netflix’s “The Prom,” as a contemporary couple in a stagnating relationship. On a backpacking trip, they stumble into a frozen-in-time, trapped-in-a-musical town called Schmigadoon, which they can’t escape until they find true love.
Paul, who grew up on his mother’s Broadway cast recordings and played piano for musicals as an undergraduate at Yale, said he came up with the kernel of “Schmigadoon!” almost 25 years ago. Not knowing what to do with the idea, he put it away until Andrew Singer at Lorne Michaels’s production company, Broadway Video, mentioned their interest in musicals a few years ago. A match was made.
According to Strong, Michaels is — like her — “a musical dork.” And the show brought on stage-savvy writers, including Julie Klausner (“Difficult People”) and Strong’s fellow “SNL” star Bowen Yang.
In Schmigadoon, the locals include the sweet, melancholy Mayor Aloysius Menlove, played by Tony Award winner Alan Cumming; the moral scourge, Mildred Layton, played by Tony winner Kristin Chenoweth; and the handsome carny Danny Bailey, played by Aaron Tveit, who got news of his Tony nomination for “Moulin Rouge!” during the series shoot. Other boldface names from Broadway include Jane Krakowski, Ann Harada and Ariana DeBose.
Recently, Paul, Sonnenfeld and members of the cast spoke separately by phone about “Schmigadoon!” and their affinity, or lack thereof, for musicals. These are edited excerpts from those interviews.
CINCO PAUL: I wanted real musical theatre people. I wanted people who did eight shows a week and had those chops, because I wanted everybody to do their own singing, and I wanted to capture that singing live on set to the extent it was possible. The amount of talent we were able to get was phenomenal and was unfortunately because they weren’t able to work anywhere — because theatres were shut down. In many cases, the parts were written for these actors.
BARRY SONNENFELD: When I interviewed for the job, I said: “Look, here’s the thing. I want to shoot this entirely onstage, and I want to shoot it in Vancouver because Vancouver has really great stages and really good crews, and it’s also cheaper.” What was surreal and wonderful was that Vancouver was the only film centre that was open when we shot. LA was shut down. New York was shut down.
CECILY STRONG: We had to go shoot our “SNL” intros right before I left for Vancouver. It’s like, you’re around New York and you’re seeing all these theaters shuttered. It’s a little devastating.
KRISTIN CHENOWETH: It was worth the risk for me to go to Canada. I quarantined for two weeks where I did not leave my hotel room. Alan Cumming, who’s one of my best friends, was staying next door to me. And we would do these kind of sing-offs in the bathroom because we could hear each other, but we didn’t dare open our door.
ALAN CUMMING: It was like some weird sitcom. It really was hilarious.
PAUL: One of the hard things about the pandemic is that it wasn’t everybody hanging out together on the set all the time. We weren’t able to do that. But I remember bringing Aaron over and showing him an ensemble number, one shot we’d just done. And I remember him getting emotional seeing it.
AARON TVEIT: To get to go and work on a musical at that time, it was so joyous. We had the unique experience of essentially doing a musical based on all of the [Screen Actors Guild] protocols, and it felt totally safe. We were in each other’s faces singing. When those cameras rolled, it was normal life.
SONNENFELD: For me, it was a real learning experience. I actually was forced to watch a few more musicals, and I would come back to Cinco and go: “Well, hated that one. Hated ‘Carousel.’” “Don’t understand ‘Brigadoon,’ makes no sense to me.” “What do you like about ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’?”
KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY: My relationship with classic musicals is actually a very fond one. They excite me. They give me a little bit of solace because they always end beautifully. In my high school, we didn’t do plays in the drama club. We just did musicals. The first show I performed in was “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” The next year, I played Jesus in “Godspell,” and that was it. I went: “I am not going to be a veterinarian. I am going to be an actor.”
STRONG: I grew up outside of Chicago, but my dad and I would take a lot of trips to New York to see shows. I think the first one I got to see was “Secret Garden,” and I got to go backstage. For the longest time growing up, I had a big poster that my mom made on my wall that was all these pictures from that trip and the Playbill, and it said “Cecily on Broadway.” I’ve had nights where I’ll be up all night with another friend who’s in comedy and we find out secretly, like, OK, you were very into musicals growing up. I’ve spent nights singing and crying over “Into the Woods” with my friend Sam Richardson.
CUMMING: I’m not a great aficionado of musicals. Onstage, I’ve only ever been in two, “Cabaret” and “The Threepenny Opera.” So I’ve got a little Weimar niche. Doing “Schmigadoon!,” I was sort of having to learn what the thing was I was parodying. Like Aaron — his character is sort of based on the guy from “Carousel.”
TVEIT: I kind of got to play Billy Bigelow a little bit, which was amazing.
CHENOWETH: All the musical numbers are a little bit of an ode or a nod to other famous musical theatre songs, and mine ended up a takeoff of “Trouble in River City,” from “Music Man.” When Barry Sonnenfeld called me and said, “Cinco and everybody wants you to do this part,” I read it, and it was hilarious. Then I looked at this song “Tribulation” and it was an 18-page patter song. He said, “And I want you to do it in one.” In other words, with no cuts. And he knows me. So he knows I love a challenge.
SONNENFELD: It’s one continuous shot for over four minutes. And I don’t know anyone except Chenoweth who could pull that off that well.
KEY: “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is my favorite musical that I’ve ever seen live. Cinematically speaking, it’s “Singin’ in the Rain.” Because “Singin’ in the Rain” is this wonderfully exuberant piece of work. It’s an athletic piece of work. It’s also an accessible piece of work that’s at the same time completely inside baseball. “Schmigadoon!” is exactly that.
CUMMING: I’ve never been able to, in the theatre anyway, do that thing of “Now I’m talking to you and now I’m singing!” The trope is that people do that when words just aren’t enough and they have to express themselves in song. When I start to sing my big song in the forest with Cecily, she goes: “Oh, oh, I see. Oh, there’s a reprise!” I loved how it was that blatant, and it was kind of cutting all the crap of finding a reason to sing a song. It’s just: It’s time to sing a song. It was really good to do a show like this that deconstructs all that and shows you the smoke and mirrors.
PAUL: In the writers’ room, we discussed how musicals are charming and they’re so entertaining, but they’re also sometimes dumb, and sometimes they’re problematic. We wanted to address all of those things. What if these were real people and they weren’t able to totally be themselves because they were in a musical? The townspeople, they were in some ways trapped. So the introduction of these two modern people — we always wanted them to change, but one of the other big ideas was that they were helping to change the town a bit and move it forward.
SONNENFELD: I loved the cast and the crew, and the songs are really peppy, but there’s a lot of artifice there. The interesting thing about directing it is, how do you embrace all that artifice but keep the acting totally real? What was nice is that we pulled off a very stylised show that also is sort of weirdly real.
TVEIT: I never imagined that when it aired, Broadway wouldn’t be back yet. Especially now, when we’re still essentially starved for musical theatre, I do hope it’s something that people can look to as we bridge these next couple of months when stages across the country start opening.
KEY: My hope would be that it’s a way of reminding everybody, hey, we’re doing this for you right now, but please remember to go out and see live theatre when we’re allowed to do that again. We’re a delightful stopgap, but a stopgap nonetheless.
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