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How Schmicago made this critic a ‘Schmigadoon!’ schmuperfan

Apple TV Plus series hits stride with second season that cleverly embraces the musicals of the 1960s and 1970s

From left, Dove Cameron, Ariana DeBose and Cecily Strong in the second season of “Schmigadoon!” (Robert Falconer/Apple TV Plus)
7 min

I left my heart in Schmicago. If you’re baffled by this declaration, well, you just haven’t spent quality time in “Schmigadoon!” Musical theater lovers know what I’m talking about: “Schmigadoon!” is the giddy Apple TV Plus streaming series that transports Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key to zany show-tune twilight zones where they encounter the likes of Kristin Chenoweth, Aaron Tveit, Tituss Burgess and Jane Krakowski (exactly whom serious Broadway fans would wait for at a stage door in any dimension).

The cockeyed genius of the series, which recently finished rolling out a six-episode second season, is finding profundity in parody. Which is to say, the songs by Cinco Paul that propel the story are melodically and lyrically adjacent to show tunes viewers already know. And they’re often sung by characters with borrowed Broadway attributes: Dove Cameron’s Jenny Banks is a dead ringer for Liza Minnelli’s Sally Bowles, and Alan Cumming’s bloodthirsty Dooley Blight is a demon butcher just off Fleet Street.

So you can call this a tribute article to a tribute series, even though I approached the first season of “Schmigadoon!” warily. In those six episodes, Strong’s Melissa and Key’s Josh backpacked into a candy-colored Golden Age of Broadway suggested by the 1947 Lerner and Loewe musical “Brigadoon,” which is about an enchanted Scottish town that materializes once every 100 years. My trepidation was that the streaming show, the brainchild of Ken Daurio and Paul, would be another patronizing lampoon of characters breaking midsentence into song. A Hollywood roll of jaded eyes.

Pshaw! Everyone in the know knows that Dolly Levi and Effie White and Mark Cohen and Evita Perón and Jean Valjean and Evan Hansen simply gotta sing. But a kinder, gentler intention than I had anticipated was soon discernible, a sense of devotion to musicals rather than a denigration of them. This became even more apparent in Season 2, the season I fell in hopeless love with “Schmigadoon!”

It’s in the second season that Melissa and Josh, doctors who are now married and unhappily childless, find themselves wishing that they could return to Schmigadoon, which of course in the sentimental wisdom of musicals, you can never do. So instead they stumble into the mythical metropolis of Schmicago, where the harder-edged musicals of the 1960s and 1970s are conjured by many of the actors from Season 1 in fresh, flintier roles.

Kander and Ebb (of “Cabaret” and “Chicago” fame) and Stephen Sondheim (“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”) inspire this particular world, inhabited by the “Schmigadoon!” rep company. Other gifted parodists returning from Season 1 in new roles include Ariana DeBose, Ann Harada, Martin Short and Jaime Camil.

“Welcome to Schmicago, our fantastical farago,” Burgess sings, Ben Vereen-style, in the opening song of Season 2, which was inspired by composer Stephen Schwartz’s “Magic to Do” from “Pippin.” “It kind of starts with me diving into the era and looking at all the different shows,” Paul explained in a Zoom interview from Los Angeles.

The era for Season 2 stretches from roughly 1965 to 1979, encompassing a more cynical time and a generation of shows fostering a grittier sensibility. Landmark musicals, for example, such as “Cabaret” (1966), which traced the rise of Nazism through songs in a Berlin cafe, or “Chicago” (1975), sardonically sending up the public’s fascination with celebrity and scandal.

Or one of Paul’s lodestars, “Pippin” (1972), a medieval allegory about an idealistic generation coming to terms with a cold world. “Pippin spoke to me so much, like I identified with him,” Paul, 59, said of the title character. Which is perhaps why one of the most memorable denizens of Schmicago is a hippie commune leader played by Tveit whom Paul describes as “Jesus meets Pippin,” alluding to a character suggested not only by “Pippin,” but also “Godspell” (1970) and “Jesus Christ Superstar” (1971).

“I realized when we just started to shoot Season 2 that people have affection for the Golden Age musicals, but there’s a passion for these” later musicals, Paul said. “It’s a little different because I think these are the shows we discovered when we were teenagers, and so our connection to them is deeper and more complicated. We’re all feeling angsty at that age, right?”

For me, Paul cemented his expertise on this subject before I had ever even heard of Schmicago: He wrote the music and lyrics for “A.D. 16,” a sweetly funny musical with a book by Bekah Brunstetter, about a teenage Jesus, that had its world premiere at Olney Theatre Center in February 2022. (The show, he told me, is being developed for future productions.) So he touched a nerve when he offered a rationale for my own reaction to the second iteration of “Schmigadoon!”: “This season, I think, the response has been even bigger than the first season because we care more about these shows,” he said.

Paul and the other writers settled on three distinct settings in Schmicago, where an ominous haze seems to linger around the clock and everyone is on the take: the nightclub, owned by evil Octavius Kratt (played by a series newcomer, Patrick Page); the butcher shop where Cumming menacingly wields his cleaver (and where in the backrooms Chenoweth oversees a cute cadre of orphans, a la 1976’s “Annie”); and the commune, a compound of flower children that owes its tribal rock worldview to “Hair” (1967).

The more deftly that “Schmigadoon!” can slip in a musical theater reference, the better for an addict like me. (And you don’t have to be a die-hard to enjoy the streaming series, as the original songs serve the story well.) Sometimes, the quoting is shameless, as in Strong’s impressively buoyant rendition of “Maybe It’s My Turn Now,” for which she takes the stage in Kratt’s smoky bistro to belt a power ballad reminiscent of “Maybe This Time” from “Cabaret.” Or when Cumming and Chenoweth sing a mischievous, syncopated “Good Enough to Eat,” a parody of Sondheim’s “A Little Priest.”

At other times in Season 2, the musical theater references are exquisitely subtle. Take, for instance, the moment when a trio of actresses materialize in a bar, wearing groovy late-1960s get-ups, and theater lovers of a certain vintage instantly summon memories of “Turkey Lurkey Time” from Burt Bacharach, Hal David and Neil Simon’s 1968 hit “Promises, Promises.” Paul said the format allows him with each new episode to write in his own style, rather than remain constrained by pastiche throughout the season.

“I generally feel that as we get deeper into the season, I feel a little more freedom to do my own thing,” he said. “And the songs aren’t quite as beholden to the originals.” Thanks to the idiosyncratic musical line the show walks, between witty imitation and irreverent originality, “Schmigadoon!” has found its own lane. It helps immeasurably that a cast steeped in Broadway’s conventions seems to play along with such unalloyed delight.

For his part, Paul wants to keep going with the concept, until perhaps he runs out of eras. “It always pains me a little when people say on Apple you should watch ‘Ted Lasso’ and ‘Severance’ and then if you like musicals, ‘Schmigadoon!,’” he said. “I don’t think it really needs that qualifier, because I think the appeal of musicals is broader than people think. Like you don’t have to be a musical theater know-it-all. Just enjoy the magic.”