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SCHMIGADOON – Cinco Paul and Christopher Willis

September 17, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

If, like me, you grew up watching Hollywood movie musicals, then Schmigadoon is the show for you. Of course, everyone knows that musicals are completely ludicrous. No-one bursts into song every ten minutes to sing about what they are thinking or feeling. Random strangers don’t join you in complicated choreographed dance sequences to accompany the songs. The world doesn’t exist in a fairytale environment of pastels and primary colors. But, despite this, movie musicals are magic. They are prime escapism. They are the epitome of Hollywood Golden Age glamor. Gene Kelly splashing down the street in Singin’ in the Rain. Rita Moreno flipping her skirt in West Side Story. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers tripping the light fantastic. Julie Andrews making us fall in love with her twice, in Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. And Schmigadoon acknowledges both those realities by presenting the story through the eyes of a couple, one of whom loves musicals, and one of whom hates them, which allows it to appeal to people in both camps.

The show was created by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio for Apple TV and stars Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key as Melissa and Josh, two doctors from New York who go on a backpacking trip in an attempt to patch up their failing relationship. Half way through the trip, while lost in the woods, the couple find a bridge over a stream; after crossing it they discover a magical town called Schmigadoon, which is perpetually trapped in the setting of a classic Hollywood Golden Age-style musical, with inhabitants who – as noted above – burst into song and dance at any given opportunity, much to Melissa’s delight and Josh’s dismay. However, they soon learn that they cannot leave the town until they find ‘true love’, and that won’t be easy, considering that at least four of Schmigadoon’s inhabitants begin make romantic overtures towards the newcomers, while one other is determined to make their lives hell. The show co-stars a plethora of Broadway stage and musical theater veterans, including Kristin Chenoweth, Ariana DeBose, Aaron Tveit, Alan Cumming, Martin Short, Jaime Camil, and Dove Cameron, and is an absolute blast, a knowing parody of the genre with winning performances, upbeat set pieces, and wry comedy.

The best thing about the show, from a musical fan’s perspective, is just how many wonderful homages it has to classics of the genre – Brigadoon, Oklahoma, The Sound of Music, The Music Man, and many others. Each of the six episodes features at least two or three original songs, the music and lyrics for which were all written by Cinco Paul with brilliant and lush orchestrations by the great Doug Besterman. Each one of the main cast members gets a showpiece, and it would make this review much too long to go through all of them, so I’m just going to highlight my favorites. After the perky and tuneful instrumental-only “Schmigadoon Main Title,” which is clearly based on the melody from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma, comes the actual title song “Schmigadoon” in which the cast sings about the virtues of their little town. It’s fun but also a little dark and subversive in a self-aware and meta way; it’s so difficult to balance this sort of parody and satire with actual musical excellence for its own sake, but Paul somehow pulls it off perfectly.

The first song from Episode 1 is “You Can’t Tame Me,” performed by Aaron Tveit in a close approximation of the Billy Bigelow carny character from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. It’s is a fun throwback to the masculine and sexist ‘young buck’ songs that typify characters like Bigelow as the show’s alpha male, primed to settle down with the female lead. “Corn Puddin’” is performed by Cecily Strong, and is a barnstorming group song based on similar works from scores like DePaul and Mercer’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers; it’s an intentionally goofy ear-worm about the ubiquitous hominy snack, laden with sexual double entendres. Finally, the “Leprechaun Song” is performed in a blink-and-you-miss it cameo by Martin Short as a magical imp based on Og from Lane and Harburg’s Finian’s Rainbow, who explains the plot with a terrible Irish accent.

Episode 2’s first centerpiece is “Lovers’ Spat,” another cast song, this time featuring some fun back-and-forth battle-of-the-sexes shenanigans commentating on Melissa and Josh’s deteriorating relationship, and which has a turn of phrase and rhythmic part reminiscent of “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, or “Once-a-Year-Day” from Adler and Ross’s Pajama Game. Alan Cumming has his moment in the sun in “Somewhere Love Is Waiting for You,” a sweeping operetta in which his character Mayor Menlove laments the fact that he can’t come out as gay in old-fashioned Schmigadoon; his odd pseudo-French accent is clearly a nod to Maurice Chevalier and Gigi. Finally, the two-part song “Enjoy the Ride” underscores the romance between Melissa and Aaron Tveit’s Danny Bailey with some seductive allusions, not to Broadway, but to the Oscar-winning Frank Loesser standard “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” In the second part of the song we are introduced to Dove Cameron’s sexpot farmer’s daughter character Betsy McDonough, who is inspired by Ado Annie from Oklahoma, and who tries to seduce Josh with her… um… wholesome charms.

The first song in Episode 3 is “You Done Tamed Me,” and is the counterpart to Aaron Tveit’s song from the first episode. It’s a variation of Billy Bigelow’s song “Soliloquy” from Carousel, and sees Danny ruminating on his future now that he has fallen for Melissa – and, while panicking that he might have a daughter (despite Melissa clearly explaining her birth control), comes up with a myriad of synonyms for stealing – while she slips out the door. The showstopper here, though, is “Cross That Bridge,” another cast song sung this time by the women of Schmigadoon as they all try to walk across the town’s bridge with Josh and see if they can find true love with him. Paul says that this one was inspired by Loesser’s “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” from Guys and Dolls; the song is an upbeat paean of hope and aspiration, and has a swingin’ Gospel sound – listen out for the cameo from Christopher Willis’s wife Elyse Willis bursting forth with her ‘church lady’ voice at 1:24!

Young Broadway star Ariana DeBose gets her spotlight moment in “With All of Your Heart,” playing Schmigadoon’s good-hearted schoolteacher Emma Tate, who is based on the Marian Paroo character from Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, as well as various similar ingénues from across musical history. The song is another positive and upbeat tune, this time extolling the virtues of hard work and dedication, and which foreshadows the show’s underlying theme that all the best relationships are the ones to which you are committed. There’s even a tap dance break in the middle! Perhaps the funniest song of the entire show is also from Episode 4 – “Va-Gi-Na” – in which Cecily Strong literally explains (in great detail) how babies are made in a completely undisguised parody of “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound of Music. The conclusion of the episode is the standout moment for Mexican singer Jaime Camil, playing the handsome but stern Dr Lopez, who declares his love for Melissa in the gorgeous “Suddenly,” a huge romantic musical number that echoes songs like South Pacific’s “Some Enchanted Evening”.

The best song of the show – and perhaps the best song of the year, period – is Episode 5’s “Tribulation,” a jaw-dropping virtuoso performance by Kristin Chenoweth in character as Mildred Layton, Schmigadoon’s ultra-religious ultra-prejudiced town busybody, railing against the cultural changes that Melissa and Josh have inspired since their arrival. The song is clearly inspired by “Ya Got Trouble” from The Music Man – there’s even a knowing nod to ‘billiard parlors’ – but it’s Chenoweth’s verbal dexterity that is so, so impressive. She recorded it live, on-set, in one four-minute take, and somehow managed to wrap her lips around Paul’s non-rhyming tongue-twister lyrics and off-kilter jazzy rhythms. Tommyrot and flapdoodle, claptrap and fiddle-faddle and jiggery-pokery! It’s just sensational.

The final episode, Episode 6, is where Josh – having tried to find his true love with all the other women in Schmigadoon – realizes that his one true love was Melissa all along, and he finally overcomes his fears and serenades her with “You Make Me Wanna Sing”. Keegan-Michael Key doesn’t have a traditionally good voice, but that’s sort of the point – it’s a from-the-heart, raw, earnest declaration of love, and it had me tearing up in context. The finale is “How We Change,” performed by the cast of Schmigadoon, with them having been brought more up-to-date with their ways and their traditions thanks to Josh and Melissa’s arrival. This is the song wherein the show finally moves away from classic Hollywood and into 1960s Stephen Sondheim tradition – there are hints of Sunday in the Park With George – as well as Stephen Schwartz musicals like Pippin and Godspell. The feel of the arrangements, the orchestration, and the tone, is much more contemporary, while the lyrics address a number of pertinent social issues.

The final musical element in Schmigadoon is the score, by the English composer Christopher Willis, who won critical acclaim for his music for films like The Death of Stalin and The Personal History of David Copperfield, and who has also written a great deal of music for the new Disney Mickey Mouse shorts. Willis had the difficult task of providing the musical connective tissue between all the songs, as well as bringing emotional context to the dramatic scenes, and in most cases he had mere seconds to do it. Somehow he had to find a way to quickly and sensibly segue between the different musical styles of Richard Rodgers and Frank Loesser among others, while remaining true to his own musical voice, and the established tonal sound of the show. Not an easy task, but somehow he succeeded and impressed with just 20 minutes of score.

Willis’s score moves between the frothy evocations of Schmigadoon, and more contemporary textures for the flashback scenes showing how Josh and Melissa met. Their love theme, a pretty pop-rock piece for piano and strings augmented with keyboards, guitars, and a drum kit, is established in “Just One Kick and Apparently Magic,” and then re-occurs later in tracks like “It’s A Tent.” Brilliantly, this later cue blends the arrangements of their theme with hints of the melody from the song “Somewhere Love Is Waiting for You,” insinuating that Josh and Melissa’s true loves have been right in front of them all along.

However, for me, it’s those ‘frothy evocations’ that impress the most; a series of warm, lush, romantic orchestral pieces full of whimsical textures, clear allusions to Paul’s various song melodies, and even some brief textural homages to the classic Hollywood sound of Alfred Newman, Max Steiner, and others. Cues like “See You At Seven,” the curiously enchanted “It’s Like A Trick Bridge Or Something,” “Have You Been Crying,” “You Were Amazing,” and “I’m So Glad I Found You” are perfect examples of this gorgeous Golden Age warmth. Meanwhile, cues like “It’s The Picnic Basket Auction” and the conclusive “You Go, Harvey” are jolly and lighthearted, while “She Told Poppa” is a raucous hoe-down complete with an action banjo, and both “I Want Jorge” and “That’s For Stealin’ My Gal” have an element of drama and darkness. It’s all excellent, and testament to Willis’s skill as a composer and a dramatist that he can say so much, and leave such a positive impression, in just the short space of time allotted to him.

The music of Schmigadoon was released as six separate digital albums by Apple Music and Milan Records, one album per episode, with a combined overall total of 52 minutes for the songs and 20 minutes for the score. Despite my general dislike of this type of staggered release – just put the whole damn thing on one properly curated album! – it nevertheless comes with a hearty recommendation for anyone who – like me – loves classic Hollywood musicals and more contemporary self-aware parody comedy. Cinco Paul’s homages to some of the best-loved musicals in Broadway and Hollywood history are outstanding, Christopher Willis’s score is excellent, and the showstopping Kristen Chenoweth pièce de resistance “Tribulation” is one of the best things you will hear this year.

Buy the Schmigadoon soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Schmigadoon Main Title (1:15)
  • Schmigadoon (performed by the Cast) (4:13)
  • You Can’t Tame Me (performed by Aaron Tveit) (3:24)
  • Corn Puddin’ (performed by Cecily Strong and the Cast) (1:46)
  • Leprechaun Song (performed by Martin Short) (0:43)
  • Score: Just One Kick and Apparently Magic? (2:20)
  • Score: See You at Seven (2:02)
  • Score: It’s Like a Trick Bridge or Something (1:09)
  • Lovers’ Spat (performed by the Cast) (3:41)
  • Somewhere Love Is Waiting for You (performed by Alan Cumming) (1:54)
  • Enjoy the Ride, Part I (performed by Cecily Strong and Aaron Tveit) (2:25)
  • Enjoy the Ride, Part II (performed by Dove Cameron, Cecily Strong, and Aaron Tveit) (1:51)
  • Score: Have You Been Crying? (0:44)
  • Score: It’s the Picnic Basket Auction! (0:38)
  • To the Right, To the Left (performed by the Cinco Paul) (0:53)
  • You Done Tamed Me (performed by Aaron Tveit) (1:56)
  • He’s a Queer One, That Man o’ Mine (performed by Ann Harada) (2:20)
  • Cross That Bridge (performed by the Cast) (2:38)
  • Enjoy the Ride – Reprise (performed by Cecily Strong) (0:31)
  • Score: Oh, Betsy… (1:03)
  • Score: That Is the Most Beautiful Thing That I’ve Ever Heard (0:33)
  • Score: She Told Poppa! (0:36)
  • With All of Your Heart (performed by Ariana DeBose) (3:47)
  • Va-Gi-Na (performed by Cecily Strong) (1:19)
  • Somewhere Love Is Waiting for You – Coming Out Reprise (performed by Alan Cumming) (0:38)
  • Suddenly (performed by Jaime Camil) (3:17)
  • Score: Can I Tempt You With Anything? (0:51)
  • Score: You Were Amazing (1:24)
  • Suddenly – Melissa Reprise (performed by Cecily Strong) (1:18)
  • Tribulation (performed by Kristin Chenoweth) (4:00)
  • I Always, Always, Never Get My Man (performed by Jane Krakowski) (1:42)
  • Score: It’th Raithin Bread! (0:39)
  • Score: I Want Jorge! (0:54)
  • Score: It Wasn’t Meant to Happen (1:09)
  • Score: That’s for Stealin’ My Gal (1:00)
  • You Make Me Wanna Sing (performed by Keegan-Michael Key) (3:38)
  • How We Change/Finale (performed by the Cast) (3:41)
  • Score: It’s A Tent! (1:27)
  • Score: I’m So Glad I Found You (1:08)
  • Score: You Want to Give It To Someone Else (0:52)
  • Score: You Go, Harvey! (0:54)

Running Time: 71 minutes 54 seconds

Milan Records (2021)

Song music and lyrics by Cinco Paul. Score music composed by Christopher Willis. Conducted by David Chase. Song orchestrations by Doug Besterman. Score orchestrations by Edward Trybek. Recorded and mixed by Satoshi Marc Noguchi. Edited by Jessica Harrison. Album produced by Cinco Paul, Christopher Willis and Scott Reisett.

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