Love leads to the strangest places: Thoughts on Schmigadoon!

(image courtesy Movie Database (c) Apple TV +)

After 18 months of harrowing, constraining, good mental health-sapping pandemic, it’s a reasonable assumption to make that most people are in need of a good laugh, a warm hug, some schmoozy romantic love and music so buoyantly light you can feel your spirit rise right along with the peppy notes.

Oh and lots of chocolate but that is about the only thing that Schmigadoon!, a jauntily gentle and affectionate parody of musicals in general, and Brigadoon in particular, can’t give you, brimming as it is with a hearty sense of humour, a rich musicality that makes it a match for any entry in the genre, and huge amount of ironic and non-ironic heart.

Created by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, and currently available in a snappy six-episode first season on Apple TV +, Schmigadoon! is that rare parody that manages to be both hilariously knowing and groundedly genuine all at once.

At its heart sit New York doctor couple, orthopaedic surgeon Josh Skinner (Keegan-Michael Key) and OBGYN Melissa Gimble (Cecily Strong), who after after a candy tsunami of a meetcute at the hospital where they both work, find themselves struggling to keep the magic of romance alive in a world where expectations very rarely meet reality.

Away on a weekend hiking in the mountains which is meant to reawaken their love and passion for each other, partly by exchanging heart-shaped rocks with their names carved into them – yes, it is every bit as cheesy as it sounds – Melissa, who is pushing for a great crescendo of a romantic re-enlivening and Josh, who thinks their relationship is just fine, thank you, cross a stone bridge and find themselves in an early twentieth-century picture postcard perfect town that looks like it’s straight out of an MGM Golden Age musical.

Mistaking it at first for a tourist trap of some kind, albeit one with exquisitely well choreographed dance sequences and seamless harmonising, not to mention a perky persona that will not quit, Melissa and Josh soon discover that Schmigadoon!, where the search for peace and happiness never ends, is very real and that it very much has them in its tight, fake background, candy-coloured grip.

There is no getting away from Schmigadoon! until they find true love, something they thought they had with each other but which, in the disorientation of their romantic slump and the allure of a new beginnings with the townspeople, may in fact lie elsewhere.

Or so they think.

What they get is a rollercoaster of a ride which matches to exquisite perfection the highs and lows, and heartstoppingly lovely beats of a classic musical where love is near-instant, good and bad find clearly delineated form – respectively, Emma Tate (Ariana DeBose) and poisonously strict minister’s wife Mildred Layton (Kristin Chenoweth), both inspired by characters from The Music Man – and you find resolution to your angst in one song-soaked scene.

It’s deceptively simply and winningly alluring and Melissa and Josh soon find themselves, despite their initial cynicism – Josh, who doesn’t like musicals at all and is dismayed to find himself actually in one, is far more reticent to embrace the possibilities of Schmigadoon than Melissa, who is musical savvy and desperate for renewed romance; although even she is prone to quip her way in humourous disbelief through many an early scene – subsumed in the wonder and magicality of Schmigadoon! which draws from a raft of musicals including the aforementioned The Music Man, The Sound of Music, Oklahoma!, Carousel and Finian’s Rainbow, among a slew of others.

The charm of Schmigadoon!, which is considerable from its vibrantly-realised, fully-formed characters, its cartoonishly-bright visuals and its armoury of catchy, danceable, heart-swelling songs, is that it never feel weighed down by all these influences.

In fact, it is one of those rare beasts that manage to sweep up the sum of its influences and create something altogether fresh, different and original, a heartfelt musical which is at the same time determined to be an anti-musical, at least in a gentle, unscathing sense and which folds you into its whimsical embrace in no time flat.

It helps of course that it is very funny and that the two leads, Strong and Key, have the comedic and musical chops to bring their parts to gloriously alive life, unable to believe they have stumbled into an actual musical and yet still seduced by the simplicity and seeming perfection of this beautifully confected world.

Of course, just because something looks the part, doesn’t mean it is deep down, and like all residents of “if it’s too good to be true, it’s probably is” camp, it soon emerges that maybe not everything is as shiny lovely as it first appears, and that while Josh and Melissa have some major issues to resolve and Schmigadoon may just the place to resolve them, the townsfolk might just benefit from their visitors’ big city ways too.

Who knows what change might be coming down the brightly green hills that surround the town?

Quite a lot in fact, and Schmigadoon! has an enormous amount of fun playing off old and new, charming and resolutely modern, quaint and brutally new, all while pithily telling a tightly engrossing narrative in six elegantly-paced episodes in which it is rightly observed that in a musical, you sing if you don’t have the words to express yourself and dance if you don’t a song to sing.

A love letter to musicals as much as a critical viewing of them as hopelessly out of date socially and morally (though not harshly so) – watching many of the characters come alive when they realise they don’t have to be imprisoned by their sunny side up setting is one of the show’s many pleasures – Schmigadoon! has clearly invested a great deal of time in crafting songs that more than match anything you’ll hear in the West End or on Broadway.

It has also focused on giving us characters that are far from lightweight, though some are, if only for running gags (“Sorry, Pete!”) or scene-stealing silliness (see the waitress, Betsy McDonough, played with perky vulnerability by Dove Cameron or the Countess Gabriele Von Blerkom, portrayed with frothy determination by Jane Krakowski), and whose conundrums when it comes to life and love are as affecting as they amusingly enjoyable (cases in point are the mayor and his wife, Aloysius Menlove and his wife Florence, played by Alan Cumming and Anna Harada respectively) which fits what actually happens in the best and most robust of musicals.

At its heart, Schmigadoon! is about Melissa and Josh resolving what is real and what is not about their relationship, with a mix of flashbacks and singing and dancing, all of which are richly, luminously colourful, fun and light, and often sweetly funny too, so it’s fitting they find themselves in somewhere that looks lightweight and confected but which might actually be the most meaningful and substantial place they have ever gone (and if that ending is any guide, with more sage, song-filled lessons yet to come).

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