The key to AppleTV+’s Schmigadoon! lies in the exclamation point: a reference to Oklahoma!, the 1942 work by Rodgers and Hammerstein considered the first “true” American musical. The exclamation point is as much a reference as it is an indication of the enthusiasm singing (literally) through the piece.
Less enthusiastic are Josh (Keegan-Michael Key) and Melissa (Cecily Strong), exhausted doctors who are four years into a relationship that has gone south. In an effort to salvage their relationship, the pair go on a hiking trip and detour across a mysterious bridge, leaving behind reality and entering Schmigadoon, a tiny town that resembles the Wonka-candy-hued musicals beloved by Melissa (who is seen watching Singin’ in the Rain in the pilot).
Of course, they don’t know it’s an alternate reality. The town bursts into song, costumes uniformly pressed and color-coordinated. Melissa quips that it must be a tourist schtick, like something from Colonial Williamsburg. Quickly they meet the aptly named Mayor Menlove (Alan Cumming), the Bible-thumping reverend’s wife (Kristin Chenoweth), and wrong-side-of-the-tracks carnival barker Danny Bailey (Aaron Tveit). Having met the cast of characters, each introduced in song, Melissa and Josh hurriedly make their goodbyes, and attempt to leave.
But they can’t; the not-quite-lovebirds learn they cannot leave Schmigadoon without finding their true love. And so begins the great quest at the heart of the series—if Josh and Melissa are not one another’s true love, then will they have to stay in Schmigadoon to find their real soulmates? The quest to test this theory is the plot of episode two, “Lover’s Spat,” in which Melissa finds herself attracted to Danny, while Josh is relentlessly pursued by young, perky waitress Betsy (Dove Cameron), who willfully sidesteps Josh’s concerned inquiries about her age.
Josh’s reluctance to engage with Betsy is where Schmigadoon! purposely splits from its Golden Age inspirations and shapes a thoughtful commentary on the gender roles and character tropes of twentieth-century musicals. Melissa is given the brunt of the responsibility to change: she references the importance of consent several times in the series’ first two episodes, and she gleefully tells the misogynists of Schmigadoon that where she’s from, women can be doctors.
Schmigadoon! wants to reinvent the classic musical just as much as it wants to pay tribute to it. The series’ title itself is a reference to Brigadoon, a 1947 musical about American tourists who stumble on a Scottish village that only materializes once every hundred years. But though the series borrows its title and its twee premise from Brigadoon, the series references other Golden Age musicals with more gusto—without being overt about it. Unless you consumed musical theatre like candy growing up (as this reviewer did), you might not catch that Betsy’s sisters’ names are borrowed from Meet Me in St. Louis and South Pacific, among others. The town’s welcome song strongly resembles the title song from Oklahoma! both lyrically and melodically. Tveit’s character is lifted straight from Carousel, from his profession to his I-won’t-fall-in-love-but-oops-now-I’m-singing-about-love song, “You Can’t Tame Me.”
You don’t need to know these musicals to get into Schmigadoon!, but it’s helpful to at least be in on the joke. Basic familiarity with Broadway musical formatting and tropes is the basis of the show’s strongest comedy elements, as is its casting: Cumming, Chenoweth, and Tveit (as much a scene-stealer here, albeit very differently, as he was in 2012’s Les Misérables) are all beloved Broadway veterans, as are Ann Harada (as the mayor’s wife) and Hamilton’s Ariana DeBose (as Schmigadoon’s librarian, referencing The Music Man).
To viewers with little or no musical exposure, Schmigadoon! might seem like a lot. But showrunners Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio (previously known for their work on the Despicable Me films) have anticipated this: Josh and Melissa are the only ones aware they’re in a musical, to which Josh moans, “Please, God, no.” The love of musicals is just as present as the jabs at the art form: whether you’re there to sing along or roll your eyes, there’s a little something for everyone in Schmigadoon!, so do stop by. There’s a welcome song waiting for you.
Schmigadoon! drops new episodes every Friday on Apple TV+.