Schmigadoon! traps its tourists in an all-singing, all-dancing musical village

Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key are a New York couple who stumble across the titular tuneful town in Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio’s diverting and playful send-up of Hollywood Golden Age musicals.

Schmigadoon! (2021)

Schmigadoon! is streaming on Apple TV+ from 16 July.

With so much of modern television dominated by long-form dramas and docuseries, the appearance of a short, sharp comedy is very welcome. Apple TV+’s six-episode, half-hour series Schmigadoon! barrels its way on to the screen with a high-concept premise that could easily have worn thin; thanks to a compact running time, clever screenplay and charming performances, though, it’s an enjoyable and diverting piece of entertainment at a time when such things are sorely needed.

Saturday Night Live regular Cecily Strong (who has also appeared in films like 2016’s Ghostbusters and The Boss) and TV regular Keegan-Michael Key (Bob’s Burgers, Friends from College) are excellent as troubled New York couple Melissa and Josh. After four years together, he thinks their relationship is “fine” while she feels like it could do with a refresh.

A couple’s hike intended to bring them closer together descends into fighting and recriminations when they get lost in the woods; the discovery of a misty bridge leads them to a strange, colourful and weirdly two-dimensional village called Schmigadoon. When the period costume-wearing inhabitants break into an energetic song and dance of welcome, they initially think it’s a tourist attraction; several enthusiastic numbers later, they realise they may well have landed in an actual musical.

Cecily Strong as Melissa and Keegan-Michael Key as Josh in Schmigadoon!

The name of the village is, of course, a reference to the 1947 musical Brigadoon, in which two American tourists stumble across a mysterious Scottish village that appears for one day every 100 years. Similarly – and thanks to a first episode exposition number sung by a leprechaun played by Martin Short – Melissa and Josh find that they can’t leave Schmigadoon until they find true love; unable to cross the bridge together, they go about trying to find their soulmates.

And so Melissa enjoys dalliances with town “rapscallion” Danny Bailey (Aaron Tviet) and dashing Doc Lopez (Jaime Camil), while Josh desperately tries to connect with anyone who might allow him to leave, including provocative farmer’s daughter Betsy (Dove Cameron) and prim school teacher Emma (Ariana DeBose). And all under the fatherly eye of closeted Mayor Menlove (Alan Cumming) and the judgemental gaze of vindictive reverend’s wife Mildred Layton (a deliciously conniving Kristin Chenoweth), who is concerned about the forward-thinking values the New Yorkers are spreading through the town. (Echoes of Gary Ross’s similarly themed 1998 film Pleasantville reverberate as strongly through the narrative as its myriad musical references).

Cue a plethora of tongue-in-cheek and beautifully choreographed musical numbers, written and composed by Cinco Paul, who has co-created and written the show with Ken Daurio; the pair are known primarily for the screenplays of animated movies like the Despicable Me (2010-17) franchise and The Secret Life of Pets (2016).

Alan Cumming as Mayor Menlove in Schmigadoon!

Riffing on classics from the likes of Oklahoma!, The Music Man and West Side Story, the songs cover things like Mayor Menlove’s forbidden homosexuality, Melissa’s need for genuine love and Josh’s inability to commit. (“It’s not just a metaphor, it’s so much more, it’s a literal bridge,” goes the refrain as he attempts to make his way out of Schmigadoon with a rapid succession of single ladies, for none of whom he has any feelings.) A memorable homage to The Sound of Music’s ‘Do-Re-Mi’, detailing the biological intricacies of sex and pregnancy, is a particular highlight.

This could easily have become very one-note, but Melissa and Josh’s behaviour and reactions – not to mention the actors’ comedy timing – acts as a ballast; much like the CBC/Netflix hit Schitt’s Creek, Schmigadoon! mines much of its comedy from a fish-entirely-out-of-water premise, and director Barry Sonnenfeld (Men in Black) wisely keeps this front and centre.

While they may be trapped in Schmigadoon, Melissa and Josh are not entirely absorbed by it; their contemporary attitudes are at odds with the things happening around them. “It’s like if The Walking Dead was also Glee,” observes the reticent Josh. While Melissa is more open-minded and willing to join in, belting out some songs of her own, she, too, is horrified by the outdated attitudes on display – sexism, racism and homophobia are packaged by Mildred and her cronies as high-ground decency.

It’s a pointed skewering of traditional notions of morality and the Hollywood Golden Age musicals that celebrated them, but it’s all deftly done and light-hearted in nature. And as time goes on, Melissa and Josh are, of course, influenced by Schmigadoon and its slower, more introspective pace of life, which gives them time to reflect on who they really are and what they truly desire.

The new issue of Sight and Sound

In this 21st-century cinema special: 25 critics choose an era-defining film from each year of the century, and J. Hoberman asks: what is a 21st-century film? Plus: ten talking points from Cannes – George Miller on Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga – remembering Roger Corman with a never-before-seen interview.

Get your copy