NEW YORK – A pair of modern-day hikers step out of the woods and into a town where they are greeted by something strange: Suspiciously friendly residents who burst into a high-kicking, knee-slapping group welcome song.
“What is this and why is music coming from everywhere?” says one of the hikers in disbelief. “It's like if 'The Walking Dead' was also 'Glee.' ”
So starts the charming, genre-bending Apple TV+ comedy “Schmigadoon!,” which combines Cecily Strong with Keegan-Michael Key and finds hilarity in the clash between modern sensibilities and classic Broadway musical theater norms. It begins streaming Friday.
“This is not a show that is only for musical audiences. I love that it is for musical audiences so much, but I think it's special and I think it's genuinely very funny and I think it's genuinely very sweet,” says Strong. “In that way, I think it's kind of can be for everybody.”
The town of Schmigadoon is stuck in the overly cheery Technicolor age, where two hotel rooms cost $1 – unmarried couples should never sleep in one bed, of course – and residents suddenly sing about corn pudding to the astonishment of the strangers. “Oh no. It's a song. You just started another song,” Key's character exclaims to his partner at one point.
Behavior typical in apple-cheeked musicals from the 1940s and '50s is skewered, like when one resident flips his mate over and gives her a smack on her behind during a group dance number. “No, no, that's not OK! Unless it's consensual,” says Strong's character.
Cinco Paul, who co-created and co-wrote the series with Ken Daurio, said he adores old musicals but also knows that they're often highly problematic in parts and wanted to explore the tension.
“I would be thrilled to be stuck in a musical town,” he says. “But I also am hyper-aware of the things that are just not great about them. And so I wanted the show to point those things out and have fun with them.”
The creators managed to convince a bushel of Broadway A-listers to fly to Vancouver and quarantine for two weeks before joining the show, including Alan Cumming, Kristin Chenoweth, Aaron Tveit, Jane Krakowski, Ann Harada and Ariana DeBose.
Cumming plays the top-hatted mayor, Chenoweth is a sour Bible-thumper, Trevit is a rapscallion carnival worker and Martin Short has a cameo as a leprechaun. The backpacking couple learn they can't leave the magical town until they find true love, putting a strain on their already crumbling relationship.
The title is a joke on another village unaffected by time from the splashy Broadway musical “Brigadoon” and it skewers such escapist and naïve shows like “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” and “Hello, Dolly!”
Lorne Michaels, an executive producer, says the show's genius lies in reexamining strict post-World War II gender, sexual and racial roles without the show being overtly political, not to mention offering plenty of songs and dancing.
“It's a very light touch,” he said. “We're in a very heavy-handed time right now, where people feel making a point about justice is kind of enough. And you go 'Well, no. You also have to entertain.'”
The show's writers also include Allison Silverman, Julie Klausner, Kate Gersten and Bowen Yang. Paul jokes he picked people who “maybe have a bit more of a poison pen than I would.” But “ultimately, all of us in the room loved musicals so much and that came through.”
The songs are also by Paul, who re-immersed himself in the songwriting of composers like Frank Loesser and Richard Rodgers. But he initially didn't like what came out, calling the first batch lazy.
“I needed to be harder on myself and to try to really embody these songs, emulate them in a real and a really authentic way,” he said. The goal was to “sound like they were from an undiscovered Rodgers and Hammerstein musical that finally came to light.”
Strong is still laughing about them. “I think singing about corn pudding is ridiculous,” she says. “And then girls and the boys split up and dance. It's just so ridiculous.”