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Jim McDermottMay 12, 2023
Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key in "Schmigadoon!" (photo: AppleTV) Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key in "Schmigadoon!" (photo: AppleTV) 

New York City Center’s Encores! series is currently in the final week of its revival of “Oliver!,” an adaptation of Charles Dickens’s tale of a 10-year-old orphan sold to an undertaker, manipulated by a creepy older man who forces him and other children to steal for him and gives them gin every night, and then is arrested and nearly murdered before being rescued by a barmaid who is eventually beaten to death in front of him by the abusive boyfriend she refuses to leave.

But don’t worry, the kids sing, dance and do backflips, and in the end Oliver ends up taken in, Little Orphan Annie-style, by a rich family he didn’t know he had. I’m sure he won’t have nightmares about the murder he witnessed or the decade he spent being starved to death at a workhouse. The show ends in an exclamation point; it’s definitely a happy story.

“Schmigadoon!” is not about recreating the forms of old musicals, it’s about what happens when we give ourselves over to musical theater.

Any serious conversation about musicals must begin with the acknowledgement that they are, by nature, ridiculous. No sane person looks at gangland murders on the Upper West Side, a group of people struggling to make rent and survive AIDS, or hungry orphans and thinks: “You know what this needs? Singing.” To enter into the world of musical theater takes more than just suspending disbelief, although Lord knows there’s enough of that. “Cats” was insane long before it featured Rebel Wilson peeling her skin off.

No, it also takes heartfelt, aching longing on our part for the things we often find so hard to hold onto—hope, love, success and, above all, freedom. Stephen Schwartz’s Oz-inspired musical “Wicked” is known for its show-stopping Act I closer “Defying Gravity,” but in reality every song and dance in a musical defies the rules of our existence, and that’s precisely why we’re willing to shell out over a hundred dollars to go see it. If someone tap dances through an actual diner, the management will call the police. But if someone sings and dances through a diner on stage, they’re giving us a glimpse into the deepest wishes of our hearts.

When Apple TV+’s “Schmigadoon!” launched in the summer of 2021, most people thought of it as a clever musical theater parody. New York doctors Melissa and Josh (played by the winning and funny Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key) have fallen into, then out of, love. In trying to save their relationship at a couples camping retreat, they end up in the magical land of Schmigadoon, where everything looks like Main Street U.S.A. circa 1950 and people randomly burst into song.

Every song and dance in a musical defies the rules of our existence, and that’s precisely why we’re willing to shell out over a hundred dollars to go see it.

Created by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, the six-episode first season was delightful for the way in which it sent up both the melodies and concepts of Golden Age musicals like “South Pacific,” “Carousel,” “Finian’s Rainbow,” “Annie Get Your Gun” and “Oklahoma!” The schoolmarm taking care of a brother (who is actually her son) with the speech impediment; the brooding carny; the girl who just wants to have a good time; and a town full of observers who love a petticoat, a waistcoat and a tightly choreographed dance number—they’re all there, performing numbers that brilliantly call out some of the underlying silliness of classic musicals.

But where parody usually establishes a distance between the audience and the material—the entertainment lies in our awareness of the game the writers are playing—here the fact that the leads come from our world and call out the same things we’re seeing keeps us emotionally involved.

This is even more true in the recently concluded second season, which also goes by the name “Schmicago” in light of its 1970s influences like “Chicago,” “Cabaret,” “Pippin” and “Sweeney Todd.” Time has passed for Josh and Melissa, and as a result of their time in Schmigadoon their lives have greatly improved. But after discovering they can’t have kids, they try to return to Schmigadoon to regain some sense of hope in their lives, only to find themselves in a dark and seedy land filled with nightclub performers, corrupt cops, orphans, hippies and other desperate people.

Maybe in the end it takes things that are utterly outlandish to get us to look up from our own expectations.

Part of the fun of Melissa and Josh’s entry into this seemingly harrowing era is the discovery that, from the point of view of today, much of it is actually almost as innocent as Rodgers and Hammerstein. In one very funny number, six stage performers reveal their most shocking qualities while Melissa and Josh look on, trying to be supportive but thoroughly unimpressed. Speaking to a man wearing a dress, Melissa says, “I mean, I’ve literally seen every season of ‘Drag Race,’ so…”

Even more than in Season 1, Melissa and Josh take it upon themselves to try and help the characters they meet to escape the scripts they have been written into. But in doing so they also break free of their own. Josh embraces being a mentor; and Melissa, in a wonderfully meta twist, becomes a nightclub performer herself. Of course, none of that can last—that’s not the way 1970s musicals worked. But that reveal offers an unexpectedly profound insight. “Happy endings don’t exist,” the group sings to Josh and Melissa as they prepare to return home, “but here’s the pearl you may have missed: ‘Every day can be a happy beginning.’” The two walk back into their real lives singing that song themselves, and slowly the black-and-white world around them blossoms with color.

Some will no doubt complain that Season 2 pulls its punches by ending on such a happy note. But I think that criticism misses the point. “Schmigadoon!” is not about recreating the forms of old musicals, it’s about what happens when we give ourselves over to musical theater, the freedom and sometimes the courage that a great musical (or even a bad one) can give us. The musicals of the ’70s were filled with characters struggling to overcome their own fears and beliefs, jobs and experiences. Josh and Melissa are able to make better choices precisely because those characters’ struggles have helped them to see just how much of what we take as necessary or true is not.

Musical theater may look like a lot of nonsense. But it’s more like creative deprogramming, trying to help us to see just how much the chains that we think bind us are only in our heads. As hard as I find it to justify continuing to produce “Oliver!” in its current form, I also remember what it was like to be in the show as a child myself. Just performing on that stage challenged my perception of what was possible for my life. Maybe in the end it takes things that are utterly outlandish to get us to look up from our own expectations, and discover that in fact we can fly.

More: TV

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