Many people love musicals, but would you want to live in one? That’s the question at the heart of the Apple TV+ series Schmigadoon! The show centers around a backpacking couple, played by Saturday Night Live‘s Cecily Strong and Key & Peele‘s Keegan-Michael Key, who wander into the titular town where life is exactly like a 1940’s movie musical—and can’t get out until they find true love.
Nerdophiles spoke with Cecily (who just picked up a 2021 Emmy nomination for her latest work on Saturday Night Live) and Cinco Paul (who co-created the show with Ken Daurio) about why they’re in love with Schmigadoon! and what it’s like to put on a full-scale musical in a TV show format, especially when you have to film during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nerdophiles: Cinco, when Schmigadoon‘s cast includes actors who can play a wide variety of characters like Cecily and Keegan-Michael Key, how much does that influence what you write?
Cinco Paul: Fortunately Cecily was attached to the show very early on, so we didn’t write any of the scripts until she was attached. So 100 percent, I was writing for her. We wrote for her. I mean, I knew she would kill being drunk at a picnic basket auction. So that was written with Cecily [in mind].
Cecily Strong: I shouldn’t have done the tables that way. I’m sorry about that, Cinco.
Cinco Paul: It’s okay. (laughs) And then once Keegan was on board, I worked with him and we tailored it to him. But Cecily and Keegan are both so great at grounding this in reality, which was really key for the show. Because everybody else is nuts. So they had to be as real as possible and they really brought that. That was an important part of casting them, but also writing for them; they had to be our eyes and ears in this crazy world.
NP: How different was the songwriting in Schmigadoon for you compared to traditional scriptwriting? How did you work those musical numbers in?
CP: It’s so different. Actually, my first love was songwriting and writing songs, and then I got involved in this whole screenwriting thing. In many ways it’s the same thing, because you’re writing from character, hopefully, and you’re using the songs to tell a story. You’re using a lot of the same toolbox when you’re writing songs. The real challenge of this for me was to make it as authentic as possible—to make it sound like Rodgers and Hammerstein or Frank Lesser.
Very early on, I got all the scores to those musicals and played through them on the piano because I wanted it in my bones. When I composed, obviously there’s me in there, but I wanted some of Richard Rodgers and these other composers in there as well. That was really helpful, but that was the biggest challenge: trying to make it sound like it was an actual undiscovered Golden Age musical.
NP: Cecily, were you a fan of that era of musicals? Or what’s been your background with musicals?
Cecily Strong: I absolutely was a fan. My grandma would bring me VHS [tapes]. We’d rent them from the movie store. When I was little, I watched Oliver, I loved South Pacific, I think I watched My Fair Lady, West Side Story. And then as I got older then it was like, I had the Once on This Island soundtrack that I listened to every day in sixth grade. I was a theater nerd from very young.
NP: Were there scenes that were particularly fun for you as a theater fan?
CS: I really enjoyed just about every scene, especially when I got to work with any of my castmates. There’s a scene, we’re all dancing at the end, and I think it was the first time we really had everybody in the room at the same time. That was so emotional. It was so joyful. And I remember just like laughing like a maniac with Keegan when we were cutting, because it was just like, I can’t believe I’m in this room with these people in this big magic town right now. I always watch that scene and I turn to whoever’s watching next to me—might be my dog—and I like to go real tears. Real tears.
NP: As Cinco mentioned earlier, you have to play the straight woman to the absurdity of Schmigadoon. How was that for you instead of being the off-the-wall one like we’ve seen on Saturday Night Live? How did you not lose it laughing?
CS: I’m pretty sure I did lose it, plenty. It was a joy. I don’t think it’s not fun to play a straight character, because we laughed some every [day]. The character roles are funny. The straight roles are funny. And it’s fun just to watch people perform in front of you.
NP: The whole point of the town within the show is it gives Cecily and Keegan’s characters an opportunity to figure some things out. What would you say the message of the series itself is? What do you want the viewers to take away from Schmigadoon?
CP: I would say for me, Schmigadoon is a beacon of hope. It’s about hope and love and earnestness and sincerity, in a time when those are in short supply. And it was especially amazing to shoot this in Vancouver when it was kind of a dark time. It was a hard time, but it was really a labor of love for everybody involved. That’s what Schmigadoon represents.
CS: I think it’s also, they’re stuck in a place. If you’re a person that moves fast and you’ve just accepted things, it’s a chance to sort of re-examine things and look at your problems for once. And you’re in a safe place; you’re in a musical, which is safe, right? So it’s a chance to, in the end, become better. It’s the opportunity to become better people. We have this time in this magic space to figure that out for ourselves.