Schmigadoon stars Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key open up about their musical theater obsessions
Now the two comedy stars are bringing that musical theater fervor to the small screen in Schmigadoon, a six-episode Apple TV+ series (premiering July 16) about an on-the-rocks couple who get lost on a relationship retreat and end up trapped in a town straight out of a classic movie musical.
For both performers, it was a chance to indulge a childhood dream. Strong took her first acting class at age 3 and was watching VHS tapes of musicals such as Oliver and South Pacific just as early. Her love for musical theater has come out often during her time on Saturday Night Live, via countless musical numbers and her impressions of stars like Liza Minnelli.
Key meanwhile has had a string of musicals on his resume, including The Prom and Jingle Jangle. But he didn't plan it that way. "The next phase was for me to start doing more drama," he tells EW. "Going back to my roots in school, but actually, that's a bit of a misnomer because my roots are from doing musical theater in high school, if we're going to get right down to it. But I wasn't consciously thinking about this. Then my wife and I were talking were talking one day and she was like, 'You should sing more,' and that idea started to really resonate with me. All of a sudden, thoughts become things."
Like Strong, Key grew up loving musical theater, specifically stories based in 19th-century London. He cites Oliver and Scrooge, a musical version of A Christmas Carol with Albert Finney, as major touchstones. "Watching the Artful Dodger welcome Oliver into the fold and that huge number is what captured my imagination," he reminisces. "I had a friend ride on their bike, and then I wanted to run up behind the bike and jump on the back, facing the other way, the way the Artful Dodger jumps on the back of one of the horse carts. And then I'd sing 'Consider Yourself.' It was weeks of that."
But the actors had different challenges. Strong's character, Melissa, is a musical lover and jumps right into the world, even dancing with Aaron Tveit's Carousel-inspired Danny Bailey. "I'm not a dancer," she confesses. "I love to dance and I dance all the time, but I'm not on camera and supposed to look good." Hours with the show's choreographer and talented partners like Tveit helped her fake her way through it, Strong says.
At least it wasn't a stretch playing someone who marveled at the musical world around her. "It felt like the best version of me I could ever aspire to be," Strong muses. "Cinco [Paul, the show's co-creator] wrote and got to make the show that he envisioned. Watching his face every day, I was like, 'You're even happier than I am, somehow.'"
On the other end of the spectrum, Key had to suppress his own musical-loving instincts. His character, Josh, actively dislikes the genre and is skeptical of the entire situation, the complete opposite of Key's own feelings. "It was very difficult," Key says of the acting challenge. "During one number, [director] Barry Sonnenfeld's just going, 'Keegan, flatter, nothing, no expression.' I'm like, 'No expression? Then get the dancers out of here!'. They would just have a camera fixed on me, and I was to be as flat as if I were completely and utterly bored by what I was witnessing."
Paul, who created the show with Ken Daurio, adds, "He so wanted to join in. It's like, 'Keegan, no. You hate this. Remember, you hate musicals.' But they have to be our eyes when everybody else around them is a wacky musical theater trope."
Fortunately, Key and Strong had each other to lean on, particularly because of their shared backgrounds growing up in the Midwest and coming up through sketch comedy. (They're both alums of Chicago's Second City improv theater.) They even dubbed themselves the "button twins" in reference to their tendency to keep adding comedic flourishes to the ends of scenes, escalating to more ridiculous jokes with each go.
"Cinco would write these lovely buttons to the scenes, wonderful last lines in a scene before you'd hard cut to the next scene, but because we're both trained in improvisation, we couldn't help ourselves," Key recalls. "You'd get to the end of the scene, and then we'd add two more lines or three more lines. There'd be the end of the scene, and then three more ad libs, and then we'd look directly in the camera and go, 'Sorry, Cinco, button twins, we can't help ourselves.'"
"It was like, these things will never end because Keegan and I will just keep going if they let us," Strong adds. "We tried to also honor Cinco's words, since he's such a beautiful writer. But he worked with us."
Strong and Key admit they don't think many, if any, of their improvs made the final cut, but they point to their self-appointed "button twins" moniker as an example of the sense of camaraderie and joy on set. They filmed the entire series last summer, during the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, which allowed them access to a vast array of Broadway talent since theaters were dark. It was a bittersweet boon.
"We wanted to honor all of those artists who've been put on hold for the time being and have not been able to make their magic," Key says. "We felt a profound responsibility."
"I was living in this world of magic and love and smiling when I was not expecting to get to do that," Strong says. "I hope that we get to share that, and I hope that's what comes across. I hope people feel that way watching, no matter where their life happens to be and what they're going through — that they get part of that magic and joy that we got to experience."
Both stars have aspirations to go to Broadway for real someday, but for now the show is a big-hearted love letter to all the things they love about musical theater. "The message is so lovely," Key reflects. "That we have the ability to grow. If the impetus is right and our consciousness is right, we always have the ability to move out of our comfort zone, because that's where miracles happen."