Schmigadoon creator Cinco Paul on musical theater inspirations and paying tribute to a shuttered Broadway
Schmigadoon! feels like a musical theater lover's fever dream.
From its nonsensical Brigadoon-inspired title to its Broadway-caliber stacked cast, it's a love letter to musicals that wears its heart on its ornately costumed sleeve.
And that's because it's the brainchild of an enthusiastic musical lover, Cinco Paul, who co-created the show with Despicable Me writing partner Ken Daurio, and then went on to showrun/write the original music for the AppleTV+ series, which premieres July 16.
Melissa (Cecily Strong) and Josh (Keegan-Michael Key) are a couple trying to rekindle their connection on a relationship retreat, when a hiking expedition lands them smack-dab in the middle of Schmigadoon, an old-timey town straight out of a Golden Age musical. The problem is, once there, they can't leave until they find true love. And thus unfolds a classic musical pastiche enacted by some of the stage's best, including Ariana DeBose, Kristin Chenoweth, Aaron Tveit, and Alan Cumming.
Ahead of the show's premiere, we called up Paul to talk the two-plus decades it's taken him to bring Schmigadoon to life, the small-town shows that inspired him, and just where that silly name came from.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What inspired this? Where did the idea for creating a show about two contemporary people who find themselves trapped in a classic movie musical, come from?
CINCO PAUL: I had the idea almost 25 years ago now and had just had been sitting on it all this time. It probably came from seeing Brigadoon. Two people off hiking and then something crazy happens to them. Initially, it was two friends, but then I put it away on the shelf, as you do, because I didn't really know what to do with it. And then I was having a meeting with Broadway Video, [SNL creator] Lorne Michaels' company. I was really wanting to do TV, because I'd had enough of animation and that world, and was ready to try something new. They mentioned, "We're really interested in something that might be a musical." Suddenly, I just pulled that back off the shelf, that idea, because I've always been a massive lover of musical theater and musicals and it felt like, "Oh, maybe the time's right for this." And it was really switching and saying, "Well, let's not make it two friends. Let's make it a couple and they're stuck until they find true love." That was really what unlocked it for me.
How did writing a musical compare to the writing you've done in the past?
So many of the rules apply as far as creating characters that you want to root for and that you care about, and stories that move. But the bigger change was probably going from movies to TV, and telling stories episodically as opposed to within a 90 minute chunk. But then it also was a challenge to spot the songs. Where are the songs going to go? Since I was going to write the songs myself, that was a whole different level of challenge, of making the songs move the story forward, but also be funny and entertaining and true to the genre.
With writing those songs, what was that experience like and what were some of the challenges of writing music?
The first thing I did was, I got the scores to a bunch of the old musicals — The Music Man, South Pacific, Oklahoma, Carousel, and I just played through them on the piano, so that I would have them in my bones. There are a couple of songs that are very specific parodies, but most of them, I wanted to just emulate the genre as opposed to be super specific. There was a lot of playing through the scores on the piano and listening to the songs. Once we were in the writers' room and writing the episodes, finding the places it's a perfect place for a song. There's just certain songs that I love so much for musicals. I love "Brotherhood of Man" [from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying] and "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" [from Guys and Dolls]. So, I wanted a Frank Loesser gospel number in there somewhere. Things like that. Loving, "You Got Trouble" from Music Man, and wanting to do something like that. It was kind of like, "What are my favorite musical theater songs? What would be fun to place in Schmigadoon somewhere?"
What was your gateway musical theater drug?
When I was really young, my mom played these cast recordings all the time. Camelot, as a kid, I was most drawn to Julie Andrews and Richard Burton. But she also played South Pacific all the time, Guys and Dolls all the time. Those three, I heard a lot when I was really little, and I just loved them. She would buy the new ones when they came out. I have very vivid memories of Annie when we first opened it up and played it, and Pippin. I grew up in Phoenix, Ariz., so I didn't see live musicals for a long time. But it was listening to the cast recordings.
Well, I think you've already hit on a lot of them, but what were some of the touchstones or musicals that inspired you most when putting this together?
Schmigadoon really is a small-town musical. It's Music Man, it's Oklahoma, and it's Carousel. All the Rodgers Hammerstein musicals are in there. There's a bit of Carousel for sure, with Danny Bailey's character. And there's quite a nod to Sound of Music later on in the series. I also got a chance to do a Cole Porter song with Jane Krakowski. And I'm a huge Loesser fan, so I wanted to make sure that even though it's not a city setting, which his musicals really took place in, I wanted to do that. There's a little Irving Berlin in there from Annie Get Your Gun. There's no real Camelot reference, sadly. I couldn't work that in, but obviously, because of Brigadoon, there's a little bit of that in there.
In terms of casting and assembling what this would look like, how did you hit on the combo of pretty much all of the residents of Schmigadoon being well-known Broadway stars and then the comedic linchpins of Cecily and Keegan coming into that world?
From the beginning, I really felt strongly that I wanted people to be singing live, because I didn't want it to have that auto-tune feel that too often happens in musicals. So, I really wanted people who could sing live. I wanted people who could do it and had done it eight performances a week. That's why, right away, we were drawn to the Kristin Chenoweths and the Alan Cummings and the Jane Krakowskis of the world. These are Tony winners and they can really deliver. I didn't want to have to have people lip syncing, to the extent that we were able to have people do it live.
Then, you really need two great comedic characters, but also people who can play real grounded characters as Melissa and Josh. Cecily was the first to sign on very early. We wrote the show with her in mind. When it was time to find a Josh, Keegan was just the perfect choice because he's so funny but he's also so likable. It's funny because, Keegan loves to sing and dance, but he's playing someone who hates it. That was hard for him.
Were there any Broadway stars that got away, that you maybe wanted to feature but they couldn't do it for one reason or another? I mean, was Patti LuPone busy?
The crazy thing is that we got everybody we wanted because sadly, Broadway was shut down. People were very available as a result of that. Even with our ensemble, most of them are Broadway folks, but we were able to get the very best of the best for that reason.
Did theaters being dark make the entire process more resonant? More bittersweet? All of those things?
We all felt like we were on a mission in a way. You're racing against this pandemic and you feel like you're being chased by it. Cecily says this quite a bit, that it was a love letter to Broadway and to all the performers who were sort of sidelined for a while as a result of this, and hopefully will be coming back soon. This is our tribute to them. It was really a tribute to and an appreciation for how much musicals have meant to all of us.
In terms of devising the look of the town when you were creating everything, where did that come from? It's got that small town feel and then you have the gazebo and the town square of The Music Man, and the carnival of Carousel. Where did all those pieces come from and how did you decide what you wanted to put in there?
Our production designer really captured the vision that I had for this. I really wanted it to feel like we were on a sound stage the whole time. Artificial, but beautiful, were the buzzwords we had for this. You want it to feel like, okay, we're in a made up world, but wow, it's amazing. We didn't want to literally do a carousel, so we thought, what's the next best thing? Let's do a tunnel of love. That'll stand in for our carousel. And you have to have the gazebo, which is not only Music Man, but it's also that classic Sound of Music "Something Good" scene between Maria and the Captain. It was just trying to find, "What are the iconic looks?"
There's the Brigadoon connection, but how did you hit on the name Schmigadoon for both the town and the show?
That was a big moment for me. It's a weird name, right? There was a little bit of reticence from certain people about the name, but for me, it perfectly encapsulated, "Okay, we're having fun." I've been involved with improv, and there's an improv game called, Schmepardy, which is a parody of Jeopardy. And I think, somewhere, that was far in the back of my brain, which led me to Schmigadoon.
You were very, very well-versed and you said you went and played through all these songs, books, but did you make any musical discoveries in writing this? Did you happen upon something that you didn't know very well, that you kind of fell in love with as you were writing?
I really did not know, and this is sort of hard to confess, I didn't know Carousel that well before. The book is kind of a mess nowadays —
Oh, it's horrible. It should not be produced anymore.
Yeah. So as a result of that, it's just never been one that I've known. But the score is just phenomenal and it's beautiful. There are many nods to it, some pretty overt, in our show. But that was one that I rediscovered and really fell in love with, because South Pacific has always been my favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein. Maybe it still is, but boy, Carousel, for me, there was some undiscovered magic in that one. [But speaking of Carousel], there's a little bit of commentary here and there in our show about the stuff that's a little problematic. Musicals are delightful, they're romantic, they're also problematic, and sometimes just dumb.
Schmigadoon is out now on Apple TV+.