Should Schmicago have committed to actually eating an orphan? I mean … maybe?
In season 1 of Apple TV Plus’ Schmigadoon!, two modern New Yorkers, Melissa (Cecily Strong) and Josh (Keegan-Michael Key), got lost in the Golden Age musical town of Schmigadoon, rekindled their love, and left it a more progressive place.
In season 2, the now-married pair start the season by dealing with career lows and fertility problems, so they set out to hunt for their Schmigadoon retreat. Unfortunately for them, the town has evaporated into the darker and sleazier Schmicago, with all that jazz of soul-searching ’60s and ’70s musicals. “Mystery and magic, endings that are tragic,” croons the Narrator (Tituss Burgess, who sips and slurps drama like wine) in a “We Got Magic to Do” Pippin pastiche. No more pastels, nor joyous “Corn Puddin’.”
But it’s all good now, because the two sojourners leave Schmicago a sunnier place, too.
That’s not to say this sophomore (hopefully not the last!) season doesn’t shimmy-shake up the formula. Creators Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio crafted a musical aficionado’s dreamworld populated with stage luminaries and loving references, the kind whose mere presence can drive fans of the genre wild with applause in their own living rooms.
Schmigadoon season 2 (or Schmicago) is a layered cream cake of confluences of stage productions and their film adaptations. Paul crafts clever mashups that blossom into origamis of influences, as choreographer Christopher Gattelli playfully spins dance homages (Bob Fosse, Michael Bennett, and Twyla Tharp, to name a few).
There are too many tributes to name. (Hi, Dreamgirls!) Alan Cumming and Kristin Chenoweth (from the 1999 Annie) reunite to ham it up as Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett archetypes, respectively, to perform a “A Little Priest”/Annie/Oliver! ensemble extravaganza topped off with Bennett’s “Turkey Lurkey Time” choreo. Jane Krakowski razzle-dazzled with a “Sondheim meets Kander-Ebb meets Marvin Hamlisch’s ‘Dance: 10; Looks: 3,’” while flaunting aerial stunts like she did in the Nine Broadway revival.
But it’s important to note Schmicago’s main actions are framed within the Cabaret-based Kratt Club owned by the evil tycoon Kratt (Patrick Page, who can rattle the spine and also shake the funny bone). A few other main locations complete the Schmicago map: the Hair/Godspell Parable-telling commune and Quick Street (like Sweeney Todd’s Fleet Street).
As cheerful as Schmicago can be, the classics it takes inspiration from are largely not stories with happy endings. When she loses her one shot at love, Charity of Sweet Charity lives hopefully ever after. Half of the dancers in A Chorus Line don’t make the cut and go home (sorta replicated in Schmicago’s episode 2). Sweeney Todd ends with him consumed by murder. While celebrating parables, Godspell chooses not to literally show Jesus’s resurrection (if you don’t read the curtain call as such).
One of the few musicals of the era that does come to a happy conclusion still involves morally questionable protagonists — the Chicago murderesses Roxie and Velma (composited into Krakowski’s Billy Flynn lawyer role), as they outwit the showbizzed legal system and Hot Honey Rag dance into fame. While it truly is a treat to watch the writers knit together these universes into a fantastical Crossover Fanfic Musical Riff, it’s also just as peculiar that Schmicago got an overly sweetened outcome when considering the razor edges lurking within the narratives it is borrowing from.
Schmicago declaws its potential edges with an ending too bubbly for a musicalscape predominantly framed within this era of musical theatre. All its amoral or complicit players, even Sweeney Todd-esque Dooley Blight (Cumming, injecting goofy gravitas), end up too honorable, redeemable, and conscientious by convenience rather than through well-earned grapplings. His name is cleared and he’s reunited with his daughter (Dove Cameron, channeling Liza Minnelli’s oblivious hedonism), who found love with Aaron Tveit’s Topher. Whereas in the source material, Mrs. Lovett betrays her foster child, Chenoweth’s Lovett grows too fond of the orphans to cook them, so this Schmicago version of Sweeney and Lovett can live happily ever after.
Hippies redistribute the once-hoarded wealth, and even Krakowski’s amoral lawyer helps out. The cop (puppy-dog-eyed Jaime Camil) gets redeemed and is rewarded with a Rocky Horror Picture Show number. And the villain dies by a Phantom of the Opera reference, undercutting the satisfaction of the Schmicago denizens’ communal efforts to stop him.
A majority of Schmicago players (sans Kratt, gone kaput) have net gains from the events of the season. While this musical comedy need not succumb to full-blown cynicism or Game of Thrones bloodshed, there is barely a lasting impact, loss, or moral conflict that leaves a dent in the soul. The lack of dimension could be partially explained by Schmicago’s limiting six-episode run. You can tell the penultimate episode had to abridge drama within an Andrew Lloyd Webber rock pastiche. Schmicago deserved more time (and more earworms) for proper character development.
Schmicago also decouples its more politically conscious precursors from its politics. For this Cabaret scenario, Nazism doesn’t swallow the Kit Kat Club cabaret (like it does in the Sam Mendes staging, which stars Cumming as the Emcee). Eschewing the specific Vietnam War context (and any imagery resembling one where a soldier’s corpse lies on the American flag), Hair is pared down into a fight against an electric monopoly. It’s understandable for coherent crossover world-building, but Schmicago can feel like a missed opportunity to fully grasp these musicals’ edges and depth. The solemn moment of 20-second nudity in Hair provoked controversy at the time; in Schmigadoon season 2, the moment is framed as “haha, these hippies get naked” sketch humor. Schmicago errs on the side of amusement while barely giving space for the sobering darkness to bubble up, flattening the layers of the material it’s lovingly referencing.
In a feeble attempt to not shy away from the inherent depression of the material, Schmicago opts to end on a message to value happy beginnings over happy endings. Melissa and Josh accept that they live in a cycle of wanting more, but that’s okay. The ending returns the beaming couple to their gray reality that (literally) becomes colorful with their presence in the final minute. The optimistic twist (and borrowed Godspell aesthetic) is a lovely one, but it feels more like a platitude against the dark-to-bittersweet density of the source materials, because it’s missing that note of biting loss.
I’ll be begrudging myself if I spoil the appetite for the Fix-It Crossover Fanfic Musical. (“Caroline, some killjoy you are, if you crave misery so much, go watch the source materials!”) Optimists may argue that Schmicago’s sweep-clean ending works in part because it’s Josh and Melissa’s fantasy, so Schmicago had to be molded into a paradise that they ultimately reject, just as Pippin rejects the theatrical artifice to settle into the realness of love. But the saccharine ukulele that sends off the New Yorkers cannot match the happy-ambivalence in the recorded Fosse-staging, where Pippin affirms that he feels “trapped, which isn’t too bad for the end of a musical comedy.” No such ambivalent fog haunts the happily ever after, or the happy beginning.