“There’s an idea that musicals are fluffy and, in a lot of ways, this show was intentionally fluffy,” said series creator Cinco Paul.
In July 2021, Apple TV+ unveiled the first episode of their ambitious musical series, “Schmigadoon!” Focused on a couple (played by Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key) trapped in a magical land of musical tropes, the comedy wasn’t just a send-up of Old Hollywood stage shows, but a charming new addition of its own.
The series’ cast and crew felt “Schmigadoon” came to signify far more than they anticipated. “There’s an idea that musicals are fluffy and, in a lot of ways, this show was intentionally fluffy,” said series creator Cinco Paul to IndieWire. The cast is comprised of many Broadway actors, and “Schmigadoon!” — given its 2020 production — provided them an opportunity to perform and sing live when there was no live theater happening. “The crew was sitting there watching us do these numbers, singing live on set, and they said, ‘We might be the only people in the world right now getting to watch like a live musical performance,’” said star Aaron Tveit.
Season 1’s abundance of musical numbers is amazing, but Tveit’s introductory performance of the song “You Can’t Tame Me” showcases the joy, heart, and humor that makes “Schmigadoon!” so special. In it, Tveit’s “rapscallion” Danny Bailey woos Strong’s Melissa by emphasizing that she can’t make him settle down. Tveit, alongside Cinco Paul and choreographer Christopher Gattelli, discussed working on the scene, what they lost due to the pandemic, and how the dancers of the past inspired it all.
The following oral history has been lightly edited for concision and clarity.
“When a Squirrel Wants Another Squirrel”
Cinco Paul: [“You Can’t Tame Me”] was there, from very early on. We wanted [Cecily Strong’s Melissa] to wander in and have this romantic moment with this classic musical theater trope guy. I dived in and studied Hammerstein’s lyrics, what his tendencies were, and how to play with those. I sat down at the piano and played through them and sang them so I could really have them in my bones. That was a big part of the process.
And then it is just me sitting down with a notebook and writing a zillion ideas and rhymes, you know? “El Paso rhymes with lasso.” I did [the line] “two girls for you, and two boys for me,” which I don’t think is actually in any of the [Hammerstein] songs, but it just felt real and you want to provide things for Cecily’s character to comment on. Aaron’s so phenomenal and totally got how to play this character and play it with such sincerity and intensity. The character is not in on the joke, but it makes all the jokes funnier because of that.
Aaron Tveit: I got the scene before “You Can’t Tame Me” and I was like, “Oh, this is the bench scene from ‘Carousel,’” almost right on the nose. But at that point, I didn’t know anything about it. I thought, “How funny is it to put Cecily with this one-dimensional classical musical theater trope.” There’s all this room for comedy between the one-dimensionality versus this progressive, modern, smart, hilarious woman.
Paul: I actually wrote an initial song called “Love’s a Moment in Time,” and I think we did it at maybe the first table read and I thought, “This isn’t good enough.” The opening [line] about the “squirrel wants another squirrel” was always there, but then the rest of it I tossed out. It wasn’t fun enough. It wasn’t interesting enough. And it was just a little too straightforward. So I decided I need to double down on the “Carousel” of it all. I wanted it to fit that trope [of] the Rodgers and Hammerstein guy who denies love, but it’s real. It’s a love song that’s about “I’m not in love.”
Tveit: When I read for it my agents, they said, “They might want you to sing, [but] you might not need to sing [because] they know you can sing, so don’t worry about it.” But when I read the scene I was like, “I’m going to record the scene and then at the end of the scene I’m going to ad-lib right into ‘If I Loved You’ [from “Carousel”]. Talking to Cinco afterwards, when I did that it showed them that I understood what this was.
Paul: He’s Billy Bigelow [from “Carousel”]; he’s Curly from “Oklahoma.” There’s a little bit of “I’m a Bad, Bad Man” from “Annie Get Your Gun” in there.
“But I Choose to Live A Cappella”
Christopher Gattelli: I am such a fan of the golden age of musicals. That’s why I do what I do. Watching Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire movies, doing all that physical dancing. I rewatched everything, but I didn’t want anything to be so specific that someone was like, ‘Oh, that’s a blatant ripoff of X or Y.’ It was putting a lot of those moments in a blender and making him like every handsome leading man of that time.
Tveit: “You Can’t Tame Me” and definitely the “You Can’t Tame Me” reprise were more vocally challenging. A lot of my musical work has been pop rock, high screaming stuff. David Chase, our brilliant music supervisor, told me to listen to the original Ethel Merman recording of “Annie Get Your Gun” that’s just so chesty. It was accessing a different part of my voice that I don’t use often.
Gattelli: For “Can’t Tame Me,” there were flecks of Gene Kelly and flecks of Fred Astaire. [Aaron’s] final move around the column was obviously “Singin’ in the Rain.” And then when [Aaron] jumps off, he hops around before he starts dancing with her [and] that was Gene Kelly with the umbrella.
Tveit: I had a bunch of one-on-one rehearsals with Chris in the studio and he gave me all these musical references. We watched Gene Kelly in “Brigadoon” and “Summer Stock” and he was pulling all of these musical dance references from that.
Gattelli: All of the actors’ spirits [are] like YouTube playlists to get into your head, physically, about how the character would move. There’s like a torso thing, a way that they don’t really move their arms that much below the waist. Like when Aaron starts “You Can’t Tame,” you can’t let your arms loose, it has to be a little stiff.
There was a moment that he did, I’m not sure if it stayed in or not, but he jumps up onto the ledge of the ride and there’s a squeak [sound] from “Summer Stock” that Gene Kelly does when he steps on the piece of wood and does a squeak.
Tveit: I don’t really consider myself a dancer, but I’ve danced in a lot of shows that I’ve been in. It turned into this very song-and-dance man number, which was so much fun for me because I’ve not really gotten to do that. It’s basically all Gene Kelly.
“In a Cozy Little Cottage With a White Picket Fence”
Paul: [Set designer] Bo Welch is a genius and he designed that so beautifully. I wanted it to feel like it was created in the ’40s, and he just went for it. The set is so clever and authentic and beautiful with the swans, and the big kewpie doll face in the middle. Creepy, but also kind of sweet. Heart imagery everywhere.
Gattelli: [The set] is inspiration — it inspires me. It makes my wheels crank, like, “How can I utilize that?” It was exciting because it kept changing. They kept playing with what structures would be most useful and landed on the shooting range and the tunnel of love. The shooting range was always there because of that scene where [Danny] gets close to her and it’s like “Annie Get Your Gun.” It was fun to be able to use the playground of it.
When I’m choreographing and setting things up, half of my inspiration is the art of the dancers. I’m watching them perform it because they’re going to inspire me. But because I would only ever see this much of them [indicating their eyes] I couldn’t ever see their facial expressions; I could never see what they’re fully bringing to the piece. So it was hard to choreograph via eyes. It was hard to see the actual numbers until we were on the set, fully costumed. It was an odd barrier to have to play with.
Paul: There were limits to who could be on the set, and we all had to be masked up. It was kind of a bummer for the cast because they’re stuck in their hotel when they would like to come visit the set and watch other numbers. I can remember Aaron, in particular, his first day, when he came on the set. I said, “Aaron, you got to see this thing that we shot yesterday. It was ‘Cross That Bridge’ and I showed it to him, the big final shot. He got emotional because it’s like, ‘We’re doing this. I can’t believe we’re doing this amazing thing in a time when there is no other theater.’”
Gattelli: They had to wear masks and there was a lot of partnering in the show, [which] we were allowed to do if it was like every 15 minutes. So we had that built into the time; “OK, enough contact, sanitize after.” It was early fall we were rehearsing, but it was hot enough that to dance and try to breathe through some of those really acrobatic and athletic numbers was really hard for them.
“But That Will Never Be”
Gattelli: There was actually a carousel [at one point]. I was planning on having [Cecily] on the horse and [Aaron] holding the pole. Then we were thinking if it was moving, we wanted them to move but not the set to move.
Paul: [I was] talking with Barry Sonnenfeld, the director, about my desire to do as much of this without cuts as possible, and you’ll notice in this number there’s a lot of really long takes. The dance number was much longer. I felt so bad for Aaron when we realized we had to cut it because the song was too long and the first episode was going on for too long. I apologized because he worked so freaking hard on that. Maybe someday Apple will release a restored full version of it because it’s amazing work, but there is a point where you realize your tolerance for the length of those numbers is better live in the theater.
Tveit: [It was] probably another 15 or 20 seconds of a few counts of eight in the middle there. I didn’t know it was gone when I first saw the clip because I was so overwhelmed with how happy I was.
Gattelli: We didn’t even cut that that much out of it. We tried to be very efficient with the dance breaks because we knew we only had a certain amount of time for each episode and to cover as many storylines and characters as we did. While the dance break was a little longer, it just was like, “OK, we’ve seen him woo her so we don’t need as much because then he’s going to wrap her up in the ‘Oklahoma’ pose in the second [song].”
Tveit: They say that you should just do things that scare you — this number definitely scared me. I had a bunch of one-on-one rehearsal with Chris, but he’s so busy doing other numbers and rehearsing other things [that] I was left to my own devices. I’ve also never tapped before, ever. When we got to the day we were shooting that number, I was quite nervous. Luckily, everyone bared with me doing a few takes. They were trying to get the sequence in one take, too. Barry, very nicely said, “There’s a part in the middle that I can naturally cut and they’ll never know.” When I saw it, I was thrilled. I couldn’t believe how well it came out.
“Schmigadoon!” is available to stream on Apple TV+.