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Cecily Strong and Barry Sonnenfeld on Bringing Musical Theater to Apple TV+ with Schmigadoon!

Saturday Night Live star and acclaimed filmmaker talk the joys and challenges of creating a 1940s musical during a 2020s pandemic

Schmigadoon! (Apple TV+) and Barry Sonnenfeld (photo by Kathy Hutchins/Shutterstock)
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    An idea birthed over 20 years ago by creator/showrunner Cinco Paul, Schmigadoon! has arrived right when it was destined to.

    Escapism and nostalgia have been at all-time highs over the last year as we all looked out our windows — or at our TV and computer screens — to dream of the golden days of dancing in open fields. Okay, so few of us were ever actually dancing in open fields, but golly did being in quarantine make us wish we were. While we were all dreaming it, Cecily Strong, Keegan-Michael Key, Alan Cumming, Kristin Chenoweth, Fred Armisen, and the rest of the Schmigadoon! cast were actually doing it.

    With scripts and music by Paul and Ken Daurio and under the direction of blockbuster comedy filmmaker Barry Sonnenfeld, the cast absconded last fall to Vancouver to create Apple TV+’s new music comedy series. While Broadway may have been closed back home in the States, the team behind Schmigadoon! were singing and dancing through intricately and tightly designed spaces (hat tip, production designer Bo Welch) in a Canadian studio.

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    The show is a sendup of classic musical theater tropes, delivered with ’40s charm and 2020s perspectives. Its quirkiness makes it perfect for Sonnenfeld’s sensibilities — even if he’s self-professed as no fan of musicals — and Strong, Key, and the rest of the all-star cast dig into the artificial scenery with utter, playful joy.

    Which, again, is why its debut on July 16th is so perfectly timed. We’ve been stuck inside our drab surroundings for far too long, and with the world opening up again, we’re ready to embrace some magic. Some silly, colorful, wonderful magic.

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    “Having seen the [Broadway] theaters shuttered is going to be one of those pictures that affect us looking at years later,” Strong says. “And so definitely, getting to do this at all, getting to be with other people in a scary time… You know, we lived it onscreen and we lived it off screen a little bit, I think.”

    Strong and Sonnenfeld both chatted with Consequence about the magic — and challenges — of creating Schmigadoon! and what it meant to do musical theater while there was no musical theater on stage. Watch the interviews above, and read what the star and director had to say below.

    Cecily Strong — Melissa Gimble

    Audiences are familiar with you from Saturday Night Live and doing all these musical bits, but for you personally, what was it like going from singing about LaGuardia with John Mulaney to getting serenaded by Alan Cumming and Kristin Chenoweth?

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    I mean, to be honest, I love both, so I’ll take them both. But, I have not been serenaded by Kristin Chenoweth before, so that was very cool and inspiring, just watching these incredible performances, like right next to me. I got a lot of private shows. I feel very lucky.

    As a musical theater nerd — which I’ve seen you describe yourself as — there must have been something powerful and interesting to get to do this really intimate, really cool musical production while Broadway is closed and while we’re in the middle of this pandemic. So, what was that kind of emotional feeling for you just being on set and getting to do that, this love letter to musical?

    Absolutely. It certainly was. You know, having seen the theaters shuttered is going to be one of those pictures that affect us looking at years later, the site of a Broadway theater shuttered. And so definitely, getting to do this at all, getting to be with other people in a scary time, and then kind of… We got to go to a magical place anyway; we got to go to Vancouver. And then we’re on this set that’s been built, and it was sort of like running away into the magic woods for a while and getting to be be with people and say, “I love you,” and figure yourself out and sing and dance. You know, we lived it onscreen and we lived it off screen a little bit, I think.

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    What were the challenges of working on this set? Like you’ve said, it’s really tight. It’s really small, deliberately, and of course, you’re filming in the middle of the pandemic, and you’re filming a musical where you have to open your mouth wide and sing directly in front of somebody.

    And I got to kiss a couple of people too. We really had to trust each other and keep each other safe. And it was like, if we do that, we get to make this thing. And how special is it that we get to do this? So it was sort of… You know, the rules aren’t easy, but everybody was diligent and we got to do it and we made it happen and aren’t we lucky?

    With your character in particular, there’s a lot of modern social norm changing coming out of your character. Part of you is carrying the weight of having to be in this musical in the middle of a pandemic, and then line wise, you’re also kind of being the mouth for this modern turn. So what was it like living in the 1940s musical world and trying to promote sort of modern changes?

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    Yeah. I, I think we definitely walked a fine line and there were a lot of discussions about what’s a musical trope versus what was an ugly truth of America during when these movies were made. And sort of going, “Well, I don’t want to make the ugliest things, tropes, of musicals. You know, that’s just not going to be fun to play in while we’re escaping.”

    But I also think it was just… What I like about Melissa is that she’s not trying to make a point in saying any of these things. I like having people that just go; they accept the reality and move on, you know? I appreciated that about her, I guess, what makes her the 21st century [person]. When it’s like “a male presenting person of age.” She’s always trying to say it right. So it’s always a little bit hard. You were trying to say it, right. We’re trying to say things, right.

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