They say you can never go back to Schmigadooon! You can, however, update it. That’s what the creative team behind Apple TV+’s musical tribute series has done for its second season. While the show’s first outing gave us the bright colors, upbeat tempos, and aw-shucks folksiness of musicals from the 1940s and ’50s, the second season (out April 5) explores the seedier sensibilities of plays from the ’60s and ’70s in a brand-new setting: “Schmicago.”
When Josh (Keegan-Michael Key) and Melissa (Cecily Strong) get bored with their lives in the real world, they try to return to Schmigadoon, only to find their way to Schmicago instead. This era of musicals was a time for experimentation and boundary-pushing. The shows were darker, sexier, and more mature. (Think Bob Fosse, Stephen Sondheim, and Hair.) The couple is greeted on the outskirts of town by new cast member Tituss Burgess, playing a sort of amalgamation of the Leading Player from Pippin and the Emcee from Cabaret. “Welcome to Schmicago,” he sings. “Our fantastical farrago. Mystery and magic, endings that are tragic.” It’s immediately apparent that we’re a long, long way from Schmigadoon.
In an interview with The A.V. Club, executive producer and showrunner Cinco Paul—who also composed all the songs for the series—walked us through that big opening number. Filmed on an outdoor backlot in Vancouver, it introduces us to the new characters we’ll be meeting and the world they inhabit. Paul also talked about his influences, the process of putting it all together, and the references you can expect to see, both musical and otherwise, throughout the new season.
The A.V. Club: First off, this opening number is clearly based on “Magic To Do” from Pippin, right?
Cinco Paul: Yeah, for sure. I mean, I love Pippin. Pippin is one of my all-time favorite musicals, so I knew there was going to be a lot of Pippin this season. And so it seemed natural that the opening should be like the opening of Pippin. You know, “Here’s everybody.” We get to introduce all the characters. So it was one of the first songs I wrote and sort of like sitting down at the piano and finding a way to pay homage to it without getting too close.
AVC: That’s the trick of it, isn’t it? To find something that sounds like the song so you know immediately what it is, but doesn’t copy it too closely.
CP: You don’t just want to mimic the song, right? You always want to put a spin on it, and it’s always my goal that the song could stand on its own, that it’s like an undiscovered song from a Kander and Ebb musical or an undiscovered Stephen Schwartz song.
AVC: Did you find it right away, or did it take some tinkering?
CP: Not right away, no. I think this happened the first season, too. Like, my first draft of the opening number of season one I threw out. And also my first draft of this I threw out. It just wasn’t working. And then I sort of came up with making it more about “Welcome to Schmicago” and introducing all the characters. That wasn’t the initial concept, but that was what it became. You know, initially it’s just me at my piano and coming up with something. And then I give it to Doug Besterman and David Chase, who do the orchestrations and arrangements, and I tell them, “This is ‘Magic To Do.’ This is the world we’re in. Go crazy.” I like it to be authentic, you know, to sound as much like that original cast recording as possible. And they love that challenge as well. So then they dive into it.
AVC: Do you look at revivals and other versions that have come along since? For instance, were you influenced by the circus-themed revival of Pippin they did on Broadway a while back?
CP: I loved that version. But I always told everybody we’re doing the original versions of all these musicals that occurred between ’65 and ’79. Unfortunately, there’s no video recording of that. But there’s little things here and there, you know, that you can find. Obviously, there’s an amazing cast recording, which I’ve listened to a million times.
AVC: But, as you said, you also had to introduce the audience to the new characters and the new world we’ll be visiting in season two.
CP: Yeah, exactly. I mean, that was part of the fun of Pippin for me, that you introduce everybody. It’s like a group of players, right? And so you introduce all the other characters in the opening number. I think we kept a couple for surprises, right? Like, we don’t see [Ariana DeBose] and we don’t see Aaron [Tveit] in the first number, because I think Aaron’s hair was, like, so delightful that I wanted to save that for later. But yeah, it’s sort of fun to tease the audience in a way like, “Oh, this is what’s coming.” And the really smart ones will say, “Ooh, it looks like Alan’s playing a Sweeney Todd-like character.”
AVC: You already had Alan Cumming in your company of players from the first season, and he famously played the Emcee in the ’90s revival of Cabaret. So did you intentionally want to keep him as far away from the Cabaret part of the story as possible?
CP: Oh, yeah, I wouldn’t want him to do anything that he’s already done. That’s not fun for him, and not really fun for anyone else. And very early on I knew I wanted him as our Sweeney Todd-like character. He was excited to work with Kristin [Chenoweth]. They’re friends, like best friends, in real life. So they were very excited to get to kiss this season.
AVC: That just goes to show all of the different worlds you’re weaving in here. You’ve got the Victorian characters from Sweeney Todd, plus a whole hippie commune, and also the Bob Fosse-inspired downtown vibe, all mixed together. This opening number actually reminds me of something you might see at the Tonys.
CP: Yeah, it’s like a whole Broadway season. Initially, in the writers’ room, we talked a lot about how we have these three separate worlds in our show and how are we going to handle that? Is it going to be weird being in Victorian England and then having, like, rock ’n’ roll guitars, you know? But ultimately we said maybe that’s the strength of the show, as opposed to a weakness. Let’s just embrace it, the silliness of it, and explore how much fun it would be to have someone from one world meet someone from another. So this opening number is kind of a way to let everybody know this is going to be a little crazy, because we’re going to be all over the place. You tell them what you’re going to do, and then you do it, right? That was really the point of and the beauty of having an opening number like this, where you can just speak directly to the audience and tell them: “Here’s what to expect.”
AVC: What was the rehearsal process like for this number?
CP: So Chris Gattelli, our amazing choreographer, worked with the ensemble. Initially, he puts together a group in New York and then he does like a previs thing just for us to see his ideas. And then we give him feedback, and he works on it there. And then once we get to Canada and he’s got the actual dancers he’s going to work with, they rehearse. We actually had a rehearsal space on the lot where we were, which was great because, like, we can be shooting one thing and they can be rehearsing there, and then if they want to show me something they just grab me and pull me in and I can see what they’re doing. So he works with them. I couldn’t tell you how many hours [it took], but not as many as he would have liked or any of us would have liked. It’s not like the old days, you know. You’re not making a movie musical where you have months to rehearse.
AVC: Were there any challenges you ran into when you got to the filming stage?
CP: The big challenge of this number, of course, is it’s at night. So we were only shooting nights. And it turns out, in Vancouver in the summer, nighttime lasts about five hours. It gets dark at 10 and then it starts to get light around 4. We didn’t really think about that. So that was pretty complicated, realizing, Oh, we’ve got a limited time. And night shoots are hard on everybody.
AVC: Did you ever consider filming it during the daytime or did it have to be at night?
CP: It had to be at night. This season, so much of it takes place at night, which became a challenge during the shoot. But this number for sure, it’s got to be nighttime. You’ve got to see the neon and the city behind them. It’s very different from the way they arrive in Schmigadoon [in season one]. That was the goal right off the bat to say, “This is not your mother’s Schmigadoon.” Or whatever. It’s nighttime; it’s creepy; it’s scary; it’s sexy. There’s suggestions of violence. Like Tituss with an electric chair, and he throws the switch. It’s like, “What is going on? This is not what they were looking for.” To me, it was sort of a little nod to the fans who maybe want to go back to Schmigadoon. It’s like. We’re not going back to Schmigadoon. You can’t go back to Schmigadoon. Now we’re in Schmicago.
AVC: Since you filmed the season in blocks, where did this number come in the schedule?
CP: I think we were about three weeks in, two or three weeks in. We did it in three or four nights. And it was cold, you know. Even though we were shooting in in the summer, it was cold. So I felt for the ensemble. They’re pretty scantily clad, a lot of them.
AVC: So by this point the cast had already been working together for a while.
CP: Yeah. It’s also nice that we were able to bring back a lot of the same ensemble we had in season one. They came back for season two. I wanted to do that. I said, “I want to see familiar faces.” It’s like this big company of actors that all came back for this second show, which is nice. Chris has a shorthand with all these dancers and so that was great to bring them all back and have those familiar faces. And then obviously, you know, our cast, it is like a family. They love each other.
AVC: You brought the whole cast back, but changed it up by putting them in these different roles.
CP: It was really fun to get them back together, and then to mix some people up who didn’t get a lot of time together first season. I also tried to keep that in mind. It’s like, Keegan and Aaron got no time together last season; let’s put them together more this time. And same with Cecily and Dove.
AVC: There are some great Easter eggs in that opening number, and elsewhere in the show too. What were some of your favorites?
CP: I mean, we did a lot with the names of shops in the street. You’ll see all those. And there’s even one that’s a little more obscure. There’s a store that’s shut down called “Herman’s Hummable Tunes,” which is a reference to Jerry Herman’s acceptance speech when he won the Tony for La Cage and made sort of a catty comment directed at Sondheim, like about how hummable tunes are back in fashion. So I thought that was a little dig back at Jerry Herman, you know, may he rest in peace. Then there’s a lot of musical Easter eggs throughout. You know, it’s sort of hard to pinpoint them all. There’s a fun little reference to Grease, which we didn’t deal with in many other ways. But in one of the songs, we have a nice reference to some of the characters from Grease. There’s a quick Bye Bye Birdie reference. They’re peppered throughout.
AVC: So what’s your favorite number from the show?
CP: That’s such a hard question. I love so many of them. I mean, I’m really proud of the song that I wrote that Ariana sings, “Over And Done.” I think she did such a beautiful job with that number. But then [Jane Krakowski’s] number in the courtroom is just so much fun and amazing. And then I also really love what Chris Gattelli did with the choreography for “Talk To Daddy” that Keegan essentially sings with all the hippie ensemble. Yeah, that turned out so great. It was so much fun. It’s very “Rhythm Of Life” from Sweet Charity. And then Kristin’s song, “Worst Brats In Town.” It’s my take on “Worst Pies In London.” I’m sorry, I’m just listing them. Give me time. This list is every song. Every song in the show is my favorite.