The opening number of Schmigadoon! is one that any classic musical fan will recognize very quickly. That unmistakable “Schmiiiig-a-doon” is a direct reference to the title song from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma, a show that defined the musical play for decades. From its boisterous opening number to its loving parodies of theater’s most iconic songs, Schmigadoon! is a love letter to classic musicals. But the show’s devotion to classic theater is also the source of its biggest blind spot.
Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key star as Melissa and Josh, a long-term couple whose relationship has settled into the doldrums. On a retreat meant to help rekindle their lost spark, they step across a misty stone bridge and find themselves in the land of Schmigadoon, and inside an honest-to-goodness Golden Age musical, complete with a cast of familiar archetypes. But while Schmigadoon initially seems like a dream come true for Melissa, a diehard musical theater fan who’s struggled to get Josh to pay attention to Singin’ in the Rain, she realizes that actually inhabiting the world of a decades-old show isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The cheery, welcoming Mayor Menlove (Alan Cumming) is deep in the closet, though the hints at his love for men are laughably obvious. And the town scold, Mildred Layton (Kristen Chenoweth), isn’t just a meddlesome biddy. She’s clearly racist, aghast that Melissa and Josh are an interracial couple.
The show’s attempt to get under the skin of the classic musical bears a lot of similarity to Daniel Fish’s 2019 revival production of (what else) Oklahoma! But it’s awfully timid by comparison. Fish’s revival was a dramatic reimagining that held nothing back. Gone were the lush orchestral stylings and soaring, crystalline vocal performances. Instead, the production was stripped-down, stark, and a little unnerving. When the cast came out for the final reprise, originally intended to be a moment of triumph, many of them were covered in blood. It cut right to the heart of the most quintessential classic musical and turned it into something unfamiliar. And yet Fish’s Oklahoma! kept Rodgers and Hammerstein’s original work intact. It just also laid bare what was always underneath.
Schmigadoon! makes a halfhearted attempt to go the way of the Oklahoma! revival, mostly through embodying and then subverting classic character archetypes. The first to take center stage is “town rapscallion” and carnival custodian Danny Bailey (Aaron Tveit), who is basically Carousel’s Billy Bigelow. Tveit imbues Danny with ample charisma as he sings his way through multiple swaggering pastiches, which is enough to woo Melissa into an ill-considered one-night stand with him. After that, Danny disappears from the show for a while, returning to punch some sense into Josh, and then declares in the final episode: “I’m tired of being a rapscallion. It’s time everyone knew: There’s really no way to win the ring toss.”
It’s the sort of revelation that makes you wonder: Is that it? It’s funny in its relative mundanity, but it feels off because the original Billy Bigelow is emphatically not a good person. In Carousel, he abuses his wife and spends the second act atoning for his life’s sins. Danny Bailey, on the other hand, may be a bit of a philanderer and a con artist, but he hasn’t done anything really bad. His playful charm doesn’t belie anything more insidious than a mild jealous streak. Unlike in Fish’s Oklahoma, there’s nothing that forces us to realize that there was always something not quite right under the surface. In Schmigadoon, everyone means well, and everyone can be redeemed—even Mildred Layton, who is repeatedly implied to be a Nazi (you know, like in The Sound of Music).
Series star Ariana DeBose has talked about how one of Schmigadoon’s strengths is that it spotlights diversity where ordinarily there might not be any. DeBose, who is Afro-Latina, plays town schoolmarm Emma Tate, who most strongly resembles Marian from The Music Man and Anna from The King and I—roles that have historically been played by white actresses. Actors of color like Jaime Camil and Ann Harada also play prominent roles among the people of Schmigadoon. But to what end? The actors may be minorities, but the stories they’re telling are still rooted in whiteness. Though all the character archetypes in the show are plucked from somewhere or other, casting actors of color in recycled roles and calling it diversity feels especially shallow. There’s no cultural specificity to their characters, nor any discussion of the racism they may face within the town, even though—as proved by Mildred and her gaggle of disapproving ladies—that sort of discrimination exists. In fact, Emma Tate, Camil’s Doc Lopez, and Harada’s Florence Menlove all end up graciously stepping aside so their respective romantic interests can live their truths.
When she steps into Schmigadoon, Melissa approvingly notes that the town employs “colorblind casting,” the term frequently used for when an actor of color plays a traditionally white role (although that implies that whiteness is the default). But the concept of colorblind casting as an easy fix has been scrutinized in recent years as casts become more diverse but creative teams and producers do not. Hamilton, which may well be one of the biggest musicals in history, has come under fire time and time again for its use of diverse faces to tell white stories.
This all begs the question: Who is allowed to make musicals? Who is allowed to define the medium?
It’s not just the composers of Golden Age musicals who show an overwhelming lack of diversity. In the 2010s, 10 of the 11 winners of the Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical were white. The aforementioned Hamilton’s creative team mostly consists of white men. Even the most recent Broadway revivals of Once on This Island and The Color Purple, both shows that very specifically tell Black stories, were helmed by white directors.
The problem doesn’t seem to be getting significantly better anytime soon. There’s a stark divide between the state of musicals and the state of plays in the upcoming Broadway season. All seven new plays debuting on Broadway this fall were written by Black playwrights. But the new musicals, including one about Princess Diana and an adaptation of the movie Mrs. Doubtfire, come from overwhelmingly white creative teams. (According to a recent study, almost 94 percent of Broadway directors in the 2018–19 season were white.) In December, a new revival of The Music Man will begin performances with Hugh Jackman in the title role. Its Marian the Librarian, unlike Schmigadoon’s, will be white.
The theater community loves to think of itself as uniquely progressive. Schmigadoon’s final song is called “How We Change”—and it may sound lovely, but it’s incredibly vague. What are all these characters actually changing from? What are they changing to?
In the end, Schmigadoon! is part of the same problem that modern musical theater is still muddling through. It acknowledges that early musicals were rife with racism, misogyny, and homophobia, but it’s afraid to condemn its characters for embodying those values. It doesn’t know how to criticize musicals while still loving them, a dichotomy that any musical fan who also wants the industry to improve must grapple with. Schmigadoon! wants to reassure us that change is possible, yet is ultimately unwilling to confront why that change is needed in the first place.
In the finale of Fish’s Oklahoma, the lyrics are cheerful but the faces are grim. That conflict lies at the heart of how we now look at classic musicals and the impact they’ve had on musical theater, for better and for worse. When classics are revived, it’s become increasingly common for the productions to make minor changes in order to be more palatable for a modern audience. But you can’t pick and choose which parts of a musical to celebrate and which to sweep under the rug. All the lyric changes in the world can’t erase the misogyny baked into Kiss Me, Kate. Shallow changes like gender-flipping the main character or casting actors of color in certain roles just don’t feel like enough anymore. Marginalized people need to be in control of their own narratives, rather than being used as tokens in a vague promise for diversity. And the theater industry needs to stop being afraid to acknowledge its own checkered history.
Classic musicals defined an entire art form. There’s a reason they’re so beloved, and it would be absurd to call for them to be abandoned entirely. But if they’re going to be embedded in the fabric of musical theater forever, then we shouldn’t shy away from putting the ugly parts of them on display. We should strip the lacquer from them to see them as they really are. Maybe once the industry finally confronts its past, we can begin to envision a better future.