When Lorne Michaels first heard the pitch for “Schmigadoon!,” the comedic love letter to the Golden Age musicals of the 1940s and 50s, he didn’t have to look far for his leading lady – he offered it to “Saturday Night Live” star Cecily Strong. Asked why, Michaels simply states: “I didn’t think of anyone else.”
Having seen the show, the first season of which premiered last year on Apple TV Plus, it’s obvious why Strong was the right match for Melissa Gimble, a New York City doctor who finds herself and boyfriend Josh Skinner (Keegan-Michael Key) trapped in a mystical land, only able to leave when they find true love. But, Michaels elaborates, “I knew she would get the ways in which it’s moving and complex but also understand that cartoon reality. And I knew she would make us care about this relationship.”
Created by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, with Paul taking on showrunner duties and writing all the songs (with an underscore by Christopher Willis), “Schmigadoon!” works both as a loving parody and sharp satire, with characters and relationships the audience genuinely cares about. All six episodes were directed by Barry Sonnenfeld and the cast features an impressive lineup that includes Tony winners Kristin Chenoweth, Jane Krakowski, Martin Short and Aaron Tveit as well as Oscar winner Ariana DeBose.
Michaels and Strong spoke to Variety about the shows that inspired them, shooting during COVID restrictions and what to expect in Season 2.
You have to be a fan of musicals to do a show like this — when did you fall in love with the genre?
Lorne Michaels: I can go first because I’m older. I grew up in the time of — well, I hate to use the word heyday — but when musicals were really peaking. Shows like “My Fair Lady” and all the Sondheims. It was so much a part of the culture in the 50s and 60s, then rock and roll sort of took it’s place in my life to some degree, but I’ve never lost interest. It was one of my first loves.
Cecily Strong: My grandmother bought me a couple of VHS musicals as a kid, and I the ones I really remember were “South Pacific,” “My Fair Lady” and “Oliver,” which was my favorite. I had a real “South Pacific” phase for awhile.
Michaels: We used to do musicals at summer camp and I actually directed a production of “South Pacific” there, with 14-year-olds in the roles.
How did the show first come your way and what interested you in making it?
Michaels: I met with Cinco Paul and thought it was perfect for Cecily and brought [her] in almost immediately. But it was a long process in terms of rewrites and shaping it. We did some table reads for Apple — Apple was in pretty much from the beginning, but I don’t think they knew what they had. They liked the idea but I urged them to come to a table read and see it live to understand what it was going to be.
Strong: When he first explained it, I was like, “Okay, sure. I don’t know what any of that means.” But I was in. And then at that first table read, I really saw how much was there. It was so funny and sincere and honestly, at the time, it felt so nice to do something spreading so much joy.
Michaels: We did three [table reads], I believe. Each time with a different lead. Andrew Garfield did it once, different people played the part. We were workshopping it in the nicest possible way, and those performances really helped shape the part. But the process took so long and people had other commitments; things change. I’m so grateful to all the actors who helped us workshop it.
The cast is so phenomenal. Did you find people were anxious to sign on? It’s an all-star lineup of Broadway talent.
Michaels: I always say if you write good parts, you’ll get good actors. And there were really good parts. Also, Barry Sonnenfeld had his own relationships with people like Kristin Chenoweth. A lot of the people in there are some way connected to our world — they’d done “SNL” or loved musicals.
Strong: I think it’s even more indicative now of how much it means to us, because there’s not COVID restrictions stopping people from working and everyone made sure to make time to come back for Season 2.
Cecily, your chemistry with Keegan is so spectacular and it makes us root for this couple from the start. Did you know each other prior to this?
Strong: I think I had met him. But I just had him in mind. You know how you can see somebody and just assume you’ll be best friends with them? It was one of those times where that actually happened. It was like meeting someone I’ve known my whole life. We both share a Midwest background and the sketch background and we’re big musical theater nerds. And we’re big crybabies – we’d often joke about who was going to cry first. I think at one point he said, “You know, I’ve only ever had this kind of feeling shooting with someone before, and that was Jordan.” It was so much fun working with him, I almost worried we’d get in trouble on set because we just wanted to goof off.
Michaels: We talked about Keegan a lot through this process. In the end, the show wouldn’t work without these two leads and her instinct was Keegan. And it was one of those rare occasions where she was right.
Strong: (Laughs) It happens every now and then. It’s like an eclipse.
I couldn’t help but notice that after shooting this, a couple of your cast members hosted “Saturday Night Live.” Was this sort of a tryout for Keegan and Ariana DeBose?
Michaels: Ariana was breathtaking in “Schmigadoon!” but then I saw “West Side Story” and knew she’d be a great host. She wasn’t as well-known as she is now, but it’s always good for us to be early on those things.
Yes, it was nice of her to win an Oscar to help promote your show!
Strong: It was so nice of her to take one for the team.
Because this shot in October, was there a time when Cecily was doing both “Schmigadoon!” and “Saturday Night Live?”
Strong: Yes. I did a few remote things with a crew. I think Kimberly Guilfoyle was the first thing I filmed in Vancouver — and what a way to introduce yourself to a bunch of Canadians, screaming at the top of your lungs while wearing fake boobs and fake nails. I did some other things but it was really hard because it was risky to set up anything that would be live. I would have loved to do more.
Of course, I have to ask about Season 2 – is there anything you can reveal? I believe you’re calling it “Schmicago”?
Strong: Yes, we’re going into ’60s and ’70s musicals. I can’t reveal much, but I will say, I’m loving my wardrobe this season. Oh, yeah. I’ve already worn feathers twice, so if that tells you anything.