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'Schmigadoon!' co-creator says series was onspired by a 'love affair' with musicals

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University, in for Terry Gross. "Schmigadoon!" the TV series that is a loving parody of stage and screen musicals of a bygone era, returns for Season 2 next week. I'll have a review of it later in the show. But first, let's listen to Terry's 2021 interview with Cinco Paul, who wrote all the songs for "Schmigadoon!" He also co-created and co-wrote the series. Along with his writing partner Ken Daurio, he wrote the animated films "Despicable Me," "The Secret Life Of Pets" and the Dr. Seuss adaptations "Horton Hears A Who" and "The Lorax."

"Schmigadoon!" streams on Apple TV+. It stars Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key as a couple who try to repair their relationship by taking a hike in the woods. They get lost, cross over a bridge and suddenly find themselves in a small town called Schmigadoon, which looks like a stage or movie set from the early 20th century. The women are wearing prairie dresses with long petticoats, and the men are dressed like they're in a barbershop quartet. It turns out that in this town, life is a musical. People sing their feelings and dance, too.

This is initially charming for the Cecily Strong character, but Keegan-Michael Key's character hates musicals. Soon they realize they're trapped in a musical. And like it or not, their conversations will be interrupted by people breaking out into song. In this scene, they've just entered Schmigadoon and are totally disoriented. When the townspeople break out into song, see if you know which musical inspired this particular number.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SCHMIGADOON!")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (As characters, singing) Schmigadoon, where the sun shines bright from July to June, and the air's as sweet as a macaroon - Schmigadoon. Schmigadoon, where it's warm and safe as a new cocoon, and our hearts all glow like a harvest moon - Schmigadoon. Schmigadoon, where the men are men, and the cows are cows, and the farmers smile as they push their plows, and the trees are tall, and we call it Schmigadoon. Our schoolmarm is Emma Tate. She helps our kids to punctuate.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) Still unmarried at 28.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (As characters, singing) In Schmigadoon. Farmer McDonough craved a son...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Cinco Paul, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank you so much for creating this series (laughter).

CINCO PAUL: Oh (laughter), thank you for having me.

GROSS: How did you come up with the idea of a musical about people trapped in a musical set in the early 20th century?

PAUL: Well, it's kind of crazy. I had the idea for this almost 25 years ago, and it was while I was watching the movie "An American Werewolf In London," of all things - one of my favorite movies. And it opens with two friends hiking through the wilderness, and they're hiking over the countryside. And I suddenly thought, wow, the opening to this is very much like the opening to "Brigadoon." And then I thought, what if these two modern guys, instead of stumbling on a town that has a werewolf, stumbled on a town that was in a musical?

And that was the germ of the idea, but I didn't really know what to do with it. So it was one of those that I just filed away. But what really cracked it for me was, oh, instead of two friends, it should be a couple so that it is more of a romantic comedy, and it can be more about, what does love mean? What's true love really mean? I think that's why for 25 years nothing happened with it because it was - it needed that addition to really crack it.

GROSS: So the Cecily Strong character loves musicals. The Keegan-Michael Key character hates musicals. Why did you want him to hate musicals?

PAUL: Well, I thought it was really important. I mean, first of all, it's really funny to have someone who hates musicals be stuck in a musical, but also for him to be the eyes and ears of the people, unlike me, who don't love musicals. And in many ways that was Ken, and in many ways, it's my wife, you know, that...

GROSS: Oh, boy. You're trapped.

(LAUGHTER)

PAUL: I'll tell you, we - Ken and I, you know, played music all the time when we were writing and whatever musical theater song would somehow pop up in my mix, he would say, skip.

(LAUGHTER)

PAUL: He was not a fan. He's become a little more of a fan. And, you know, I wouldn't say my wife hates musicals, but she does not, you know, embrace them in the way that I do. So it was really important for the show to have that perspective.

GROSS: Some musicals have really corny scenes in them, and the kind of scene that always bores me is the picnic scene where it's like, this was a real nice clambake. I'm really glad we came. It's like, can we skip that? Can we skip that and get to the good stuff? And, you know, even, like, operas have, like, songs like that where there's, you know, like, a festival or, you know, a picnic or something. And, like, those are usually boring, too. And I never really understand the function that they serve. And you kind of have a song parodying that called "Corn Puddin'."

PAUL: Yes.

GROSS: And so the reason why they're singing about corn pudding is that it's their first morning in town, and they're sitting on the porch and about to have breakfast, and they're asked if they want some corn pudding, and they don't even know what corn pudding is. And then the town just starts singing about how great corn pudding is. So I'd like you to talk a little bit about what you think of those moments in musicals where you have to sing about food or a picnic or a clambake.

PAUL: Yeah, I mean, "Corn Puddin'" came out of - initially I was thinking, what is the song that is most going to annoy Keegan's character?

GROSS: (Laughter).

PAUL: What would be the worst possible song to subject him to, you know? And it's just, oh, a song just about food and "Corn Puddin'" suddenly came to me is just that it's kind of the perfect representation of these sort of songs like - it's a real nice clambake. Like, who cares? Like, you know...

(LAUGHTER)

PAUL: ...The songs really should move the story forward in some way. And I think the worst example is "Shipoopi" from "Music Man," which is - it brings everything to a grinding halt. And then this Marcellus character is just singing this nonsense song that has nothing to do with anything. And so that's what "Corn Puddin'" is. It's an ode to those songs. But the fun thing is that ironically, in our show, it does move the story forward because this stupid song gets Keegan to say, OK, we're leaving. We're not going to spend another minute in this town.

GROSS: And the waitress delivering the corn pudding is the younger woman who's pursuing him.

PAUL: Yes.

GROSS: Why don't we hear "Corn Puddin'"? And we'll also hear the Cecily Strong character kind of join in in a verse, much to the Keegan-Michael Key character's annoyance.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SCHMIGADOON!")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (As characters, singing) My guy loves corn puddin' (ph). I got the recipe. So if he wants my puddin', he'll have to marry me. Oh, he'll have to marry me. You put the corn in the puddin' and the puddin' in the bowl. You put the bowl in your belly 'cause it's good for the soul. You put the corn in the puddin' and the puddin' in the bowl. You put the bowl in your belly 'cause it's good for the soul.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing) Who wants corn puddin'?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (As characters, singing) We want corn puddin'.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing) Who wants corn puddin'?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (As characters, singing) We want corn puddin'.

CECILY STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) I think they want us to take a verse.

KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY: (As Josh Skinner) I'm not singing, and you're not singing.

STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) Come on - could be fun.

KEY: (As Josh Skinner) No. Do not.

STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble, singing) Never had corn puddin'.

KEY: (As Josh Skinner) Why?

STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble, singing) And it may be a waste, but if you've got some extry (ph)...

KEY: (As Josh Skinner) Extry?

STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble, singing) ...I sure would like a taste.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (As characters, singing) Oh, she sure would like a taste - corn, corn, corn, corn, corn puddin'. Yum.

STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) Yum. Oh, that was so weird. It was like as soon as I started singing, I knew what to say.

KEY: (As Josh Skinner) That's fantastic. Can we please go now?

STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) What? Why?

KEY: (As Josh Skinner) Are you serious? The entire town and you just spent the last five minutes singing about corn pudding.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Did somebody say corn puddin'?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (As characters, singing) Corn puddin'.

KEY: (As Josh Skinner) That's it. We're leaving.

STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) OK, well, that one's on you.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (As characters, singing) Corn puddin', corn puddin', corn puddin', corn puddin', corn puddin', corn puddin'.

GROSS: The music is kind of like a hoedown.

PAUL: Yes.

GROSS: It just reminded me, too, that when I was in school, we had to learn some of that kind of dancing, you know, like square dancing.

PAUL: Yeah. That was part of the curriculum somehow.

GROSS: Yeah. It's like, why are we learning this? We live in Brooklyn. Like, what are you thinking?

PAUL: (Laughter) I guess it was more appropriate for me growing up in Phoenix. I wonder if - is square dancing still taught in some schools? I feel like when my kids were little, they were still teaching square dancing. There must be a lobby somewhere that is making sure that that's still taught in schools.

GROSS: (Laughter) I like that idea - the square dancing lobby.

PAUL: Yeah.

GROSS: OK.

BIANCULLI: Cinco Paul speaking with Terry Gross in 2021 - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONNY ROLLINS' "TOOT, TOOT, TOOTSIE")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2021 interview with Cinco Paul about "Schmigadoon!," the musical comedy series he co-created and co-wrote. He also wrote all the songs. Season 2 of "Schmigadoon!" begins next week on Apple TV+.

GROSS: I want to get to another song. We all know that so many performers on Broadway historically have been gay, and it's only in recent years that they've been able to be out, and it's only recently that there are actually musicals about gay people who are out of the closet. So you have a few really funny references to, like, closeted gay people in musicals. One of the really funny songs - the mayor, who's played by Alan Cumming, is secretly gay, and it's a secret he's never disclosed to anybody. And he sings a song that kind of is a secret love kind of song, but...

PAUL: Yes, where he inadvertently reveals to Cecily's character that he's gay.

GROSS: Because she has gaydar and no one in the town does.

PAUL: Yes, exactly.

GROSS: But the mayor's wife sings a song that's called "He's A Queer One, That Man O' Mine." She has no clue that he's gay, but she knows that, you know, he's different from the other men. And usually in those songs, that's like, he's wonderful. He's so different from other men. But in this one, it's kind of like, hmm (ph), he's so different than other men. I want you to talk about writing this 'cause this is an example of a song that I don't think closely adheres to another song. It's a kind of - there's references to other songs in it, including "You're A Queer One, Julie Jordan" from - that's from "Carousel," right?

PAUL: That's from "Carousel."

GROSS: Yeah. So - but talk about writing this and what you wanted to do with it.

PAUL: Yeah. I mean, to me, there is a trope in these musicals often. There's a song called "Something Wonderful" from "King And I" and another song from "Carousel" called "What's The Use Of Wond'rin'." And I guess there's also "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man Of Mine" (ph) - you know, these women who sing songs where, you know, he has maybe these flaws, but I still love him, you know? And so I wanted to play with that. But this is a song where she has no clue that her husband is gay. And so she - but everything that is evidence that he's gay, she sees as a really positive quality. Like, he doesn't look at other women.

(LAUGHTER)

PAUL: You know, he's amazing. And he's so tender, and he loves cooking. And, you know, she talks about, like, other men are really harsh. And - but he's gentle, you know, like a lacy valentine (laughter). And for her, it's all these really positive qualities. But also, really, in many ways, the mayor's story is at the heart of the show 'cause he is one of these characters that, back in the day, could only be queer-coded, you know? And - but because we have modern characters in "Schmigadoon!" now and Cecily's character really likes to get involved in people's lives, she helps push him to, you know, proclaim to the whole town who he really is. And Alan does such an amazing job with this character and really gives him depth and heart in a way that elevates it even beyond, you know, what I'd hoped he'd bring.

GROSS: Yeah. He's great in it. So this starts - this clip will start with Cecily Strong speaking. And I should say that the mayor's last name is Menlove - another little clue. OK, so here's "He's A Queer One," and this is Ann Harada singing.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SCHMIGADOON!")

STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) Mrs. Menlove, forgive me for asking, but how much do you really know about your husband?

ANN HARADA: (As Florence Menlove) That's a good question. He's a hard man to know, it seems - different. (Singing) Some men like to fight and curse. They smoke and drink and yell, leave you flat, or even worse, they stay and make life hell. But my man is gentle, as soft and sentimental as any lace adorned a valentine. He's a queer one, that man of mine.

STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) Oh, honey.

HARADA: (As Florence Menlove, singing) Some men stumble home at dark, want dinner and dessert. Other men have eyes that spark at every passing skirt. But my man loves cooking. I've never caught him looking at other gals more young, petite or fine. He's a queer one, that man of mine.

STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) This was literally me in high school.

HARADA: (As Florence Menlove, singing) Show me any other man more tender or expressive. I only wish that nightly, he were slightly more aggressive.

STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) There it is.

HARADA: (As Florence Menlove, singing) Sometimes it may seem like he is too good to be true, like there's a man that I can't see just aching to break through. I wish I could free him so I could finally see him the way he truly is and let him shine. He's a queer one, that man of mine.

GROSS: That's music from "Schmigadoon!," the loving satire of '40s and early 1950s musicals. And my guest, Cinco Paul, co-created the series, co-wrote it and wrote all the songs. Oh, that's really - it's a funny song, but it's also - it's a lovely song. It's a nice melody.

PAUL: Yeah. I mean, that was the intention. I never wanted the songs to be too jokey, if that makes - you know, I really wanted them, like, oh, that could genuinely have been a song sung in an undiscovered Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. And then it ends in a very - you know, Ann does an amazing job with the song, and it ends in a really sweet spot - right? - where she sort of wishes he could be who he really is. She suspects that he's not being his true self. She doesn't know what that actually means, but she really wishes the best for him and loves him.

GROSS: Well, listen. Congratulations on "Schmigadoon!" Please do a Season 2, and it's been great to talk with you.

PAUL: From your mouth to God's ears. Terry, I have to say, it is so meaningful to me that you like the show and that you responded to it like this. Thank you so much.

BIANCULLI: Cinco Paul speaking with Terry Gross in 2021. Season 2 of "Schmigadoon!" premieres next Wednesday on Apple TV+. After a break, I'll review it. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONNY ROLLINS' "I'M AN OLD COWHAND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.