TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In watching "Schmigadoon!," I had to wonder who is able to produce such a great series that is both a tribute to and a satire of musicals of the 1940s and early '50s like "Oklahoma!," "Carousel," "The Sound Of Music," "The Music Man" and, of course, "Brigadoon." So a few weeks after talking to Cecily Strong about starring in the series, I spoke with Cinco Paul, who wrote all the songs. He co-created and co-wrote the series with Ken Daurio. They also wrote the animated films "Despicable Me," "The Secret Life Of Pets" and the Dr. Seuss adaptations "Horton Hears A Who!" and "The Lorax."
We started with the opening song from "Schmigadoon!" A married couple, played by Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key, have gotten lost in the woods and emerged to find themselves in a small town called Schmigadoon. The town looks like a stage or movie set from the early 20th century. The couple is totally disoriented and dumbstruck when the townspeople break into song. See if you can recognize what inspired this song.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SCHMIGADOON!")
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (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 we 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 F4: (As character, singing) Still unmarried at 28.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) In Schmigadoon. Farmer McDonough craved a son.
GROSS: Cinco Paul, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank you so much for creating this series.
CINCO PAUL: Oh, 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, you know, 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 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.
PAUL: I'll tell you. We - Ken and I, you know, played music all the time when we were writing. And whenever a musical theater song would somehow pop up in my mix, he would say, skip.
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: One of the things in some musicals is - the love affairs in some musicals, I think, would be considered pretty age-inappropriate now, like, for example, "The Sound Of Music," where, like, she's a young nun who's just left the convent. And she ends up, you know, falling in love with this kind of mean-spirited older man who, of course, becomes a much better human being as soon as he falls in love with her, this kind of, like, magical transformation. In "South Pacific," there's a younger woman who ends up falling in love with an older man. I think you have a shout-out to that.
GROSS: And so is that one of the things you wanted to play with - also the idea that, like, love can totally transform a person into - you know, a kind of stern, rigid person into a much more loving, lovely person?
PAUL: You know, when we were early on conceiving of the show and the journeys that our characters would take, I really wanted Cecily's character Melissa to be involved in what I think are the two big tropes in these old musicals. One is the bad boy, you know, which is the Billy Bigelow character. And then one is the older sort of father figure love interest, you know, that you see in "King And I" and "Sound Of Music" and "South Pacific." Like, clearly it was a thing for Rodgers and Hammerstein. And it is - there is something weird about these old men, you know, sort of creating works of art in which there are these May-December romances.
And so we played with that in two ways. Also, Keegan has, you know, this young farm girl pursuing him, played by Dove Cameron. And immediately he's concerned about the age difference, especially because the actresses, you know, who play these roles were never actually teenagers. And so we play with that trope as well.
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 (laughter)? 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'."
GROSS: And so the reason why they're singing about corn pudding is 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, you know, what is the song that is most going to annoy Keegan's character?
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 as just a - it's kind of the perfect representation of these sort of songs like the - it's "A Real Nice Clambake." Like, who cares? Like, you know?
PAUL: The songs really should move the story forward in some way. And I think that 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 (laughter). 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.
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!")
CAST OF SCHMIGADOON!: (As characters, singing) My guy loves corn puddin'. 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: (As character, singing) Who wants corn puddin'?
CAST OF SCHMIGADOON!: (As characters, singing) We want corn puddin'.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, singing) Who wants corn puddin'?
CAST OF SCHMIGADOON!: (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.
CAST OF SCHMIGADOON!: (As characters, singing) Oh, she sure would like a taste. Corn, corn, corn, corn, corn puddin'. Yum.
GROSS: (Laughter) The music is kind of like a hoedown.
GROSS: And 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.
GROSS: OK, let me reintroduce you here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Cinco Paul, and he co-created, co-wrote and then wrote all the songs for the satirical musical series "Schmigadoon!", which is now streaming on Apple TV+. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF GWENDOLYN DEASE'S "PORKCHOP'S BLUES")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Cinco Paul. He co-created, co-wrote and wrote all the songs for the series "Schmigadoon!", a loving satire of classic musicals from the 1940s and early '50s, like "Oklahoma!", "Carousel," "The Music Man," "The Sound Of Music," "South Pacific" and "Brigadoon." He also co-wrote the animated films "Despicable Me," "The Secret Life Of Pets," and "Horton Hears A Who."
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 are - 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 (laughter) 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 (laughter).
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, he's so different than other men.
I want you to talk about writing this because 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," yeah.
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 - but everything that is evidence that he's gay, she sees as a really positive quality. Like, he doesn't look at other women.
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. 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.
GROSS: 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 o' mine.
STRONG: (As Melissa) Oh, honey.
HARADA: (As Florence, 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 o' mine.
STRONG: (As Melissa) This was literally me in high school.
HARADA: (As Florence, singing) Show me any other man more tender or expressive. I only wish that nightly he were slightly more aggressive.
STRONG: (As Melissa) There it is.
HARADA: (As Florence, 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 o' 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 sense. 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: We're listening to my interview with Cinco Paul. He co-wrote, co-created and wrote all the songs for the satire of musicals called "Schmigadoon!" The series is streaming on Apple TV+. We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Cinco Paul. He co-created, co-wrote and wrote all the songs for the series "Schmigadoon!" He also co-wrote the animated films "Despicable Me," "The Secret Life Of Pets," "Horton Hears A Who!" and "The Lorax." How were you first exposed to musicals? Like, where did you grow up? Did you see music theatre? Was this all through movies?
PAUL: I grew up in Phoenix, Ariz., so I didn't see a lot of shows live, but my mom really loved musicals, and she had cast recordings for - I specifically remember "Camelot" - you know, loving as a pretty young kid and listening to that. I was a weird kid, you know, singing "I Wonder What The King Is Doing Tonight" in my room, memorizing the lyrics. But I remember, you know, "Camelot" and "South Pacific" and "Guys And Dolls" and hearing those a lot. And so that's really - that's when my love affair with musicals began. But also, I remember singing "Singin' In The Rain" for the first time as a kid and Donald O'Connor doing "Make 'Em Laugh," and I thought that was the greatest thing I'd ever seen in my life. It was so funny, and I just loved it.
So that's really where it began when I was a kid. And then I think a real key moment was - I think I was 14 and was asked to play piano for my high school's musical. And it was "How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying." And that really changed everything because then suddenly that became my tribe, you know, the theater kids. And they embraced me. And, you know, I desperately wanted to be on stage, but probably because I didn't really belong there, they kept saying, no, but, Cinco, we need you on the piano. Please continue playing piano for us. But that's really where it deepened into something different. It became my community, you know.
GROSS: What are some of the movies and some of the cartoons that you grew up with?
PAUL: The first cartoon I saw that really impacted me, I think, was "The Jungle Book." I loved that movie so much, and the songs in that are so good. And then I have to say the Marx Brothers have played a huge role in my life. I'm sure that's why I ended up writing movies. I saw my first Marx Brothers movie when I was 10 on TV, and I fell in love with the Marx Brothers and became obsessed. And that really led to my love of movies and reading about movies and then starting to make my own with our family's Super 8 camera, which we've gotten for home movies, you know, on vacation. And suddenly, I used it just to make movies with all the neighborhood kids.
GROSS: You love movies, and you and your writing partner, Ken Daurio, have a podcast. Is this still going on, your podcast?
PAUL: Yeah, it's called "Make Him Watch It," and we make each other watch a movie we've never seen before.
GROSS: Then you have a couple episodes where you share your opinions of films of the '80s and films of the '90s. But I want to play the theme song from this because I think it's you and Ken actually singing the song.
PAUL: It is. I wrote the song.
GROSS: Oh, you wrote the song? And so in the spirit of turning your life into a musical, I just want to play the opening theme from your podcast, "Make Him Watch It."
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "MAKE HIM WATCH IT")
CINCO PAUL AND KEN DAURIO: (Singing) Make him watch it. Make him watch it.
PAUL: (Singing) There's lots of movies Ken hasn't seen.
KEN DAURIO: (Singing) Some Cinco hasn't seen, too.
PAUL: (Singing) So now that there's COVID-19...
PAUL AND DAURIO: (Singing) Here's what we're going to do. We're going to make him watch it for a podcast. We can't wait to make him watch it - with Cinco and Ken.
GROSS: I really love that. It's so, like, vaudeville era.
PAUL: (Laughter) Yes.
GROSS: How were you introduced to music of that period?
PAUL: I mean, it probably came from my love of the Marx Brothers, you know. And, you know, their - a lot of their movies were kind of musicals. You know, "The Coconauts," "Animal Crackers," "Horse Feathers" has a lot of songs in it. So I think that led to my love of these 1920s songs, you know, the Tin Pan Alley stuff. And from the - I was a weird little kid, Terry, I have to say. To be a 10 or 11-year-old kid obsessed with that sort of music was very odd, but I just - I loved it from an early age.
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.
GROSS: Cinco Paul wrote all the songs for the satirical musical series "Schmigadoon!" which he also co-created and co-wrote. It's streaming on Apple TV+. Our interview was recorded in August. If you're looking for things to listen to over the holiday weekend, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews, including the ones we featured this week with Fran Lebowitz and Kieran Culkin.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.