All the Hollywood and Broadway Musical Moments to Look for in “Schmigadoon!”

July 21, 2021

In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of about two dozen dancers got the rare opportunity to work on an upcoming Apple TV+ series—one devoted entirely to celebrating, and spoofing, classic 1940s and ’50s musicals from the Great White Way and Hollywood. “Schmigadoon!”, which premiered on AppleTV+ July 16, stars Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key, who get stuck inside a musical and must find true love in order to leave. The show features a star-studded Broadway cast, including Aaron Tveit, Ariana DeBose, Kristin Chenoweth, Alan Cumming, Jane Krakowski and Dove Cameron, and is chock-full of dancing courtesy of series choreographer, Christopher Gattelli.

The adrenaline was pretty exciting, being able to create during the pandemic,” says Gattelli. “I felt like we were representing all performers at that point. There were so many who wanted to be working during the pandemic, so I really tried to embrace this opportunity for all of them.”

Gattelli says it was a dream come true to pay tribute to the dance geniuses that preceded him, like Michael Kidd, Agnes de Mille, Onna White and Jerome Robbins, in his choreography. Each number shows off a “little dusting” of their work.

Dance Spirit
spoke with Gattelli about all the triumphs and tribulations of choreographing in a pandemic, and got an inside look at specific homages to look out for.

Dance Spirit: How did you get involved as the choreographer for ‘Schmigadoon’?

Christopher Gattelli:
Screenwriter Cinco Paul approached me back in October of 2019. It was a dream project: I would get to reference all of my heroes in my work. Then, for a while, I didn’t hear anything, and, of course, soon after, the pandemic happened and everything was shut down. In the middle of the pandemic, the producers called toward the end of spring 2020 and said ‘We’re moving forward with this.’ It all happened so fast, and I started to prepare because I wanted to be on top of things as much as I could. By mid-summer, it was fully happening.

Choreographer Christopher Gattelli on the set of “Schmigadoon!”

Photo Courtesy of Apple TV+

DS: How did you prepare for the numerous musical numbers?

We had two weeks to do pre-production for the show. It was quite a task during COVID. A group of eight dancers and myself rehearsed in Maplewood, New Jersey, at Studio 509. On a typical day, we arrived at the studio at 10 am, got COVID tested and had our protocol conversations. Usually, we would get started around 10:45 am. We always had a COVID health representative in the room watching us very carefully, so I never felt like what we were doing wasn’t safe. We had to always clean our hands, wear our masks and sometimes even our face shields. Usually, we’d wrap up around 6 pm. While we were doing that, they were preparing my flights to Canada, where we would be filming. I had to do a quarantine for 14 days when I got to Vancouver, which meant a lot of Zoom sessions with the cast. Then it was right into rehearsal and filming.

The ensemble cast in “Schmigadoon!”

Photo Courtesy of Apple TV+

DS: What was the biggest obstacle working this way? 

I will always give kudos to that pre-production team of eight dancers, because they were doing the work of 10 people each. The cast overall was immense: We had 22 core dancers, and 60 people total. While we were in New Jersey, we were sending things to Vancouver by video, and had to be very clear on who was playing who and what props would be involved in each scene once we were all together.

DS: Was this the most challenging thing you’ve ever had to choreograph?

Given the way it had to be done, for sure. The first day I saw the whole cast on set in their costumes, it blew my mind, because for weeks, I’d been working with them with only masks on. It was such a surreal experience, because as actors and performers, you usually start with the face, the acting and intent, and then you add the body and dancing.

Ariana DeBose in “Schmigadoon!” now streaming on Apple TV+.

Photo Courtesy of Apple TV+

DS: Where did you draw inspiration from for the choreography in ‘Schmigadoon’?

I wanted to honor great choreographers from the 1940s to the 1950s, like Robert Alton, who did White Christmas. His style stands out to me—it was so specific in the best way. One moment where I paid homage to White Christmas was at the end of “With All of Your Heart,” where Ariana DeBose finishes her dance break and then does a backbend and layout towards the camera, similar to how Vera-Ellen flies down a flight of stairs at the end of the “White Christmas” number in the film.

There’s a tribute to Onna White from her The Music Man choreography in a number called “Corn Pudding,” and Michael Kidd’s athletic choreography from the 1954 film Seven Brides for Seven Brothers inspired a lot of the opening number. Finally, Agnes de Mille’s influence is all over, since she was kind of the queen of that era.

DS: What numbers stood out to you the most? 

The biggest challenge, but also the greatest reward, was working on Kristin Chenoweth’s big number, “Tribulation.” The Music Man was my first musical and I’m such a big fan, so I knew I wanted to incorporate elements from that show into the piece. I also had an idea to make it a one-shot take, because I knew if anyone could do it, it would be Kristin. And she did—that first day on set, she did it with the entire company, marching band and all, in one take. The studio went wild, because it was a huge feat.

Kristin Chenoweth (left) and dancers

Photo Courtesy of Apple TV+

DS: What was it like working with Cecily and Keegan?

I love to make people who wouldn’t consider themselves dancers feel comfortable. Cecily and Keegan both emailed me separately, saying We’re not really dancers, and we have this one number.” I was like, “You’re going to be fine.” I taught them their finale over video. My married colleagues, Tara Wilkinson and Matt Overfield, would send videos of themselves dancing the choreography while quarantined, since they could actually touch each other, to show them what it would look like. Cecily and Keegan would get these breakdowns of material and have to learn them individually. When they came into the room on the first day, I wanted to burst into tears, because I could tell they did the homework, and they looked so beautiful the first day they did it. It meant so much that they took the time and effort to care about the choreography like that.

“Schmigadoon!” is currently streaming on Apple TV+