Singing Mormons (No, Not Those Singing Mormons)

Schmigadoon!’s send-up of musical theater is both wholesome and really, really funny.

Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio. Photo: Jeff Minton
Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio. Photo: Jeff Minton

For a stretch of the early aughts, screenwriting partners Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul struggled to sell scripts. It was an effort made no easier by their unorthodox style of pitching to executives. They’d go into a chilly glass office, explain the premise and characters, outline story beats, and start to sing. Daurio insists this wasn’t as weird as it sounds.

“In comedy, the big set pieces are often linked to music,” he explains. “Or something funny happening around music.”

“We’d just perform that moment,” says Paul. “Singing those parts in harmony.”

“Sometimes it was real awkward,” Daurio says. “You’d see people, like” — he mimes leaning away, palms up, looking worried — “Uhhhh …” Sometimes the duo delighted their audience; sometimes they finished to crickets. Once, after pitching the head of Warner Bros., the hard no went simply, “Well, that was loud.”

“To be fair, we were really loud,” Paul says. “We sing all the time.” On drives, in public, in the office. “We kept getting kicked out of offices for noise complaints.”

What began in surreal pitch meetings is now coming to surreal prestige TV.
In July, Apple TV+ will begin airing Schmigadoon!, Paul and Daurio’s send-up of classic musicals. In the show, Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key play two mid-career New York City doctors whose long-term relationship is in a slump. They go on a hiking trip in an attempt to rekindle the spark, get lost, and wind up in a Blumhouse horror film with just a touch of whimsy. “What … is … happening?” Josh asks Melissa, as they stumble into a 1940s small-town square, an invisible orchestra swells, and a cast of singing, dancing, all-too-jubilant townsfolk welcomes them to Schmigadoon, “where the sun shines bright from July to June, and the air’s as sweet as a macaroon.” Thus begins a diabolical homage to the golden age of Broadway, in which the leads are cursed to find true love in order to escape. Or as Key’s Broadway-hating Josh says, “It’s like if The Walking Dead were also Glee.

Packed with wittily refashioned Broadway plotlines and original songs, Schmigadoon! operates with the brand of manic, ironyproof exuberance Paul and Daurio have brought to most every project in their career. Both members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, they began their creative partnership onstage during the 150th anniversary of the Mormon pioneers’ arrival in the Salt Lake Valley. The pair went on to write hit movies including Despicable Me and The Secret Life of Pets but couldn’t stop thinking about making a live-action musical of their own.

“My whole life has been leading up to Schmigadoon!” says Paul, a Broadway fiend more partial to the original Book of Mormon (though he allows that Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s version has “one of the best first acts ever”). A classically trained pianist from age 5, Paul — named “five” in Spanish because he was born on Cinco de Mayo — was raised in a Phoenix home that was alive with the sound of original-cast recordings. “My mom loved them,” he tells me from his home north of Malibu; Daurio lives nearby. “Camelot, South Pacific, Guys and Dolls, and Oliver. I grew up with it in my head.” He says he found his people when he was tapped as a pianist for a high-school production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. His mother was Mormon, but his dad insisted they postpone his baptism, and he didn’t convert until he was planning to leave for college.

Daurio, 50, whose time in grade-school musicals awakened him as a performer, came to LDS later in life. After attending high school in Southern California, he pursued a career directing music videos for rock acts. At age 19, he and a friend would drive to Hollywood clubs like the Roxy and the Whisky a Go Go, sneak backstage, and persuade bands to work with them. He married a Mormon woman and converted, leaving late nights in clubs behind, and started to write comedy scripts. In 1997, his wife dragged him to audition for a play put on by their local temple. The writer was Paul, then a recent film-school grad who had managed to sell one spec script but little else. For the 150th anniversary celebration, he’d written the book and music for an original show called Dear Diary. “A modern girl and a pioneer girl switch places,” Paul remembers. “Spend time in each other’s world. And, you know, ‘learn a valuable lesson.’ ” He laughs. “Very Waiting for Guffman.

Daurio got a part, and the two were soon hanging out after rehearsal, singing Beatles songs and discovering a shared, post-Letterman comic sensibility rare in their faith community. “I mean, there’s not a lot of comedy in the Church,” Paul says. The two formed a band; at practices, they batted ideas back and forth before ultimately sitting down to write together. Their feature debut, 2001’s oddball comedy Bubble Boy, reveals a lot about their spiritual origin source: Born without an immune system, a kid is forced by his overprotective, devout Christian mom to live inside a bubble at home. When he falls for the girl next door, her departure prompts a journey to find her (and himself) far from home. “Almost literally, I was a bubble boy,” Paul says. “I’d never left Phoenix, never been east of El Paso, Texas. So the world was very scary and intimidating to me.”

Today, Paul is a lanky, handsome 57 with a long list of animated hits with Daurio. They never let go of their idea for a sing-along story loosely inspired by the plot of Brigadoon. “I swear, whenever we finished a project, we’d say, ‘What about that musical?’ ” says Paul.

“I had three thoughts right away,” he continues. “One: It shouldn’t be friends; it should be a romantic couple. Two: They’re stuck there until they find true love. Three: It should be called Schmigadoon!.” The central relationship was the key. “Two people who needed to change to become better partners. That was the real breakthrough, and the opportunity to nod to all the musicals I loved was the fun part.”

The stars aligned four years ago when the pair took a meeting with Andrew Singer at Lorne Michaels’s Broadway Video. Paul and Daurio had worked mostly in film, but “TV was so enticing because the landscape had changed completely,” says Paul. “And then, at the end of the meeting, Andrew mentioned that they might be interested in doing a musical.” Dolly back. Zoom in. Cue angelic choir. With a nod from Michaels, the two put together a pitch to send to distributors, and Apple TV+ asked them to write two episodes, approved of the results, and funded a writers’ room to deliver the rest of the season. Daurio and Paul co-wrote four of the six episodes, and Paul was the showrunner and wrote the music.

No form can turn the power of love into so transcendent and unifying a spectacle as effectively as a great work of musical theater. Or flop quite so badly if the music stinks. “Cinco is a master at delivering those comedic songs, emotional songs, hitting all these important moments,” says Daurio. Midway through the series, after a note-perfect run of innuendo-dropping, jazz-hands-flashing ensemble razzmatazz send-ups, a romantic lead performs “Suddenly,” a Broadway ballad that recalls South Pacific or The Music Man yet holds its own in a new musical. “I love to tell people who’ve seen Schmigadoon!, ‘A sweet Mormon man wrote this. Can you believe it?’ ” says Strong of the tone of the show. “It’s not corny, but it’s also not mean.”

The shoot in Vancouver, at the pandemic’s height, was closer to the Brigadoon fantasy than anyone involved could have imagined. “We’re here, across a closed border, for maybe nine weeks, maybe more,” recalls Strong, whose castmates included Kristin Chenoweth, Alan Cumming, and a large ensemble of Broadway veterans. “We don’t know if we’ll get shut down, we don’t know what the world is.” One day, Paul called in cast member and Tony nominee Aaron Tveit to show him dailies of one big, joyous number. “I just thought he’d love it,” Paul recalls. “But then there are tears in his eyes, which I thought meant he didn’t like it. And he just said, ‘Oh, man, I miss this.’ ”

Throughout Schmigadoon!, Josh and Melissa keep asking different members of the town to knock it off and get real. Except these people are real. They’re not acting. And they don’t know that they’re singing. Daurio describes learning to love musicals as a moment of conversion. “You’re watching, mocking the whole thing: ‘Yeah, the songs are catchy, but this is so lame,’ ” he says. “And there comes a moment where you’re singing along. You cross over. That is the magic. The closest thing we have to real magic in the world.”

Schmigadoon! is available for streaming on Apple TV+ July 16.

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