PASADENA, Calif. — If you’ve crossed the bridge into Apple’s magical, musical town of “Schmigadoon!” then you know its collection of irresistible songs is just the beginning. The show also features a sumptuous score that drifts lovingly in the air like the scent of corn puddin’.
Emmy-nominated composer Christopher Willis first got a sneak peek into the mystical town through his wife Elyse, who is a session singer. “She was contracted to work on the demo vocals and she was just laughing uproariously in the next room,” he remembered. “It’s so funny, and it’s not exactly a parody. It’s much more loving and clever than that.”
By the time he was contacted by the show’s creator, Cinco Paul, a few months later, he was already a fan. “I had to confess, like, I’ve actually already heard all these songs. And I think they’re amazing,” Willis recalled telling Paul, who also wrote the music and lyrics to the songs that punctuate each episode. “Rather maddeningly, he turns out to be incredibly good at both of those things!”
It was Willis’ job to underscore the action, to take those songs and make them sing, sometimes secretly, in the background. Even in the real world, before Keegan-Michael Key and Cecily Strong cross that bridge, snippets of the songs to come swirl unnoticed around them.
“We realized that we can hide the song melodies in that score,” he said. “If you watch the whole thing once and then go back, you realize that we’ve been seeding songs that you might not hear until Episode 6 all the way through the show.”
It’s a strategy often employed in the classic MGM movie musicals of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Willis knew some of the films from his childhood but for “Schmigadoon!,” he studied them — nerding out, he says, over the complexity of the composition. How a phrase used at a precise moment gives additional context. How sometimes there are several melodies being played on top of each other.
“As soon as I realized that that was what they were doing, I was like, ‘Oh no. I know Cinco knows about this. And this is exactly what he’s gonna want me to do.’ And sure enough, it was,” he said. “So I had to get to know the songs really well and try to do that kind of musical math.”
In a way, the research is his favorite part of any new project. His previous work runs the gamut from Disney to Dickens to Stalin, with each assignment requiring a crash course in music history. Of course, Schmigadoon! was done during the pandemic, so those classes had to be held online, over the course of many Zoom meetings with Cinco Paul. In fact, to this day, Willis and Paul have never met face to face and probably won’t until the Creative Arts Emmy Award ceremony that both will be attending. Paul is nominated for Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics for Corn Puddin’. Willis is nominated for Outstanding Music Composition for a Series. He’s thrilled the show is getting recognition, because for many years he feels music in TV shows was overlooked.
“I think that’s been changing recently,” he said. “The whole stature of TV has been changing… and there’s incredible music being written.”
“It’s always been heroic work,’ he continued, “because TV schedules are faster than the movie schedules, the number of minutes is often rather awesome. But, yeah, I think that’s changing.”
And so is life in “Schmigadoon!” Filming just wrapped in Season 2, which will be set in Schmicago and feature the style of musicals from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Like a hearty bowl of corn puddin’, the new setting will provide plenty of delicious musical inspiration for Willis to sink his teeth into.