In the musical theater world, there is an age-old trope that insists a character must break out into song if they can no longer express themselves with words. Indeed, musicals have been entertaining audiences on stage and on film with elaborate song and dance numbers since the 1940s. Last July, Apple TV+ raised the curtain on Season 1 of Schmigadoon!, a six-episode ode to musicals that parodied the beloved genre.
Sketch comedy legends Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key play a backpacking couple who get lost and come upon the magical town of Schmigadoon. It is filled with townspeople played by musical theater icons such as Kristin Chenoweth, Aaron Tveit, Ariana DeBose, and Alan Cumming, all singing and dancing their hearts out. The kicker is that the couple can’t leave until they find true love, forcing them to participate in the musical taking place around them.
The series boasts the magic touch of accomplished Production Designer Bo Welch, whose impressive credits include The Color Purple and Men in Black, both of which earned him Oscar nominations. Though Welch had never designed sets for a musical, he did possess the fantastical experience needed to create the surreal surroundings of Schmigadoon! thanks to his work with director Tim Burton, which includes Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, and Batman Returns. Welch also worked on The Birdcage, Thor, and Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, and he received an Emmy nomination for the TV adaptation of the same YA book series.
Below the Line spoke with Bo Welch via Zoom from a Wi-Fi-challenged little town called Muskoka, which is two hours north of Toronto — a lamp made of crisscrossed hatchets (a prop from the hotel in A Series of Unfortunate Events) lighting him from the side. Welch discussed the use of vibrant colors and faux textures in his designs, and the challenge of implementing size and scale to complement the singers and dancers utilizing the space. Welch also delightfully recalled creating the Tunnel of Love, the village square inspired by his hometown, the shanty house on the outskirts of town, and pouring through more than 200 musicals that provided the inspiration to work his magic on the show’s overall visual vibe, which sweeps you up with its dreamlike designs.
Below the Line: Are you a fan of musicals?
Bo Welch: I know musicals, but you would not consider me a big musical theater or film freak. I kind of had to learn it, and now I totally get it and respect it. At first, it’s odd that [the] action stops and people start singing and dancing. But at the same time, it’s exhilarating that they do that. It’s amazing. In that first episode where they break into “Corn Puddin’,” I can watch that all day long. It’s so great.
BTL: How would you describe the overall vibe of the production design on Schmigadoon!?
Welch: I wanted it to look like a ’40s/’50s filmed musical. I wanted it to be colorful and beautiful and a kind of idealized world where everything felt perfect and everyone was happy. At the same time, by virtue of building it, it’s really there too.
BTL: Talk about building sets on a sound stage vs. on location. Which do you prefer?
Welch: Well, that’s a no-brainer, and why I would do a show like this. If someone said, ‘here are the scripts for Schmigadoon! And we’re gonna do locations,’ I don’t know where you would do it. In my years of production designing, you want something to read clearly in a master as well as beautiful, other shots. Most town squares are too big. So you would put a lens on the town square in the real world and it just disappears. There’s no there there, as they say.
So when you’re able to design it you can compose the shot. You can design for the camera. Then you can dress it, you can light it, and the sound and everything stays the way you want it and there’s a consistency there. You’re not running away because there’s a thunderstorm [laughs] today and you can’t shoot. There’s no comparison. I and [director] Barry Sonnenfeld are big fans of building as much as you can for control. With Schmigadoon! or A Series of Unfortunate Events, it’s too critical to leave it up to the whims of location.
BTL: Were you given free rein to use your imagination on these designs?
Welch: Yes and no. I mean, I’m hired to execute what is on the page and that starts with some research and references and dialogue with Cinco Paul, who wrote this great stuff and wrote the music as well, and is a passionate lover of filmed musicals and knows everything about them. He also was generous enough to put together this insane clip package of hundreds of songs from musicals that you look at over and over, and then you just immerse yourself in that and that’s kind of how you approach it. So it’s not that I read it and then let my imagination run wild. I look at how many dancers are in the space. There are a lot of practical questions, but I also, at the same time, am seeing it in my head and then selling it. Seeing and selling! [laughs] I’m a salesman.
BTL: How did you sell The Tunnel of Love design?
Welch: That one went through a lot of iterations. I pay a lot of attention to the atmosphere of it, and the references from musicals prior and hence. I look at what’s gonna happen there and [in] what order. What is the choreography? Give me an example of how far they will move, where they will go. At its core, it’s carnival architecture and there’s a slight seediness to it all, which is impossible to evade when doing any sort of carnival aesthetic. On one hand, it looks cute and pretty, and on the other hand, there’s like a slight carny creepiness to it. [chuckles]
I had several iterations of that beautiful little Victorian doll head. I have some sad pictures of it just sitting out in the alley next to a dumpster. It’s heartbreaking to see that doll face out there. [laughs] I originally had a clown there and everyone freaked and said that is just way too creepy! Then you dial it back and then you can see the things behind it are two-dimensional, which I thought would be fun and they were mechanically animated, such as the Ferris wheel, to actually work. The 2D aspect of it, I thought, honored the aesthetic of all the other filmed musicals I had seen.
BTL: Were you inspired by Carousel, with the Billy Bigelow carnival look?
Welch: I can’t put my finger on any one of them. I was bombarding myself with all of them and then filtering it through this material that got me to a shared aesthetic that was tweaked depending on what was going on in each particular setting. I was inspired by all of them. We put that house on that hill and it was very Sound of Music-y and it had kind of the alps in the background, and yet it was a rundown shack.
BTL: Can you name a handful of the musicals that you looked at?
Welch: Singin’ in the Rain, Music Man, Meet Me in St. Louis, and of course, Brigadoon, lest we forget the incredible title where people say, “Schmigadoon, what the ??” It’s one of those titles that is just so bizarre that it piques your interest.
BTL: What inspired the design of the town square?
Welch: I’m trying to design how many people are gonna be dancing on it. I grew up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania and so I know this kind of adorable aesthetic whether it’s New Hope or Martha’s Vineyard. As an East Coast person, you’ve been there, you’ve seen it, and all I have to do is add a little bit of color and it transforms into a filmed musical world.
I sort of lay out the town in the roughest sense knowing there are gonna be a lot of dance numbers in the town square. There’s a lot of back and forth about the size, scope, and scale, where they enter, what are the principal buildings there. How do those buildings reflect the people within them? Those are all part of the process and overall get a vibe going.
Then I would break it down and design buildings one at a time. I tried to make them 2/3 or 3/4 scale so that you could get more information in any given shot. You don’t have to reach and search for the aesthetic blood of this material. The look is sort of small-town Victorian architecture and then I push it a little more, exaggerate details, exaggerate finishes so you’ll have things like scalloped shingles and a lovely variety of textures.
BTL: With your background, what is it about working on fantastical projects that interests you?
Welch: It’s where I like to hang out in my brain. The real world is around us, and of course, it’s sometimes gorgeous, often a mess. I am more interested in an immaculate universe full of the stuff that comes from people’s imagination than cobbling together pieces of reality to satisfy a story. That’s just how it’s evolved. Early on in my career, it’s kind of where it went and I’m happy and honored to be there. If you have to wake up in the morning to do something, I can’t think of anything better.
BTL: Speaking of honors, congratulations on your Emmy nomination. Have you prepared a speech?
Welch: You know, I have not. If there’s any chance of winning it, the key is to not make a speech. That way you’re unprepared. I’ve often thought it would be a great book because for every award ceremony, whether it’s the Emmys or the Oscars, one person wins in the category and the other four or five are sitting there with a speech inside their jacket or their hand, so to publish a book of unspoken speeches. I myself have had four Oscar nominations and two Emmy nominations, and the only thing I ever won was a BAFTA. Back then, they didn’t even invite you to go. So I haven’t thought about it, but the title of the book might be “The Lost Speeches” or “I Want to Thank No One.” That’s a good title for that!
BTL: What is the most challenging aspect of production design that our readers may not know?
Welch: I torture myself and others for hours and hours with color. You can do this job for 100 years, and I swear every time you come to this part of production design, picking colors, it’s like you’ve just started this career. It is so difficult. You go through iterations and samples and colors, and then once in a while you find it and it’s right and once in a while, it’s wrong. It’s a tedious and painful process to get what you want. [laughs]
BTL: What makes that painful process worthwhile?
Welch: When I saw the final result with Tish‘s [Monaghan] beautiful costumes and those amazing dancers on that town square dancing and breaking into song, [it] blew my mind. It was a great collaboration between photography and our insanely great supervising Art Director, Don Macauly. There’s nobody better, and it is a really challenging job to take a limited amount of stage space and also assemble the correct talent to put these fantastical ideas together. It’s lunacy, but fun.
It’s the performance that really made me a fan of the work. It’s like I didn’t even do it. I can watch it totally objectively and think, ‘I love this.’ I love the sensibility of this material. I love the humor. I love the fact that these modern people are colliding with this idealized, mid-20th century attitude, and look how far we haven’t come. [laughs]
The crew in Vancouver were really lovely, talented, patient, and hardworking people. Otherwise, we’d still be working on the town square in Schmigadoon! and hanging clothes on that line up at hilltop shack, or carving that scary doll face on the Tunnel of Love.
BTL: It works to the point that you can step into this world of Schmigadoon and just accept it.
Welch: Nothing is real. If you look at it carefully, you realize that but that’s part of honoring filmed musicals from the ’40s and ’50s — there was a level of artifice there where a modern audience would go, “Oh my God, look how fake that is!” I didn’t want that reaction, but I wanted to embrace the tone of those musicals. The cobblestone was just literally printed on vinyl paper and laminated to the floor so the dancers could run around on it. It was done so beautifully that it looks sort of like cobblestones. The grass is clearly fake and all the flowers and everything in it, because it has to withstand lights and traffic and being moved in and out.
This material gave us a chance to not be afraid of artificial things. We embraced a lot of musical tropes, and you are there in Schmigadoon. Looking around at our world now, with wars and climate change, there’s something so pleasant about walking into Schmigadoon where everything is at least on the surface, perfect. It’s comfort food entertainment.
Season 1 of Schmigadoon! is now streaming on Apple TV+.