How 'Only Murders in the Building,' 'Gossip Girl,' and 'Schmigadoon!' turn to the theater for inspiration

Martin Short in Only Murders in the Building
(Image credit: Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu)

This post includes light spoilers for Only Murders in the Building.

When Broadway shuttered on March 12, 2020, the original order was to close for a month. More than a year later, New York City theaters are planning on reopening across September and October, and outdoor productions have been a fixture this summer. Live performances have been greatly impacted by the pandemic, which has seen theater companies pivoting to making their content available online so audiences can still experience the thrill of the stage. While nothing can replace the relationship between actor and audience when watching a play in person, it has been heartening to see this level of online accessibility to productions from the past, as well as new offerings. Josh O’Connor and Jessie Buckley’s take on Romeo and Juliet, was meant to debut at the National Theatre in London last summer but didn’t for obvious reasons. Instead of calling it day, director Simon Godwin retooled the staging so it could be filmed for TV, resulting in a fresh and invigorating take on this well-known Shakespearean tragedy.

Since all three mediums have existed, there has been tension between the stage, film, and television with each standing on their own while overlapping thanks to shared texts, actors, creators, and even settings. There are things you can do in front of an audience that cannot be replicated for the screen and vice versa. An ingrained snobbery might set these pursuits apart, but there is no doubt the influence is a back and forth dialogue. There have been films about Broadway, plays set within a TV set, and the stage has been a pivotal location in numerous television shows. But in a year with very little live theater being performed in the same room as patrons, it is more noticeable when current shows are taking inspiration from Broadway. No, I am not talking about Hamilton airing on Disney+ and all its many Emmy nominations.

TV tonight Mabel (Selena Gomez), Oliver (Martin Short) and Charles (Steve Martin), shown.

(Image credit: Disney+)

From the joyful Apple TV+ musical series Schmigadoon! to the episode of Gossip Girl that featured a fictitious Jeremy O. Harris play previewing at The Public, Broadway (and Off-Broadway) has not been forgotten. In Hulu’s new comedy Only Murders in the Building, Martin Short plays Oliver, a Broadway director trying to jumpstart his flagging career when a suspicious death in his Upper West Side apartment building leads to a surprising creative opportunity. In real life, Short is a Tony-winner who is joined by Tony-nominated Steve Martin (for writing) as a former TV star Charles and 20-something loner Mabel gives Selena Gomez a chance to flex her acting muscles once more — she is also no stranger to performing in front of a live audience. Regular Broadway fixture Nathan Lane (nominated for six Tonys, of which he won three) makes his first appearance in the third episode, which flashes back to a time when Oliver still had the ability to score funding for even the most outlandish production design — there is a running gag about one of his endeavors throughout the season. Short and Martin had to halt their stage tour mid-pandemic and while the theater has been halted, Only Murders in the Building provided another opportunity to work together.  

Plot-wise, the stage is not only part of Oliver’s backstory but also factors into the aesthetics of a conversation about viable suspects. While the central conceit of Only Murders in the Building sees the three lonely strangers turning their true crime murder podcast fandom into their own show, the theater is infused in its fabric. Or rather, Oliver approaches everything with a director’s eye and this includes theorizing about the killer. While looking at the investigation board they have hastily thrown together, Oliver examines the list in the same way one looks for the star of a play. Fantasy is infused with reality in this series and suddenly Oliver is on stage auditioning the murder suspects and critiquing their confessions. Part of the Only Murders in the Building charm is how it approaches the murder mystery with a knowing wink. It takes on the true-crime genre without feeling self-indulgent or smug. The same applies to how Oliver brings his personal experience and fondness for flair to the brainstorming sessions. The stage makes a welcome appearance both in flashback and fantasy form in the New York City set series. 

Gossip Girl Episode 3

(Image credit: Karolina Wojtasik/HBO Max)

Moving from one Upper West Side location to another, Gossip Girl set the stage for its best episode of the new season at the opening preview of Jeremy O. Harris’s reimagining of a character from Titus Andronicus. At the forthcoming Tony Awards (September 24), Harris’s Slave Play has a record-breaking 12 nominations, and he penned the fictitious (for now) play, The Bloody and Lamentable Tale of Aaron. Full frontal male nudity and audience interaction is part of this experience that provides the backdrop for screwball antics and conflict between couples. The original Gossip Girl also dabbled with the theater in Season 5 when the teens indulged in another Shakespeare must-see, Sleep No More. The main difference here is that this was a real production, whereas the Public Theater’s first performance of The Bloody and Lamentable Tale of Aaron is an invention for the series. Filming at the iconic space — where Hamilton made its Off-Broadway debut in 2015 — adds to the authentic atmosphere. It also probably made shooting on location far less complicated scheduling-wise without theaters being open and this season of Gossip Girl is set in a post-pandemic world. Furthermore, Harris made a cameo and will return later in the season. 

In a life imitates art moment, this reimagining will become a reality as it was recently confirmed that the Public Theater has commissioned Harris to complete the play that featured on Gossip Girl. Not only is the stage providing the perfect backdrop to fuel TV plots but these moments are getting transformed into a reality. While there is no date for the actual production, Harris is hoping director Machel Ross (who directed the play segments of this episode) will resume this role when it does hit the boards. “I was dreaming this play into existence,” Harris told The New York Times about the specific subject matter and this passion showed through during the shooting of the episode. Gossip Girl has introduced viewers to new actors and fashion designers, but this is the first time they are getting a sneak peek of a play in its development. 

TV tonight Melissa and Josh arrive at the couples' retreat in Schmigadoon!

(Image credit: Apple TV+)

From the fantasy of elite teens getting the hottest ticket in town to a more surreal setting and Martin Short takes a far more whimsical turn as the Leprechaun in Schmigadoon! In the first episode, he has the pleasure of explaining the rules of this magical town to New Yorkers Melissa (Cecily Strong) and Josh (Keegan-Michael Key). They cannot leave Schmigadoon until they have found true love and because this show is dripping in references to 1940s musicals of the stage and screen it is done via song. Melissa realizes they aren’t in a tourist town full of people in pastel frilly costumes, but an actual musical scenario. The title is derived from Brigadoon — the only dream-infused episode of I Love Lucy is also heavily inspired by this mid-century musical — and references include The Sound of Music, Carousel, and The King and I. While there is a strong Saturday Night Live thread running through the series from Strong to Lorne Michaels producing, the number of Broadway musical performers in key roles is high. Alan Cumming, Kristin Chenoweth, Aaron Tveit, Ann Harada, Jane Krakowski, and Ariana DeBose all have multiple theater credits (and several Tony nominations between them). 

Out of the three shows discussed here, Schmigadoon! owes as much to musical movies as it does to the theater that spawned them and it is an ode to all the beloved plot devices featured in this subgenre. There are jokes aplenty but at its heart, this show is an escapist love letter to the Golden Age of musicals. A period that thrived with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s output toward the tail end of WWII and it isn’t hard to understand why audiences were longing for frothy fun. Over the last 18-months, the theater-going experience has all but halted, and Schmigadoon! taps into the whimsy of this era of musicals to give audiences a respite — even if it is from the view of your sofa. TV isn't replacing the theater experience, but during this extended hiatus, it is a welcome sight to see the stage on our screen.

Emma Fraser

Emma Fraser spends most of her time writing about TV, fashion, and costume design; Dana Scully is the reason she loves a pantsuit. Words can also be found at Vulture, Elle, Primetimer, Collider, Little White Lies, Observer, and Girls on Tops. Emma has a Master’s in Film and Television, started a (defunct) blog that mainly focused on Mad Men in 2010, and has been getting paid to write about TV since 2015. It goes back way further as she got her big start making observations in her diary about My So-Called Life’s Angela Chase (and her style) at 14.