Welcome to our first matchup of the Show Within A Show Showdown! Today, Square Peg‘s original musical “A Cafeteria Line” faces off with Saved by the Bell‘s rap-operetta, fractured-fairy tale “Snow White and the Seven Dorks.”
Before we get into the nitty gritty of each production, I’m so fascinated by the fact that both of these shows put a lot of work into the show within a show aspect of this. There’s a ton of original lyrics (and, in the case of Square Pegs, music) and I’m like damn who wrote all of this?? I’m just dying to read an oral history of these two episodes, but I couldn’t find one on either.
Based on what I could dig up on IMDB, Paul Shaffer (yes, that Paul Shaffer) is credited for “special musical material” on “A Cafeteria Line” along with composer Jon Wolff (who based on an interview I was able to find with him was the credited composer for the show’s entire run).
“Well, Paul was in New York, and my job in L.A. was to wait for him to send the compositions, the songs for the dance number and one that Sarah [Jessica Parker] is singing, and there were a couple of other numbers in Janis Hirsch’s script. So my job was to receive the compositions, arrange them, orchestrate them if they needed to be, hire the musicians, book the studio, produce the music, deliver it to stage, music supervise the production of it, teach it to the actors, work with the choreographer… Everything but compose the music. And I was okay with that, because that fit squarely into my description as the utility guy, the chores guy. It was just another job for me.” — Jonathan Wolff interviewed by Will Harris
As for “Snow White and the Seven Dorks,” the only credited musicians on this episode are Richard Eames and Scott Gale, who are credits on most (if not all) of the show’s episodes. I’m assuming they also wrote for “Snow White and the Seven Dorks,” but I wasn’t able to find anything super specific so that’s just my best guess.
And now for the point breakdown: Let’s start with “A Cafeteria Line.” If this was truly a contest of musical numbers only — Square Pegs would win by a landslide. I knew Sarah Jessica Parker was a Broadway kid, but I so rarely get to hear her sing. It’s pretty much this episode and that one song in Hocus Pocus, but her voice is so lovely! I want to hear more of it! She totally nails it as the sweet nerd, Patty, who finally gets to be seen.
There’s also the splashy big group number, reminiscent of Fame‘s “Hot Lunch Jam,” about cafeteria food with such lines as “creamed corn, ketchup is a vegetable” or the more romantic, “You don’t know how I felt, when I shared your tuna melt.”
It’s cute, it moves, this show should win by a landslide, right? Well, I hadn’t seen this in so long that I forgot the actual plot of the musical. The show has a very creepy director who like clearly wrote this experimental piece and wants to be controversial — you know one of those self important drama types who doesn’t seem to recognize he’s working with children — and the plot of “A Cafeteria Line,” as it turns out, is Patty’s high school teenager character in a romantic relationship with her drama teacher (who is played by another high school student). There’s a scripted kiss and everything. It’s so creepy and unnecessary.
Both lead characters are played by students, so why make one a teenager and one an adult? Like wtf. I love Anne Beatts work on this show for the most part, but this totally shocked me. Unless this is like a super dark joke that I’m not getting? Anyway, points awarded for music and choreography, but by default I was going to award the plot points to Saved by the Bell…except…it turns out they didn’t win by default…the plot of “Snow White and the Seven Dorks” is…dare I say…good?
This starts off as a drama club production at Bayside High School. Their teacher encourages them to present a fresh take on an old classic, so bubbly Kelly Kapowski suggests they do a rap version which is oh so cringe. And it’s not just cringe because they’re a bunch of mostly white teens who seem to have known knowledge or no appreciation of rap’s cultural significance and a sociopolitical art form — it’s cringe on a physical level as well. My ears hurt. The Beastie Boys they are not. Also, all of the rapping is done over one repetitive beat that I think is just that pre-programmed setting that every keyboard had in the 90s.
The plot is the more interesting part, thankfully. Due to some 90’s stereotyping the dorks of Bayside are the techies, but this year they refuse to be board ops and insist on being on stage. This leads to the 7 dorks characters (but Slater plays a dork too so it isn’t full-on type casting). Zack is cast as the prince, but Kelly is cast against-type as the Evil Queen, whereas Jessie plays Snow White (which is cool because she makes her a more feminist, character with a surprising amount of agency for this fairy tale).
Zack tries to drop out of the show immediately because the only reason he auditioned was that he didn’t want anyone else to kiss Kelly (who he assumed would be cast as Snow White). At Kelly and Jessie’s urging, he decides to stay in the show. Throughout the rehearsal process, there appears too be maybe TOO much chemistry between Zack and Jessie. Slater and Kelly get super jealous and behave like jerks, so Jessie and Zack rewrite the whole ending of the musical (which works seamlessly because the music is just that one basic drum kit backing track on loop).
Zack and Jessie surprise everyone with the new ending of “Snow White” in which Snow White wakes herself up and decides that kissing the dork she wants to kiss (Slater) is what will fully revive her from the witch’s spell. And the Prince decides he really prefers the Evil Queen. The heart wants what it wants! (But I sure do hope these teens learn about healthy relationships because you shouldn’t have to rewrite a whole play because your partner doesn’t trust you.)
Also the costumes are CUTE and the scenery is flashy but not distracting. Both “A Cafeteria Line” and “Snow White and the Seven Dorks” use a graffiti unit set, but “Snow White” uses more color and it is coordinated nicely with the color scheme of the costumes.
Sorry, “A Cafeteria Line,” I almost loved you but you were too creepy. Plus, Jessie and Zack did a really nice riff on the misogynistic plot of “Snow White.”
Very Special Winner: Saved by the Bell