I've Got a Theory
Music has been an integral part of theatre since the foundation of the dramatic art form in Ancient Greece. Through thousands of years of theatrical development, opera and musical theatre evolved along with the dramatic and comic counterparts. This ultimately led to the so-called "Broadway-style" musicals popularised in the twentieth century. When cinema came along and developed the "talking pictures," one of the first of the "talkies" was a musical entitled The Jazz Singer. Likewise, the early days of television included a fair amount of musical television in the musical variety show format.
Musicals found a sporadic place throughout the history of television. On a few occasions, entire series have developed around the format of such shows as Fame in the eighties and the short-lived series Cop Rock in 1990. Alternately, several television series have done special episodes where the characters suddenly burst into song. However, these have predominantly been found in comedy series and have often been met with mixed reviews. When a series breaks from its regular format, there is always a difficult challenge to be met, whether it is dealing with the addition of music or some other groundbreaking technique.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes like Hush, The Body and Once More, With Feeling all qualify as challenging standout episodes and, not so coincidentally, are each written and directed by Buffy series creator, Joss Whedon. As he explains, "The episodes where I break the traditional format of the show are never an attempt at a stunt, because I don't like things that are just stunts. I think stunts take you out of the narrative and they become more important than the show. I would never do something like a black-and-white episode that's just about the film and not about our guys and what they're going through."
While these episodes do break the established format of the series in such a way as to underscore the storyline, there is also a more technical reason, as Joss goes on to explain. "I never approach these episodes wondering what I can do that will be intense and will blow everybody away. It's more like me trying to find out what I'm doing wrong. I came to Hush because I felt that I was becoming lazy as a director. I thought that I needed to push myself visually. That evolved into the question, 'What if I had no choice?'"
The convenient part about being a writer and director is that if one aspect needs to be challenged, the other can come in and provide the motivation for change. Joss recalls that the intensity of The Body grew out of a comment from Sarah Michelle Gellar regarding the fact that he was just going to cut away to music instead of playing a scene out emotionally in a previous episode. At the time, Joss could not disagree. "I started to think that sometimes, when I don't get what I want out of a performance, I do just add music. But that's another way of getting lazy as a director. So I decided to take that crutch away, because the story I was breaking lent itself to a formal exercise that evolved me into thinking 'What if I only had one scene per act and I didn't give people an out?' I don't cut away, I don't cut to the music. I don't do anything that lets them get away from the fact of this death."
The idea behind Once More, With Feeling, however, did not grow solely out of a challenging means of storytelling. This episode was the closest to a personal indulgence that Joss has had with the series. "I've always loved musicals," he admits with pride. "I grew up with musicals in stage and movies." And he did literally grow up with musicals, playing parts in a variety of shows in his youth, including high school productions of West Side Story and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
"I'm a Sondheim fanatic, born and bred. I know every show of his backward." He refers to the famous lyricist Stephen Sondheim whose award winning works include West Side Story, Gypsy, Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods, among many others. The list of Joss's influences goes on to include Frank Loesser (Guys and Dolls, Most Happy Fella, How to Succeed in Business…), Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (Fiorello!, Fiddler on the Roof), Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Pippin), and the musicals Rent and It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman. "The poppier musicals were also big influences," he adds. "As a child of the seventies, you can't get past those." His tastes also go back to include the old school movie musicals of the mid-twentieth century.
It was another writer - one who is not traditionally associated with musicals - who provided the largest influence on getting a musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on the air: William Shakespeare. Joss missed the acting that he had not done since high school, so he started hosting informal Sunday night Shakespeare readings at his home with some of the writers and cast members of Buffy and Angel. Knowing that one of his guests, Anthony Stewart Head, was also an accomplished singer, Joss managed to convince him to sing at one of his readings. This led to other guests singing around the piano, including Amber Benson and her sister performing a song that the actress had written. Later, James Marsters brought a guitar to one of the gatherings and not only impressed Joss, but helped an idea begin to take form.
For Joss, these impromptu talent nights were rich with possibilities. But it took a combination of the right factors to fall into place that led to the development of the musical episode. "All of a sudden I'm presented with all of this singing talent," Joss says. "This had all started in the fall of season five, and that (next) summer I was going to take a few months off, which I had not done since before the series began. I had always said I wouldn't do a musical because it would take six months." As fate would have it, Joss was about to have the six months that he needed.
"At the end of season five," he continues, "we were in a position we've never been in before. We had really gotten ahead. Usually at the beginning of a season we're scrambling desperately to get stories broken and we're way behind. But here, we were actually able to break the first few stories of the following season before I left for vacation. The musical was number six."
When attempting such an undertaking, Joss notes the importance of working one step at a time. "You have to break the stories chronologically. We knew what the general arc for the season was going to be." Joss also knew that the arc of the characters growing up and making their way in the world wasn't going to launch in the first few episodes. That would be the time to establish the characters and set up themes. It would be the sixth episode where all those themes would die together and start the emotional arc on its way.
As he headed for vacation, Joss had a detailed outline of the first six episodes. "When I started writing the musical I knew exactly where everybody was emotionally and what had to break," he explains. "I knew that this would be the episode where Buffy told her friends that she'd been in Heaven and all the other truths would come out."
Joss continues to refer to his "vacation," and while he did spend time with his wife, Kai Cole, relaxing in Cape Cod, much of his downtime was focused on the challenges of writing the musical. "I knew it was hard enough to write a new script, but to make one rhyme and put music to it when I could barely play the piano or the guitar - that would be hard. But here I had this vacation, so I actually started learning to play guitar because I thought some of this would need to be written on the guitar and some on the piano. Then I spent my entire vacation banging out these tunes."
Though it was not his first time creating songs, Joss admits that it was tough going to be doing something on such a grand scale. "I'd written songs before, to play for my friends, but to write a musical is really tough because you have a to explain a (lot) of stuff while writing and trying to be clever. You have to write a show where the songs were the plot and everything that was important in the show had to happen during the songs."
Joss was adamant that the writing be focused on marrying the songs to the plot; "I get very cranky about TV shows that do musical episodes that are basically variety shows where they play a scene and then they'll sing an oldie that has something vaguely to do with the scene, but the scene is over already. There's no reason to sing. And that's the thing about musicals that most people have forgotten on TV. It's not the only thing that was wrong with a show like Cop Rock, but it was one of the things. They would play a scene out and then sing about it instead of just playing the scene with song."
Ready to accept the challenge, Joss sat down at his piano and with his guitar. He already had an idea of the cast's abilities from their Sunday night gatherings, which helped in divvying up the musical numbers, creating the music for the pieces and tying them to the story outline. "I built the entire plot around people's strengths and styles, and their needs and desires. For example, Michelle Trachtenberg wanted to dance but was not that comfortable singing, so I put in the ballet for her that Chris Beck actually wrote the music to. I knew Tony was going to be my ballad guy and that Amber was going to be my breakaway pop hit girl, because I had to have the breakaway pop hit."
He knew the abilities of those performers, along with Emma Caulfield and James Marsters, and how they would fit into what he had planned. However, the rest of the cast - Sarah Michelle Gellar, Alyson Hannigan and Nicholas Brendan - were equally important factors whose talents he was not as familiar with. Joss goes on to explain, "Sarah was a bit of an unknown because she had never sung before. Aly was like, 'Don't make me sing!' while Nick's attitude was, 'Well, I've never sung a note, but I'll do whatever you like.' I tried to find something for everything."
After four months of pounding away at the keys and strumming the guitar, Joss had the backbone of the musical, but the work had just begun. "When I was done I had about seven pages of actual script to write because I'd written the entire show in song form. The whole process took about six months. It took about four months of writing and then when I came back it was two months of recording, sound mixing, producing, arranging, and dance rehearsals."
© 2002 Paul Ruditis. Once More, With Feeling: The Script Book, published in the UK by Pocket Books on December 2nd 2002. Reproduced with kind permission of Pocket Books.