TV

Revisited: ‘Once More With Feeling’ (The Buffy Musical)

It's just as good as you remembered. And we're screening it at Golden Age Cinema in Sydney next week.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer came on the air back in the dark days of 1997, probably sandwiched between episodes of Hercules and the X-Files. I don’t know because, like most people, I didn’t watch it back then.

Based on Joss Whedon’s 1992 film of the same name, the show was a supernatural drama about high school being almost LITERALLY hell, with some brilliant dialogue, a lot of humour, and some surprisingly effective feels. And also, very importantly, it starred a young blonde cheerleader who goes down a dark alley — except instead of being butchered she straight-up murders the thing hunting her. It sometimes stepped over the line into a little bit silly. It was probably the greatest show that has ever been, ever.

By the time Buffy rolled around to season six, it was a very different animal. No longer was it all about juggling being a student with being a slayer and having a secret identity and a hot undead boyfriend; it had left the linoleum halls of high school and thrust Buffy out into the wide world of adulthood. Or, kind of: she was stuck in Sunnydale, the guardian of its Hellmouth. There was a kind of existential quagmire about the whole situation – they could kill vampires and demons forever and save humanity multiple times, but there was no way they could really ‘solve’ the world.

Also, Buffy died.

After she was brought back to life by her friends, she not only had to get her head around being suddenly alive again but, with her mother dead, she also had to support her younger sister — without a job, with a pile of debts, and with the added pressure of having to protect the world from evil.

Season six Buffy was a far grimmer show — which is why it was so surprising when episode seven opened with a song.

Once More With Feeling

We open on Buffy in bed as her alarm clock goes off. Everyone who inexplicably freeloads off her and lives in her house (isn’t she in debt? Shouldn’t they pay rent?) gets ready for their day at work. Then we cut to night-time, and Buffy is walking through a graveyard, which is both her job and an immediately recognisable scene for anyone who has ever seen the show. As she quips at one point, she is Buffy: “Slayer? Chosen one? She who hangs out a lot in cemeteries?”

This opening number, ‘Going Through The Motions’, is one of my favourite pieces, and a perfect intro into the weird balance and mix that is the Buffy musical. Instead of saying ‘this is a musical, this is now silly’, the characters instead slavishly follow the tropes, while taking the problems within their world seriously. That is to say there is no fourth wall breaking – but as always, the characters themselves are free to make light of their world, without diminishing its gravity. (No fourth wall breaking, except for a moment in a later song where Buffy looks directly at the camera and says, “And you can sing along”. This is PROBABLY just a cheeky nod to the audience, but could be another nod to the episode ‘Normal Again’, where Buffy is not the Slayer, just a mentally ill girl. Could the musical be a particularly outrageous session in her delirium? Had she perhaps just watched ‘Cats’?)

In ‘Going Through The Motions’, Buffy is feeling numb and listless, trying to work out how to fit back into the world. She’s slaying demons and haunting graveyards — but “nothing seems to penetrate my heeeeaaaaart”.

The composition is flawless in this episode, and every song has the kind of campy enjoyment you get from great musicals. Joss Whedon comes from Broadway blood; his love of that world is evident not only in this episode, but in internet sensation ‘Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog’.

I’ve Got A Theory…

The show continues along to the Scooby Gang’s haunt, which has moved from high school library to a magic shop run by Buffy’s old Watcher, Giles.

After a bit of awkward hesitation, they all break into song again.

This one’s called ‘I’ve Got A Theory’, in which the gang realise there is some kind of supernatural occurrence that has made them all sing at spontaneous times. This song is mostly just very funny — including a rock solo by a 3,000 year-old ex-vengeance demon, Anya, which is all about how she believes the most likely culprit is bunnies. Because she is scared of bunnies.

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I want you all to know that I take this show very seriously.

Along with the bunnies, there’s a chilling note to the song: Buffy chimes in during all the theories with the sentiment, “It doesn’t matter”. In regular Buffy, this is the rallying-the-troops speech, and everyone takes it as an inspirational call-to-arms:  ‘What can’t we face when we’re together?’ Except if you read between the lines, Buffy is actually saying, “this still doesn’t matter” – this still isn’t enough to give her a sense of purpose. It’s the same old nonsense, and they’ll get through it without her mustering up the energy to care.

This song is also where you really realise most of the Buffy cast are NOT trained singers — but they really try their best, and the episode is kind of even more lovely because of it?

Around this time, there’s a cut to show that everyone in town is being affected by the musical contagion. This is expressed through a song and dance tribute to the dry-cleaners.

Under Your Spell 

Willow and Tara decide to go and have sex instead of researching the song and dance phenomenon — which is fair enough, because at this point it’s less apocalyptic and more mildly pleasant, like a community performance of RENT. This was one of the first on-screen representations of cunnilingus in like, prime time or something. Actually, I’m not sure about that at all — but it was definitely the first on-screen representation of someone floating from lady sex while singing about it.

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‘Under your Spell’ is sweet and saccharine and generally awful — your quintessential love song, except with a dark undertone. Tara is LITERALLY under Willow’s spell, as Willow has been modifying Tara’s memory without her consent to stop them arguing about Willow’s burgeoning magic addiction. Are you seeing the pattern yet?

We then pop over to Xander and Anya’s house, and they sing a song about being scared of getting married. Not going to say much about this one – Anya is my favourite character, Xander is dumb and dances like a nong. Boring, move on.

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When Buffy pops into Spike’s crypt to see if he knows anything about the song-spree sweeping Sunnydale, Spike knows what’s what: Buffy has been keeping a secret from the Scoobys about her resurrection. Since she can’t confide in them, she’s been spending more time with Spike, who puts less pressure on her to get back to normal. But Spike has been in love with Buffy for a long time now, despite being a soulless vampire.

The more Buffy leans on him, the more it encourages him to think those feelings might be reciprocated. He sings about this, in a reverse-psychology rock anthem called ‘Rest in Peace’. It’s very flamboyant, and at one point he crashes a night funeral, which isn’t a thing, and definitely isn’t a thing in Sunnydale, aka the vampire capital of America.

We head back to the Buffy house, and Dawn — Buffy’s sister who isn’t actually a real person, but whatever — is gabbling on to Tara, and inadvertently hints that she might be being mind-controlled by her bae. Then Dawn almost sings a song, but doesn’t, and it’s brilliant. Nobody likes Dawn. Nobody even notices. Nobody even cares.

Dawn wakes up in the hands of a really slick demon lord of the dance, who believes she has summoned him because she is wearing a pendant that she shoplifted from the magic shop. Great idea, dum-dum. (That’s Dawn’s dark thing, by the way. Shoplifting.) The cool demon is here to make everyone sing and dance until they set on fire. He is very cool.

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“I can bring whole cities to ruin, and still have time to get a soft shoe in.”

This guy is such a good singer and dancer that it makes everyone else, even Giles, look kind of shit. He wants to take Dawn back to the underworld to be his tiny dancing queen, which personally I think sounds kind of great. But then Dawn mentions that her sister is the Slayer, and he decides that he’d like to see her burn instead.

Standing In The Way

Giles and Buffy have a training montage, where Giles anthems about Buffy relying on him too much: she has to stand on her own two feet. The lady has literally been out of the ground for about a month and is like 22 and severely in debt and raising her mythical sister, but — tough love?

Buffy trains/dances, while he sings and throws knives at her. It’s a complicated relationship.

Tara comes in during this, looks in a spell book, and realises that Willow has been casting spells on her. She starts dueting with Giles about how they both have to leave someone they love — which is fair enough from Tara’s point of view, but really, Giles? Really?

Then Spike brings in one of the dance demon’s dance minions, who informs Buffy that his master has Dawn. Everyone takes this in their stride.

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Deciding that RIGHT NOW is the time to make Buffy more independent, Giles tells her she has to go save Dawn by herself. Spike wants to come, but Buffy is mean to him, so he has a sulk instead.

On the way to The Bronze, which is one of the three locations in Sunnydale, Buffy sings about being left alone, and wanting the fire back. Spike also sings during this, about how he wants Buffy to die but also wants to help her out, and is conflicted. This is a summary of Spike through most of seasons four and five.

Almost immediately, the gang realise that leaving Buffy alone is a dumb idea, and get in on the song too — which includes my favourite line in any musical:

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Give Me Something To Sing About

When Buffy gets to dance demon, she sings about not really enjoying her life until the others get there and decide she needs backup, both musically and fighting-wise. Buffy keeps on singing until finally – the revelation.

The issue that has been simmering beneath the surface of this entire season has been revealed due to the power of song: Buffy wasn’t rescued from a hell dimension when she was brought back from the dead; she was in heaven, she was content and happy, and that’s why she hates everything now.

After her revelation, she decides that she will ding-dong-dance until she explodes, but then is saved in the nick of time by Spike’s cool hands, and even cooler platitudes.

This is why Buffy is an amazing show, and why this is a spectacular episode. Joss Whedon is the master of extrapolating consequences, and in this episode so many mistakes and actions are finally bought to life through the emotional manipulation of a music demon. The musical wasn’t just a funny gimmick, a tawdry trick in a series going stale – it was a device that worked spectacularly well at revealing the secrets, tension and traumas of a complex series of characters. And they did it through song!

So great.

The demon pisses off when he realises Willow, the big bad witch, is in the room, and that Xander summoned him for no good reason (the absolute WORST part of this episode as it makes no sense, and there are never any repercussions). Everyone does a sad song, which is basically like ‘we all learnt some horrible shit, but I suppose we’re not dead?’, and then both Buffy and Spike stop singing and dancing, because the demon has left.

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Then Buffy and Spike kiss, which seems like a happy ending but for the fact that he is a soulless mass-murdering vampire and she kinda hates him.

The greatest show on earth. Definitely not happy ever after.

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On Wednesday August 27, Junkee is hosting a sing-along to ‘Once More With Feeling’ at Golden Age Cinema in Sydney, followed by a screening of the 1992 feature that preceded it, Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Head here for tickets.

Patrick Lenton is a writer of theatre and fiction. He blogs at The Spontaneity Review and tweets inanity from @patricklenton.