Once More with Feeling

Season Six, Episode Seven

Buffy, the Musical

Once More with Feeling: The Review

The Gamble

In concept, Once More with Feeling is the most daring episode of network television, a musical version of a successful, lauded, dramatic fantasy. The possibility of failure is inherent the very premise, the entire town of Sunnydale possessed by a demonic power that induces spontaneous outbursts of song and dance among the populace, forcing people to confess in rhyme their innermost secrets, feelings of love, conflict, and vulnerability. Increasing that possibility incalculably, the entire creative responsibility of book, music, lyrics, and direction is borne by Joss Whedon, the show's creator, a musical neophyte (although he was a lyricist for the Lion King sequel). Boggled is the only apt frame of mind with which to contemplate the prospects.

As a finished work, Once More with Feeling is an astonishing triumph, not only for Whedon, but for the entire cast and crew of the show. Although less than perfect, it could hardly be better. Every expertly finished work that does not fall short of its concept was poorly conceived. As in Superstar, the episode establishes a shift in the show's reality by using a new credit sequence. In addition, it adopts a wholly different visual format, widescreen, which it uses to project the impression that the episode is a stage musical that has been adapted for cinema. The production takes its "look" from the traditional Hollywood musical, complete with simulated stage curtains. It also breaks a number of barriers, including the 44 minute episode length (it is 50 minutes long), and the fourth wall, the latter of which it humorously acknowledges.

It draws on every tradition of the stage and screen musical, the Busby Berkeley/Flo Ziegfeld geometrical dance formations, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers ballroom dance numbers, Rodgers and Hammerstein drama, Leonard Bernstein naturalism, Stephen Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Webber, even the rock and roll one man/woman show, etc. If one looks closely, there's something from every major contributor to the musical theater. During the songs, reality is suspended, and all of the musical theater conventions take over in Sunnydale. Crowds become chorus lines, scenery is instantaneously replaced, changes of scene occur with screen wipes, and nobody notices. People behave as if this were all normal, except that, as one would expect in BtVS, when each number is over, somebody has to recognize that wackiness is afoot.

As in a theatrical musical, the teaser has been replaced by an overture in which the main musical numbers of the coming episode are previewed as a continuous, wordless, choreographed shot in the Summers' household unfolds at 7 a.m., and includes the seemingly insignificant discovery of a sprig of Lethe's Bramble under Willow's pillow by Tara. The action then jumps to the Magic Box, where the music and choreography continue, cutting to a night scene in the graveyard, where Buffy is patrolling to her own solo, Going Through the Motions. Buffy laments that she has lost her verve, that the routine of Slaying, indeed, of everyday life, is mere animation without meaning, rather than life. She is backed by a chorus composed of two vampires, an horned demon, and a captive human with the appearance of the male cover model of a romance novel. Buffy deftly dispatches the demons and frees the captive, never breaking the beat or missing a step, the demons obligingly providing counterpoint. The piece ends with a brilliant visual moment as Buffy stakes a vampire and the cloud of his dust is dispelled by the last notes of her song.

Day Two

Proceeding from the graveyard, the scene changes to the Magic Box on the second morning, as Buffy enters to the tinkling of the door bell. After the pleasantries, she leads up to the question at hand about last night, "did anybody burst into song?" To the relief of everybody, the experience was common. There is some complex dialogue manipulation, as several people talk at once. Giles was playing his guitar in his hotel room, when the room service chaps became synchronized dancers and there was sudden offstage orchestral accompaniment. Anya and Xander were arguing, when everything began to rhyme, and the coconuts danced. When it is asked if they were the only persons affected, Buffy checks the street outside to find a perfectly drilled phalanx of satisfied customers from the dry cleaners, one of whom (David Fury, producer) vocalizes with an operatic flourish, "They got the mustard out."

This leads to the wonderful ensemble number, I've Got a Theory, in which each of those present gives his or her theory of the possible cause of the pandemic. Giles seizes upon the correct answer at once, that a demon is at the root of the matter, but he quickly dismisses the idea, and the others take their turns. The highlight of the number is a full-blown show-stopper by Anya, who insists, "It must be bunnies." This comment is allowed to sink in fully as the whole group stares at her in silent amazement and crickets audibly chirp to emphasize their stupefaction. She then presses on with her indictment of the bunnies, their hoppy legs and twitchy little noses, concluding with a rock operatic fireworks display. "Now that was disturbing," says Xander. Buffy's contribution, What Can't We Face?, is to sing that it doesn't matter, they will figure it out, as always, reprising in slightly less forthright terms, her sentiments from her opening solo. Giles is visibly puzzled and troubled by Buffy's words and tone.

When she asks, therefore, how do we find out what's at work, Giles naturally asks, "I thought you said it didn't matter?" Her reply, that weirdness abounding doesn't usually lead to hugs and puppies proves to be acceptable, although discursive. It sets up the later revelation in The Bronze.

It's at this point that Dawn nips a talisman from the counter and secrets it.

Tara and Willow make an excuse to slip away for a midday tryst, giving Tara her big solo, I'm Under Your Spell, which begins in a park as a production number that has the appearance of having been lifted from a Disney feature such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Beauty and the Beast, although the mixture of live actors and animated special effects also reminds one of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and ends with a screen wipe to an intimate love scene in the bedroom of the Summers' house. The theme of the song bears a burden of multiple meanings, as it touches superficially on Tara's feeling that Willow has both brought her out and eclipsed her personality, but also refers ironically to the fact, still unknown to Tara, that Willow has, indeed, violated Tara's mind in a manner more insidious than that worked by Glory. For USENET habitues, the song also plays mockingly against the subject of a long-running thread that postulated Tara's enchantment of Willow into their lesbian relationship.

When Dawn observes that the singing and dancing is neat and harmless, the viewers are shown the necessary and expected contradiction, as a man erupts into flames while he dances like a dervish. "That's entertainment," says Sweet the demon, whom the viewers see for the first time.

Day Three

The next morning begins with Anya and Xander awaking in Xander's apartment. The subject of marriage is never distant from their thoughts, and this becomes the theme of the delightful and goofy Fred and Ginger duet, I'll Never Tell, that evolves from their discussion of the breakfast menu. Anya in two piece sleep wear and feathered high-heel slippers and Xander in silk pajamas sing out their premarital doubts and reservations about one another and the married condition that awaits. The apartment is transformed into a Broadway revival set of a 1930 era screwball comedy, wide open and gleaming in the art deco style. There is nothing surprising to the revelations: Xander is insecure in his own position and afraid of the former demon to whom he is betrothed, while Anya is afraid of mortality and Xander's immaturity. Both have laundry lists of the other's imperfections and the petty annoyances of which each is the author.

This hilarious and artfully staged routine leads into the next scene on a downtown street as both Xander and Anya appeal to Giles to put a stop to the madness. Anya is particularly upset that their number was not top 40 material, but rather a retro-pastische. She also notes that there was no fourth wall. As they walk, they pass three maintenance men who are singing and dancing to an unseen orchestra and a plaintive women (Marti Noxon, executive producer) who is pleading her case against a parking ticket to an impassive traffic policeman. Giles notes that some people have spontaneously burned overnight, and that he was able to examine one of the victims as the police were taking "witness arias". Xander appears shocked at the news, and asks if they are certain that there is a connection between the singing and dancing and the deaths, to which Giles can give no certain reply.

That night, Buffy visits Spike in his crypt. Spike, usually either a nuisance to Buffy or more latterly her only confidante, is eager to be rid of her once he learns her errand, to obtain information. His eagerness, however, actually stems from his fear that, at any moment, he will fall under the spell's general compulsion to sing, to which he, despite his protestations, is not immune. He then gives vent to a long rant in song, full of frustrated rage and passion, Let Me Rest in Peace, tonally flat and lifeless, that confirms rather than exposes his existential conflict: living vampire and dead man, vicious, evil killer and sensitive, Pre-Raphaelite Bunthorne, who both hates the Slayer and loves Buffy, a conflict that has paralyzed him morally. He can be neither the man nor the monster. Spike, more than other vampires, is acutely aware of the dichotomy of their unnatural state. The moment is a mixture of punk rock and Rodgers and Hammerstein, Spike's East End version of Poor Judd Is Dead. The number gives the viewers a look at what Spike does for diversion as he terrorizes a funeral procession and disrupts the service, ending only in yet another comic tumble into an open grave.

Giles delivers his revelatory solo, Wish I Could Stay, during a training session with Buffy, in which he is visually and aurally isolated from her, symbolizing his inability to reach her in her state of emotional detachment. He laments that he can no longer be her protector, that instead he has become a hindrance to her development, the person who, she knows, will shoulder her responsibilities if he sees her suffering. He can't stop himself from helping her, even if the better course were to step aside. He resolves to leave, an action that will forestall both her tendency to lean upon him and the temptation for him to be her support.

This song bridges into a duet with Tara, who has learned through a conversation with Dawn, that her memory of the fight with Willow in All the Way has been erased. Rushing to the Magic Box, Tara finds that Lethe's Bramble is used to augment spells of mind control, and the ironical meaning of I Am Under Your Spell emerges; she then joins Giles in a duet on the refrain of Wish I Could Stay, as she, too, resolves to leave for both Willow's sake and her own.

Left momentarily alone at home, Dawn dons the necklace bearing Sweet's talisman, which act instantaneously summons Sweet's puppet faced henchmen, who abduct her, cutting short her musical question, Does Anybody Even Notice?.

Bagged and delivered unceremoniously to The Bronze, Dawn engages in a mime ballet with the henchmen, until Sweet steps in and begins his expository song and dance, That's What It's All About. (This alludes to Buffy's Hokey Pokey encounter with the First Slayer in Intervention. ) He has been summoned, he says, by her, and the musical infection is his work, seemingly affirming the old chestnut that music is of the devil. He gives a recitation of his tumultuous effects throughout history, including his influence on Nero, and concludes that Dawn, in keeping with the prescribed bargain attached the talisman, is to be his bride in Hell. Dawn denies the summons and informs him that she is too young to be legally married, and then lets slip that she is the Slayer's sister. This arrests Sweet in his career, and he sends off his henchpuppets to bring Buffy. He wants to see her burn.

Taken up outside the Magic Box by Spike, the Pinnochio puppet is commanded to "sing", and, following a sufficiently expectant musical cue, proceeds to speak his message in straight prose. Throwing off Spike, he escapes, followed by the comment, "one day he'll be a real boy," which seems equally to apply to Spike as to the puppet. Buffy sums up the situation succinctly, "Dawn's in trouble: it must be Tuesday."

A council or war is cut short, when Giles, acting on his earlier resolution and over the shocked dissent of the Scoobies, refuses to accompany Buffy to rescue Dawn, saying that she must go alone. Giles and Xander insult Spike, who vows to stand by Buffy. She bitchily reminds him of his earlier entreaty to be left alone, and Spike exits, angrily declaiming his hope that both she and the little bit burn. Buffy, shocked at this sudden shattering of her earlier blase assessment of the group as an unit, sulks off to face Sweet.

The fragmentation of the group is illustrated in the following number, Walk Through the Fire, by the division into three, Buffy alone, Spike alone, and the Scoobies back at the Magic Box, intercut by Sweet at The Bronze. The four elements gradually converge into one screen as Buffy approaches the club, Spike follows his impulse to help her, and Giles, racked by doubt, giving in to the irresistible desire to guard Buffy and Dawn, leads the Scoobies to her aid. Sweet's commentary in the corner of the screen mocks them all.

The climax in The Bronze is built around Buffy's deal with the devil: if she cannot kill him, she will take Dawn's place in Hell as his bride. Buffy's solo, Life's A Show, at last discloses to the Scoobies her feelings of betrayal and despair at having been pulled out of the heavenly peace and love that had enveloped her after her death. Failing to elicit any reason to go on living from anybody, she begins a dance of death which is interrupted on the point of combustion by the intervention of Spike, who advises her that the pain she feels will only be lessened by living, and that, if there is nothing else for which she can live, she must live so that one of them, at least, is living.

Sweet, philosophically observes that Spike has stopped the show in an unexpected way, and prepares to leave with Dawn, who again denies that she summoned the demon. She merely took the talisman, she says, which had been laying in the Magic Box. Sweet is persuaded when Xander confesses to having summoned Sweet, having wanted to know only if he and Anya were suited one to the other. Sweet graciously waives the clause by which the summoner is obliged to marry him and departs for Hell, in which, ominously, he promises to see them.

The reactions of the Scoobies to Buffy's revelation are all visual. Willow is shocked almost to the point of tears. Tara, for a moment, is willing to put aside her own pain out of sympathy for Willow. Giles appears to have suspected something of the kind. Dawn, Xander, and Anya all have their own preoccupations, and Buffy's problem is seen only remotely by them. Buffy's own reaction, to run to Spike, even though her secret pain has been bared, is curious.

The last number, Where Do We Go From Here?, involves the entire cast, but, the demon gone, Spike is the first to break out of the lingering effects of the spell and to exit. He is followed by Buffy, who stops him, saying that "This isn't real. I just want to feel." The curtain closes on their passionate kiss.

In Sum

The performances of the regular cast, considering the limitations of their vocal talents and ranges, are surprising. Anthony Stewart Head is, of course, excellent. His singing talent was established in Where the Wild Things Are, and he has retained both his voice and his feeling for the music. Sarah Michelle is "not a singer" by her own admission, but she gives a credible effort in each of her songs. Nicholas Brendon is not a singer period, but Whedon puts him in a routine that perfectly suits his talk-sing capabilities, rather like those of Rex Harrison, and his deficiencies are covered. Emma Caulfield is surprisingly versatile and takes readily to the diverse styles that her routines require. Alyson Hannigan can't sing, and they don't let her. (Also, if she did sing the truth, then a large part of the plot would vanish.) Unexpectedly, the really show stopping performer, after ASH, is Amber Benson. She has a lovely voice, and Whedon gives her a couple of songs that make full use of it. The only really uneven performance comes, equally surprisingly, from James Marsters, who struggles with his one big number. While doing well in the production numbers that involve the whole cast, Marsters doesn't appear to have the range for the solo. Since he has had experience with his own band, this is strange. It could well be, however, that the flatness of his performance was dictated by the music, designed to convey the character of Spike. (Spike's vocal range is not great, in any case, as his raucous version of My Way at the end of Lover's Walk proved.)

Guest star Hinton Battle, a master Broadway performer (whose name, for professional reasons, has been shortened from "Hinton G. Battle Winner Of Three Antoinette Perry Awards"), as the Zoot-suited Sweet, has exactly the necessary qualities for the role of the demon of music, a combination of command, impishness, and physical grace that gives life to the prosthetics.

Sweet is an enigma. He says that he comes from the imagination. One can suppose that the Hell of which he speaks is also imaginary, which is to say, real but created from the human imagination. Thus, Buffy's idea of Heaven was also real, but of her own creation. The imagination is both creative and destructive, then. Humanity lives either in heaven or hell by its own will. On the one hand, Sweet bestows a wonderful gift, one that fulfills the aspirations (or delusions) of many, and the exercise of this gift involves revelation of the truth. Ordinary people in ordinary situations find something to sing about, something as prosaic as mustard stains and parking tickets. ("Lady, don't make an opera out of it. It's only a ticket.") It is an old story. What, then, is the threat that he poses? The other theme, that an excess of truth, or any good thing, can be dangerous, and even destructive, is an old and favorite one in literature, too (as well as movies and television). They die who get carried away by Sweet's enchanted melody. Are they, like Buffy, suffering from depression and suicidal? Seemingly so, for burnout is the fate, he says of those for whom life is a song; and Buffy says that "Life's a show," before nearly incinerating herself. Ironically, when Buffy demands that she be given something to sing about, she is actually singing. She has given herself something to sing about, her own weariness with life. Anything from mustard stains to world weariness can furnish the matter for song.

Sweet is proud of his works. One might think that the conflagrations were set to music for his amusement, as was rumored of Nero, Sweet's pupil. But Sweet is not the teacher, if one accepts that he springs from the human mind. He is merely a thought that has been given form. Xander's mind has given him the cartoon form that he now possesses. What is Xander's debt, considering the death of the the combustible dancer? Evidently, none. The dancer was the victim of his own despair or lack of restraint. Xander's debt was discharged when Sweet abrogated the contract.

Perhaps most disturbing is the idea that Whedon is paying tribute to the oeuvre of Jim Carrey. Sweet bears an uncanny resemblance to the Tex Avery cartoon wolf that is pivotal for The Mask, the features of which Carrey's character, Stanley, assumes. The spinning motif is also characteristic of The Mask (picking up an image from The Gift and Flooded ), as are the cartoon-like door and victim that drop down in The Bronze (the doors being a prominent motif in the fifth season, to which allusion will be made later in Normal Again ). Furthermore, one is pained to recall that anybody in the range of influence of the Mask was wont to join any musical extravaganza that was in progress in its neighborhood. On a similar note, the plot of Liar, Liar hinges on the wish that the father, Carrey, be compelled to tell the truth. More cheering is the thought that Whedon, if the allusion to Carrey is intended, consigns him to Hell.

Sweet appears to combine a number of other traditions and myths. "Sweets" is a common enough moniker in Jazz circles, the late trumpeter Harry "Sweets" Edison being the best example. The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice seems also to have been in Whedon's mind. Child brides wedded to Hell Gods recalls the marriage of Hades and Persephone (Proserpina), which is probably the story to which Anya refers as the exception to the generally bad rule for such marriages. Persephone did divide her time as Queen of the Nether World between that kingdom and the kingdom of the living, an happier fate than the usual uninterrupted eternity in Hell.

Apart from a possible reliance upon Jim Carrey for inspiration, the primary fault of OMwF is the length. While one might readily agree with Dr. Johnson's opinion regarding the length of Milton's Paradise Lost, if the same were said of OMwF, it must provoke disagreement. Even with 50 minutes, Once More with Feeling is too short. It is disappointing that the production, blessed with the presence of one of the more accomplished musical stars from Broadway, gives Battle so little to do. While an increase in length inevitably, perhaps intolerably, would increase the burdens and the difficulties for Whedon, another ten minutes of story and an additional song and dance from Sweet would have been welcome. On the other hand, Dawn's dance recital might well have been excised without any loss to the story or the musical's integrity, and the pace might have been quickened by its elimination.

As a programming stunt, OMwF tops the list of successes. As a bold and innovative experiment, it deserves every bit of praise that it has received. As an episode of BtVS, it is the best since The Body. By any measure of quality, Once More with Feeling is exceptional.

Horace LaBadie

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