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Feature: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

They Sing, They Dance, They Slay!

Joss Whedon and three of his musical stars at the 'Once More...' launch: © Judy Sloane for Visual Imagination

Joss Whedon and his cast tell Judy Sloane about the making of Buffy the Vampire Slayer's musical episode

Two seasons ago, Buffy the Vampire Slayer's creator Joss Whedon wrote a ground-breaking episode entitled Hush, in which a full 20 minutes was played out in complete silence, with only incidental music and sound effects. The following year, he tried something which was pretty much the opposite: The Body, an episode which was entirely lacking in background tones. This year, the innovative instalment continues the theme: it's a fully-fledged musical called Once More, with Feeling.

Musical episodes aren't as rare as they once were, with LEXX and Xena having already done them, but Whedon had his own ideas on how to make Buffy's version stand out. "It was important that it was not a stunt," he insists. "A lot of shows do musical numbers, but I [felt] if we ever did a musical it would have to be a real musical – and original. It couldn't be, ‘Let's do a scene and then let's stop and sing an oldie,' because those drive me crazy. That's not a musical, that's a variety show. It would have to be a story that was based in song, where the big story points and the big emotional moments were in the songs."

UPN's promo poster for 'Once More...'Whedon accomplished this feat by penning an episode in which a musical demon, who dresses like a lounge singer, is summoned to Sunnydale and forces Buffy and her friends to reveal their most private secrets to one another – in song. All 14 songs were composed by Whedon, and sung by the cast members themselves.

"I really tried very hard to tell the story in the songs," says Joss. "Sometimes the songs are commenting on the action, sometimes they are the action; sometimes they're emotional insights into the characters, and where they're going and where they realize they have to go. The point about singing is that you say things you could never actually say. A song builds in a character and then it bursts forth. The problem they're having is the demon has turned their world into a musical and they keep singing things that they didn't want to say. So it's tearing them apart. They keep finding out things they didn't want to know because nobody can shut up."

Such an enormous undertaking has been in Whedon's mind for years, as he acknowledges. "I've always wanted to do a musical, and Buffy is so much like a musical anyway, with its heart on its sleeve – half the time you feel like they're going to burst into song any minute, but they don't. And we said, ‘This time they will!'"

Throughout the show's six seasons, Whedon has held gatherings at his home for the cast, which gave him a good idea of what he could expect from his team. "We do Shakespearean readings at Joss' every few weeks," says Amber Benson. "Afterwards it always degenerates into lots of singing, dancing and making fun of ourselves. Joss will do a Grateful Dead song and I'll sing along, so he knew I could sing and that Tony could sing. And he took the leap of faith that we would all go for a musical – and we did..."

Get the full feature, plus our seven-page almanac of The Year in Buffy and Angel (2001) when you buy Xposé Special #18

Poster © UPN. Images and text by Judy Sloane
© Visual Imagination 2001

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End of Year Review 2001
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More performers...

James Marsters (Spike), who sings in a rock group, admits that even he was "terrified" when the idea of the musical was brought up.

"Joss writes very confusing music," he acknowledges. "He's like Stephen Sondheim, in which to say that the note you are searching for is not necessarily contained in the cord that's being played – the note will be given to you in the next phrase, which is very Sondheim-ist. It's very complicated and it's very demanding on the singer."

The one cast member who welcomed the idea with open arms was Nicholas Brendon, who plays Xander.

"We heard about it last year and I was excited about it. I've never really sung or danced before, but I hadn't acted before I did the show either. I don't question Joss. He said, 'We are going to do a musical, and it's going to be the best thing ever.' So I didn't think it was going to be like Cop Rock [a very unsuccessful musical TV series from the usually reliable Stephen Bochco, creator of NYPD Blue]. I knew it was going to be like, better, and it was all going to make sense. It's got a good flow, and all the songs mean something."