Don't let Joss Whedon's self-deprecating liner notes fool you; he knows how to write a musical. And don't let the fact that his musical Once More, With Feeling -- now available from Rounder Records -- is the original cast album to an episode of a television series fool you, either. Most importantly, don't let the knowledge that it's an episode of a show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer deter you. This is a good album. Different, but good.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer has, to put it mildly, a cult following. For those folks, this recording doesn't need a review -- let alone an explanation -- for they all saw Once More, With Feeling when it aired last autumn. But even some Broadway buffs tuned in to the special episode to see how Whedon, the show's creator-cum-songwriter, would fare. There is definitely something lost in hearing the soundtrack but not seeing the episode, which featured many great sight gags (the 18-second selection "The Mustard" will be lost on those who didn't see that it was the climax to a big production number, led by a man who's just picked up his clothes from a dry cleaner). Then again, the cast albums of most musicals leave quite a bit to the imagination, and the real treat of this disc is in enjoying Whedon's music and lyrics. Though they are not quite at the level of his idol, Stephen Sondheim, Whedon knows how to make musical theater work in his own medium -- television.
What's it about? Okay, so Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is a vampire slayer, which means exactly what it sounds like it means. (Just go with it). Buffy also deals with various other kinds of otherworldly bad guys; in this episode, there is a demon who is making everyone in town break out into song and dance -- including Buffy and her friends. What sets Once More, With Feeling apart from the other TV shows that have decided to do "musical" episodes is that (1) it has an original score, and (2) it does not deviate from the general arc of the show.
It will be very clear, even to non-Buffy viewers, that the emotions the characters bring to the surface in these songs -- and what are musicals for, if not that for bringing emotions to the surface? -- have been bubbling underneath for a long time. In "Standing," Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), Buffy's mentor, sings:
I wish I could lay your arms down
And let you rest at last;
Wish I could slay your demons,
But now that time has passed,
Wish I could stay
Your stalwart, standing fast,
But I'm standing in the way,
I'm just standing in the way.
No doubt this has a greater meaning for Buffy devotees who have watched the relationship between Buffy and Giles develop over the years; but it is also rewarding for first-timers who, thanks to Whedon's layered writing, can appreciate the characters' shared histories but need not worry about getting lost in the story.
Whedon has penned more traditional tunes here, as well: Buffy's "Going Through the Motions" is the perfect opener, giving the uninitiated a taste of her nightly routine as a slayer and working as a classic "I want" song, revealing that she's unhappy with that routine. "I'll Never Tell" is an adorable duet between husband-and-wife-to-be Xander (Nicholas Brendon) and Anya (Emma Caulfield), with some of Whedon's best lyrics. "I've Got a Theory," in which everyone speculates what might be causing people to suddenly burst into song, is catchy and cute and includes Anya's bizarrely hilarious tangent "Bunnies":
I've got a theory:
It could be bunnies.
Bunnies aren't just cute
Like everybody supposes.
They got them hoppy legs
And twitchy little noses.
And what's with all the carrots?
The musical ends with three strong anthems, starting with "Walk Through the Fire" (a friend tells me it's the favorite among Buffy fiends), a galvanizing ensemble number that brings to mind the "Tonight" quintet in West Side Story. It is followed by Buffy's "Something To Sing About," which has a cheesy title but is a complex song of realization for Buffy. (Whedon's demo of the song, sung by his wife Kai Cole, is a bonus track on the CD.) The somber and melodic finale "Where Do We Go From Here?" provides an uncertain ending that has the characters asking "When does 'The End' appear? When do the trumpets cheer?"
Most of the Buffy cast members are good -- if not great -- singers. Except for, maybe, Anthony Stewart Head, they are certainly not of Broadway caliber, but their rawness is part of the charm. And there is one Broadway star on the album: Hinton Battle (The Wiz, Miss Saigon, etc.) plays the pesky demon and does a soft-shoe number called "What You Feel."
The packaging for the CD has some cute illustrations, production shots from the episode, and complete lyrics. Oddly, aside from a blurb in Whedon's liner notes, there is no information about the show or a detail of the episode's storyline. That was a bad move, considering that this might be the first experience that some people (most notably, show tune lovers) will have with the show. Buffy fans will be happy to know that the show's main title, spooky instrumental suites from episodes Restless and Hush, and a number called "The Gift" from Sacrifice are all included as extra tracks.
Even with its vampiric references ("Nothing seems to penetrate my heart," sings Buffy as she stakes a vamp) and the occasional silly, self-referential nods ("I think this line's mostly filler," sings Willow at one point), Once More, With Feeling isn't as much in the Urinetown vein (no pun intended) as you might think. For the most part, it is as sincere -- and humorous -- as any episode of this quirky and smart show. If only we could have an entire series merging TV drama and musical theater so cleverly and tunefully.