Musical episodes of TV shows weren’t invented by Buffy the Vampire Slayer, nor by Xena: Warrior Princess either. But it was Xena that came up with a way of doing musical episodes that was incredibly effective, and Buffy that perfected it, producing a musical that has been a touchstone for TV ever since.

Some TV shows are designed to be a musical every week, of course, from Glee to Schmigadoon! to Flight of the Conchords. But there is also a fairly long-standing tradition of non-musical shows including musical episodes from time to time.

It might seem like having characters who do not normally sing randomly burst into song would be restricted to science fiction and fantasy, in which an invented reason can be provided for the singing, but plenty of non-sci fi and fantasy shows have done musicals either by making the whole thing take place inside someone’s head as a dream or hallucination, or by using the Cabaret-method of doing a story about singing performances on stage, in a club, or another performance setting.

This Cabaret-style type of musical, in which the songs are all performed within the story, was the most popular type of musical episode in non-musical shows before the 1990s. As far back as 1952, an episode of I Love Lucy, “The Operetta,” featured Lucy writing an operetta and her friends and family performing it in order to raise money for her local women’s club. In 1996 Gilligan’s Island episode “The Producer,” a Hollywood producer crash lands on the island and the castaways create a musical version of Hamlet to try to convince him to cast Ginger in his next film. The Brady Bunch did an episode in which they sang on a local talent show, 1973’s “Amateur Night,” and The Love Boat’s “The Love Boat: The Musical” guest-starred famous singers as the stars of a musical revue in 1982. The Simpsons’ 1993 classic episode “Marge vs the Monorail” featured a more traditional Broadway style bombastic number about the titular monorail, but later that same year, the show took the Cabaret-style route with a Beatles homage featuring Homer’s days in a successful Barbershop Quartet (“Homer’s Barbershop Quartet”).

There are a couple of noticeable themes throughout these episodes. Not only are all except for “Marge vs the Monorail” Cabaret-style musicals, they are also all episodes of sitcoms or lighter dramas. Most of the stories are fairly light and function as excuses to get everybody singing, some of them parodying particular music styles. Although sitcoms and lighter dramas can and do often feature surprisingly dark, dramatic, and serious episodes every once in a while, none of the musical episodes come under that heading.

Xena: Warrior Princess actually did two musical episodes. The second, 1999’s “Lyre, Lyre, Hearts on Fire” was a Cabaret-style musical centered around a battle of the bands. But it was the the show’s first musical episode that broke the mold.

“The Bitter Suite,” first aired in February 1998, did two things very differently than most of the musical episodes that had come before. It dropped the Cabaret-style device of having the characters choose to perform the songs, instead having them forced to sing about their deepest emotional turmoil, and it tackled the darkest and most dramatic subject matter the show had yet dealt with.

In the previous episode, “Maternal Instincts,” Gabrielle (Renée O’Connor) had tried to protect her evil daughter Hope (Amy Morrison) from Xena (Lucy Lawless), who insisted she needed to be killed (it’s a long story). Hope then killed Xena’s son Solon (David Taylor), so Gabrielle finally killed Hope, but Xena could not forgive Gabrielle for keeping Hope from her and therefore allowing Hope to kill Xena’s son.

If you’ve never seen any Xena and only know it from short clips and 1990s references to it, you might be forgiven for thinking it was a pretty light-hearted show, and it often was. But it could be incredibly dark, especially when dealing with Xena’s past as a ruthless killer. And it never got darker than the cold open of “The Bitter Suite,” in which Xena, copying a trick from Achilles all the way back in Homer’s Iliad, ties Gabrielle to the back of her cart and drags her along the ground, desperate for revenge for Solon.

Choosing a musical – a serious, sing-your-heart-out type of musical – as the resolution to this story was a stroke of genius. The entire series was built on the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle, so this moment is the lowest point of the entire show for either of them. Only something really dramatic could heal the rift. But Xena, although often dramatic, was at heart a family show built on entertainment and humor. Back in 1998, grim drama full of people being miserable at each other was the preserve of cop shows and hospital dramas and daytime soaps; it was not yet fashionable for sci-fi and fantasy shows to be full of misery.

So instead of having Xena and Gabrielle cry and yell at each other for 45 minutes until their relationship somehow started to heal, the writers dumped them both in the sea and had them wake up in the Land of Illusia, where everyone sings and where they are taken through a musical re-living of their emotional journey since they met each other. The episode climaxes in a gut-wrenching song in which Xena apologizes to the ghost of Solon for never telling him that she was his mother, and she and Gabrielle reconcile, at which point Illusia disappears – it was Solon’s spirit who created it to bring them back together.

Although the overall tone was that of a dramatic Broadway musical, “The Bitter Suite” used several different musical styles for different songs. The opening number, which introduces the Land of Illusia, is jaunty and bouncy and colorful; “War and Peace” is done as a big 1950s-era chorus number; Xena and her former lover/enemy Ares do a sexy tango; and the finale, being the emotional heart of the story, is done as a 1990s-style emotional ballad.

“The Bitter Suite” was a huge success, and remains one of the most popular episodes of the series. By having its main characters sing their emotions, the showrunners were able to portray huge emotional arcs and provoke equal emotional reaction in the audience in a very short space of time, and get some of their trademark humor in there too. We challenge you to watch Xena sing her apology to the spirit of her dead son without crying. It’s impossible.

There were, of course, other musical episodes in between “The Bitter Suite” and Buffy’s “Once More With Feeling,” which first aired in November 2001. Xena and its parent show Hercules: The Legendary Journeys both did more musicals, for example, and Ally McBeal, a show famous for its fantasy sequences happening inside its heroine’s head, featured a number of songs both in fantasies and performed in story, as well as a musical episode, “Ally McBeal: The Musical: Almost,” in May 2000.

But it was Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “Once More, With Feeling” that took the tone and ideas of Xena’s “Bitter Suite” and improved upon it, creating the most beloved musical TV episode of all time, even making it to number 13 on British Channel 4’s “100 Greatest Musicals of all time,” ahead of not only Les Misérables, but also every Andrew Lloyd Webber musical on the list.

“Once More, With Feeling” was, like “The Bitter Suite,” the culmination of a dark and deeply emotional storyline. The season 5 finale of Buffy, “The Gift,” had seen Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) leap to her death in order to save both her sister Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg) and the world. She had grown increasingly weary over the course of the season, broken down by the threats to Dawn and by the death of her mother, and leapt (literally) at the opportunity to give Dawn her life by embracing death as her own gift.

Buffy was then brought back to life and forced to claw her way out of her own grave by her well-meaning friends at the beginning of season 6. She had been clearly depressed ever since but no one knew why; it was when forced to sing all her deepest feelings in the musical episode that she revealed it was because she had been yanked out of Heaven (and not a Hell dimension, as her friends had thought) against her will. The musical also saw a turning-point in a dark sub-plot between Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and Tara (Amber Benson), in which Willow was magically manipulating her girlfriend, as well as Giles’ (Anthony Stewart Head) decision to go back to England, and the beginning of a romantic relationship between Buffy and still-un-ensouled vampire Spike (James Marsters). So all in all, like “The Bitter Suite,” “Once More, With Feeling” took place at a very bleak moment in the characters’ lives.

Buffy’s musical was also, like “The Bitter Suite,” a fully immersive musical in which the characters were compelled to sing their deepest emotions by external forces; in this case, because of a spell foolishly performed by Xander (Nicholas Brendan) that summoned a demon (Xander having learned nothing from the time he made every woman in Sunnydale desperate to be with him in season 2’s “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered”). Feelings that various characters had been suppressing were forced out by the musical numbers, just as in “The Bitter Suite,” though the finale, “Where Do We Go From Here?,” was more of an open question than a resolution.

“Once More, With Feeling” features a number of songs in different musical styles, chosen to fit individual characters. Tara sings a melodic love song, Spike is a rocker (Marsters was in a rock band), Giles (played by actual musical theatre star Anthony Stewart Head) sings a Broadway ballad, while Buffy herself gets both a fun Disney-style ‘I Want’ song at the beginning (“Going Through The Motions”) and leads a rousing chorus number (“Walk Through the Fire”) at the end. However, unlike “The Bitter Suite,” which had to pack everything into a regular TV episode run-time, “Once More With Feeling” had a slightly extended runtime of 50 minutes, allowing it to pack in even more songs than its predecessor – and they are, no offence to Xena’s excellent numbers, a little bit catchier too.

Like “The Bitter Suite,” “Once More, With Feeling” didn’t neglect color, liveliness, or humor either. The Land of Illusia had looked vibrant and fun; the Buffy version steps that up a notch by saturating the normal Sunnydale sets with color and putting everyone in particularly colorful costumes. Tara and Willow are dressed as if going to a Renaissance Fair for no apparent reason, Emma Caulfield’s Anya wears a stunning red negligée for her Old Hollywood-inspired song and dance, and the colors on display in the famous “They Got The Mustard Out!” sequence are quite something.

“Once More, With Feeling” also features probably the funniest and most well-observed line in any TV musical episode. Whereas the singing in Xena’s “Bitter Suite” was a mix of cast members with strong voices doing their own singing while those less confident were dubbed by professional singers, all the Buffy cast were required to do their own singing. Sarah Michelle Gellar and Nicholas Brendan do a decent job of holding their own next to their professional-singer castmates, but Alyson Hannigan was not confident at all, so she was given very little singing to do, and her contribution to the all-cast number “Walk Through The Fire” is a brief “I think this line’s mostly filler” It is, and it’s genius.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a show was well aware of its debt to Xena: Warrior Princess, its predecessor in ass-kicking female character-led genre television. Back in season 2, when everyone turned into their Halloween costumes and Buffy became a helpless, over-protected 18th century young lady, Willow lamented, “She couldn’t have dressed up like Xena?” The musical’s obvious debt to “The Bitter Suite” was also acknowledged early on in the episode, as Xander reacts to events by exclaiming “Merciful Zeus!”

It was “The Bitter Suite” that created the idea of a dramatic, character-based, immersive musical episode in an otherwise non-musical TV show, but it was “Once More, With Feeling” that made the format a mainstay for years to come. The songs, the character work, the production values, the mix of tones and styles while keeping a clear overall vibe – these shows proved that it could be done, and set the tone of the onslaught of similar musical episodes that followed.

From Scrubs’ “My Musical: (which, oddly enough, was not one of lead character JD’s fantasies even though those were, Ally McBeal-style, a core part of the show, but rather was hallucinated by a patient) to The Magicians’ “All That Hard, Glossy Armour” to Star Trek: Strange New Worlds“Subspace Rhapsody,” they all owe a debt to Buffy and to Xena – acknowledged by “Subspace Rhapsody” in its references to bunnies and use of the phrase “I have a theory,” both prominent features in ‘Once More, With Feeling’s early number “I’ve Got a Theory.” We can only hope the musical episode we’re almost certain is coming up in the new season of Doctor Who continues to take inspiration from these classics.

The post Buffy the Vampire Slayer Took an Idea From Xena: Warrior Princess and Perfected It appeared first on Den of Geek.

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