Vamping It Up
by Mary Kaye Schilling of ew.com
Behind the scenes of "Buffy"'s musical episode -- The Slayer sings and
creator Joss Whedon flirts with tunesmithing
A funny thing happened on the way to this week's episode of "Buffy the
Vampire Slayer." Although TV's cult hit has always been a genre-busting
anomaly -- combining elements of horror, gothic romance, soap opera, satire,
and slapstick -- you could be fairly certain the characters wouldn't break
But now Buffy's going Broadway, and it's all Stephen Sondheim's doing,
really. The legendary lyricist-composer ("West Side Story," "A Little
Night Music") is a god to "Buffy" creator Joss Whedon. "I know the words
to every one of his songs," admits the self-described musical geek. "Well,
except 'Passion,' which I've excised from my brain. It was just wrong."
Whedon has been dreaming of staging an all-singing, all-dancing "Buffy"
since the show's 1997 pilot. "Every season I would ask, Are we going to do
the musical episode?" says Anthony Stewart Head (Buffy's Watcher, Giles),
who displayed tasty vocal chops in a 2000 sequence. "Joss would say he
wasn't ready. It had to be organic." Whedon's hesitation was twofold: He
wanted the episode to be "a normal hour of 'Buffy"' that forwarded
existing plot points, not an out-of-sequence stand-alone. Plus, he needed to
find the time to write the words and music himself -- a virtually impossible
task until this season, when he handed off day-to-day show-running to exec
producer Marti Noxon.
As it was, the musical homage (airing Nov. 6) took a grueling six months to
make: three months banging out the score on a piano Whedon learned to play
just a few years ago (despite possessing only a tenuous grip on music
composition, he had no collaborators) and three months of voice and dance
lessons for the actors, not to mention all the lip-synching, choreographing,
shooting, and editing. "It was a nightmare," says an exhausted Whedon.
"The happiest nightmare I ever had."
The show's star shares his beleaguered joy. "I'm not a singer, and I hated
every moment of it," says Sarah Michelle Gellar. "It took something like
19 hours of singing and 17 hours of dancing in between shooting four other
episodes." Gellar's initial impulse was to use a voice double, but she
nixed that after hearing her songs. "I basically started to cry and said,
'You mean someone else is going to do my big emotional turning point for the
And boy, are there turning points. As Whedon points out, "songs in musicals
allow characters to sing what they can't say. And in the case of our
characters, the things they really shouldn't say." The catalyst for all the
soul-baring is a demon named Sweet, "who thrives on chaos -- and good
musical numbers," says Whedon. "He puts a spell on Sunnydale because he
knows song and dance will eventually destroy the town -- that much heart
opening is too much for people."
The resulting 35 minutes of music (11 full songs, plus fragments and an
overture) and 13 minutes of dialogue -- adding up to a longer-than-normal
episode -- is classic "Buffy," a seamless blend of hilarity, high drama,
and self-mockery. (Whedon found it too painful to cut his musical baby down
to regular episode length and UPN offered to perform the surgery, but net
execs liked it so much that they're letting it run almost eight minutes over
for its initial airing.) "Buffy's first number, 'Going Through the
Motions,' is a straight-up Disney production number -- wicked Disney," says
Whedon. But mostly "there are a lot of ballads, because the characters are
going through emotions -- and because I, you know, kind of go to a sad place
when I write." Exceptions include a harder-rocking tune for platinum-haired
bloodsucker Spike and an "old school" number for eternally squabbling
couple Xander and Anya -- a '30s-style song that, as Anya enviously points
out, is "retro pastiche that's never going to be a breakaway pop hit,"
unlike "Under Your Spell," the (rather racy) love song Tara croons to
fellow witch Willow.
"Most of my stuff has a '70s influence -- Neil Young, the Dead, Paul
Williams' incredibly underrated 'Phantom of the Paradise' soundtrack," says
Whedon, who will release a soundtrack through his Mutant Enemy production
company. "Somebody said the songs sounded like Sondheim and early Elton
John. Hey, I can live with that."