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'Buffy' Musical No Joke by Brian Millikin of The Daily Tar Heel

"Once More, With Feeling" Soundtrack
4 Stars

Musicals don't get the respect they deserve, not from music collectors. Good luck trying to find Sondheim and Webber next to Beck and Radiohead in even the most thorough collections. But don't forget the die-hards, the musical afficionados.

And as far as television goes, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" doesn't get the recognition it deserves either, outside of most television critics and relentlessly devoted fans. The humor, sharpness and smarts of the show are lost on a lot of people, who are turned off by the title and the ridiculous notion of stakes and stilettos.

Last November, "Buffy" mastermind Joss Whedon produced what The Washington Post called "the finest hour of television" in recent years -- but it had the whole gauntlet going against it.

"Once More, With Feeling" was both "Buffy" and musical -- a full-on musical episode and a joyously conceived hour of pure entertainment. And a year later, it works as a soundtrack album, too.

A song-and-dance demon is summoned to Sunnydale, and suddenly all the town folk are compelled to sing and dance whenever they experience a feeling or emotion that they can't express. The joke of it all is that everyone is aware that music is playing and that they're singing, but they can't stop -- it cleverly turns the pretext of a musical on its ear.

Buffy sings a Disney-like "Going Through the Motions" about her detachment from life, and her friends Xander and Anya duet about cold feet before their wedding in "I'll Never Tell."

But it's not that Whedon's pop-rock songs are just clever or slyly humorous -- they're also surprisingly solid. Melodic and catchy in a way that great musicals are, the songs are like Elton John's better talents by way of "Moulin Rouge."

Lovelorn vampire Spike gets his spotlight in "Rest in Peace," a jilted romance number with Billy Idol flair that's immediately memorable. The ensemble joins for the rousing "Walk Through the Fire," and the song easily rivals Broadway's current output.

What worked so well with the episode was that, despite the outrageousness of its premise and presentation, it still made sense within the series's story, advancing ongoing plotlines effortlessly. For fans of the show, approaching the soundtrack album is just as easy -- but for the uninitiated, it might be a daunting assignment.

But the songs are strong enough and the story simple and self-contained enough that following along shouldn't be a problem for non-fans.

No, the problem is getting the uninitiated to listen at all.

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