Vamping It Up
by Mary Kaye Schilling
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 into song.
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
"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."