“Once More, With Feeling”
August 5th, 2011
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My memory is generally pretty good when it comes to small details about my life, but I truly have no idea what possessed me to watch “Once More, With Feeling” in my dorm room about four or five years ago.
I wasn’t watching it with someone else, and I hadn’t borrowed someone’s DVDs. As far as I can remember, no one suggested that I watch it, and this was well before Dr. Horrible was a thing (although I think my memory wants to tell me that there was some relationship between the two things, if only to make sense of the abstract nature of the experience). Looking back, timeline wise, it’s possible that the Scrubs musical was what pushed me in its direction, but that’s at best an educated guess.
As I’ve discussed throughout this project, there are moments from pivotal episodes that have been floating around in my head from occasional experiences with the series. One was Riley crawling through a tight space in the climax of “Hush,” gleamed from a Buffy marathon my brother was recording, and the other was this random late night viewing of an episode for which I had almost zero context. Given that I was watching the episode exclusively as a musical, my memory is hazy: when I started watching the show in earnest last summer, I remember being convinced that Xander and Cordelia were going to get together because I had seen them in “Once More, With Feeling,” at which point you were quick to point out that my memory was even hazier than I realized.
Watching it this week really did feel like watching it for the first time, even if there were those brief moments of déjà vu. I remembered more about the episode than I thought, but the nature of those memories varied, reflecting the multi-faceted nature of the episode’s success. You can’t remember what you’ve never known, and returning to the episode in the context of the sixth season gave me a much greater understanding for why “Once More, With Feeling” holds such an important place in the history of this show.
I have a habit of listening to the Cast Recordings of Broadway musicals and trying to figure out the plot. Generally speaking, it’s pretty easy: usually there’s a few key numbers that serve as important milestones within the musical, and the characters are generally pretty good about explaining their motivations. Part of the point of musicals, after all, is that people use songs in order to express emotions that might otherwise be left unsaid, so the songs are often the space where characters share their innermost thoughts and fill in the gaps for those of us who don’t have the benefit of actually seeing the musical in question.
However, in the past this had caused me some trouble. The first Broadway musical I saw, Pulitzer Prize-winning Next to Normal, was something I discovered on the Tony Awards, where one of the central numbers was provided with only a brief synopsis for context. I wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention to the way the number was staged, but it caught my attention, and I downloaded the cast recording soon after. I listened to it regularly that summer, enjoying following the journey of a family torn apart by a misunderstood disease, and then traveled to New York in October and got some tickets from TKTS. It was only once I was sitting in the Booth Theater, of course, that I realized that one of the characters I had heard singing was a figment of a character’s imagination.
Once I realized this, all sorts of details fell into place, as songs that previously seemed abstract suddenly made a lot more sense. Even though I understood the basic plot, and was technically “spoiled” for certain plot developments after hearing the cast recording, there was still something left to discover. The same thing happened to me with Spring Awakening, although in that case I read the Wikipedia plot summary before actually seeing the show in question. In both instances, there simply weren’t songs that coincided with certain plot developments, leaving key gaps in comprehension that were untold by the music in question.
I raise these experiences because watching “Once More, With Feeling” without having seen a complete episode of the show is sort of like listening to the cast recording before seeing the musical, although with one key difference. While the cast recordings tend to leave out certain elements of the plot, watching the episode made the plot entirely clear: although no songs completely lay out the plot, dialogue scenes flesh out Sweet’s effect on Sunnydale and the circumstances that led to his arrival. This is just a regular old monster-of-the-week storyline at its core, much as The Gentlemen in “Hush” fit comfortably into existing patterns even if their impact dramatically altered the series’ DNA, so on that level viewing the episode without additional context wasn’t much of an issue.
However, unlike Broadway musicals, the meaning of “Once More, With Feeling” depends almost exclusively on knowledge that I simply didn’t have. It was amazing watching it again after seeing the 106 episodes that preceded it, as I wondered what I must have thought when I watched it for the first time. How, for example, did I react to Anya’s Bunnies interlude within “I’ve Got a Theory” when I had no context for her vendetta against the animal? How did I interpret Giles’ concern in “Standing in the Way” when I had no idea that he had just returned from England a few episodes earlier? And, perhaps most importantly, how did I read the climactic moment in “Something to Sing About” when I had no idea what Buffy was talking about in regards to heaven and hell?
I knew enough about the show that I was able to piece together Spike and Buffy’s will they-won’t they sexual tension, which provides the episode with its coda, and there are other story elements (like Xander and Anya’s nervousness about getting married) that are pretty easy to follow without knowing the two characters. However, even in these instances, the weight of “I’ll Never Tell” or “Rest in Peace” is much greater when you have an understanding for Anya and Xander’s characters (like, for example, that Anya used to be a demon), or realize that Spike isn’t just a normal vampire (which I would have presumed at the time). I might have left with a basic understanding of the episode’s plot, and I might have been able to appreciate the musical craftsmanship on the songs, but I didn’t know the depth of what they were singing about (and, contrary to Buffy’s refrain, these characters – even Buffy – do indeed have things to sing about).
The fact that “Once More, With Feeling” has been elevated to a piece of television history, now inarguably the most famous “musical episode” of a non-musical series, is interesting in that it has taken place largely independent of the actual story being told. Its broad canonization has, on some level, split from its series canonization – while its place within the series has to do with the way Whedon merges the show’s characters and ongoing storylines with different musical styles and musical theater conventions, outside of the series it seems to be notable simply for committing so wholeheartedly to the musical conceit. This isn’t just a couple of original songs, and Whedon didn’t commission an existing composer/lyricist to write the songs: this is a musical in miniature, complete with an overture, and was composed by the show’s creator. Its musical numbers are ambitious, diverse in their sense of scale and their musical genres, and they’re also catchy in a way that stuck with me even out of context: “I think this line’s mostly filler” was perhaps the line that most resonated, but numerous melodies have lingered even if the details were lost.
In other words, simply existing in its basic form was enough to elevate “Once More, With Feeling” within television history, and it could easily be taught in light of its relationship with the traditional Broadway (or Hollywood) musical or with other television musicals (as a colleague in UW-Madison’s film department was investigating last fall). However, within the show’s fandom the episode takes on an additional layer of meaning: this is the episode where they find out that they dragged Buffy from heaven, and the episode where Buffy and Spike share that big climactic kiss, and the episode where Tara learns the depths of Willow’s betrayal. Even without having moved onto “Tabula Rasa,” it’s clear that this is an important pivot point in the same way that “Hush” brought together Buffy and Riley in order to bring The Initiative to the forefront.
As with “Hush,” though, I don’t think I’ve ever heard “Once More, With Feeling” discussed in this context. Obviously, I’ve been avoiding discussions within fan communities, but it definitely feels like its broader significance has become disconnected from the serialization evident within the episode. As a one-off experiment, not unlike “Hush,” its identity has become defined by it being “the musical episode” without any real mention of what ends that music was used towards.
If my memory (as spotty as it seems in light of other parts of this post) serves me well, there were some discussions on earlier posts – perhaps even my review of “Hush” – about what episode of the show would make a proper entry point. Given its notoriety, I imagine that there are many who first experience Buffy through “Once More, With Feeling,” much as I did inadvertently all those years ago. If I were teaching this in a class, forced to show it out of context due to the limitations of time, how would I feel about this being the first time some students were watching Buffy?
For me, it highlights what might be the episode’s greatest accomplishment. Whedon’s commitment to serialization within an episode that he had to have known would become isolated as a singular piece is what really struck me about the episode when watching it for the “first” time. As noted, it’s not dissimilar from “Hush,” but that conceit seems downright subtle in light of what we see here.
However, reading that back it sounds wrong given that “Once More, With Feeling” has a lot of subtlety in it: sure, there’s a few over-the-top innuendos and some moments of excess, but there’s something small about the way this story is told. Even within all the bombast, the scale of the piece is focused solely on these characters, showing only a few brief moments of large-scale song and dance (to establish a sense of scale that the episode then abandons). Whedon is dealing with something that could have felt silly, and that could have gone off the rails, but he’s made it seem simultaneously extravagant and grounded through the focus on the characters and their story arcs.
Some of my favorite moments in “Once More, With Feeling” are those extravagant moments. Emma Caulfield sells that Bunnies interlude so well that I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face, and Anya’s continued interest in categorizing the various songs showed a self-aware side to Whedon’s writing that fit the occasion.
However, the best moments are those that carry the weight of the season. Say what one will about the way the season has developed to this point, or how the season develops after this, but “Once More, With Feeling” lands and lands hard. “Under Your Spell” is an enchanting little number when it first appears, but when Tara (logically) co-opts it to explain Willow’s deception it becomes this tragic refrain. “Something to Sing About” is not my favorite song musically, as those weird rhythm changes bug me, but the more I listened to it the more you can see it building to her reveal. Similarly, many of the most powerful moments are those that wouldn’t appear on a cast recording: Willow, after all, doesn’t sing her pain after learning about Buffy being in heaven.
There will be a number of bullet points that follow this article, some of them complaints and some of them little moments that charmed me. However, on the whole, my take away from the episode is that there is more here than I could have ever realized sitting in my dorm room streaming it off of (I believe) DailyMotion. It’s not just that there are references I wouldn’t have understood, or character details that I didn’t have access to: simply put, “Once More, With Feeling” is an episode that cannot be removed from the narrative context in which it is located without damaging its sense of purpose and meaning.
And I’m glad that my memory was hazy enough that my definitive “Once More, With Feeling” experience came in this context.
- Since it’ll probably come up, “Walk Through the Fire” is my “favorite” (ugh, I hate that word) song. I’m a sucker for converging narrative songs, what can I say?
- My one quibble – I don’t buy that it was Xander who set off the talisman. In fact, I don’t buy a lot of things about the conclusion, as Sweet just kind of fades off into the night without any real climax. I get that his threat is more what he causes others to do to themselves, captured most directly with the tap dancer setting himself on fire, but the Xander reveal just kind of takes the steam out of things. It makes sense to get him out of the way and let it be about the characters, but Sweet ends up being pretty unmemorable for me. The episode doesn’t hinge on that, of course, but that would be my one broader issue with the episode.
- I was aware that Noxon and Fury made cameos (mostly because of their similar cameos in Dr. Horrible), but I wasn’t aware that Adam Shankman (who I’ve come to know through So You Think You Can Dance) served as the choreographer. Meanwhile, I certainly didn’t know that Glee choreographer Zach Woodlee was one of the dancers (in both “Going through the Motions” and the Henchmen scenes at the Bronze).
- I think Emma Caulfield won the episode with me just by being so darn charming in every single scene she was in, but it’s clear that Whedon leaned heavily on Amber Benson musically speaking – props to the rest of the cast for pulling it off (with Sarah Michelle Gellar handling some complex material quite admirably), but Benson was definitely a step above (with Anthony Stewart Head right there with her, albeit in a different range).
- Poor Alyson Hannigan – no, she can’t really sing, but the episode doesn’t even really let her dance. At least Trachtenberg gets an extended dance number to show off some sort of musical-related talent – Hannigan got squat. However, while it may have been a convenient excuse for not overtaxing her limited range, I do think there’s a value in having Willow disconnected from the more emotional musical elements, given that the storyline seems to be suggesting a disconnect between her emotions and her use of magic.
- I mentioned the innuendo above – do we think that this is another example of pushing the boundaries given the move to UPN, or would Whedon have been as likely to include those moments (Anya’s “tight…embrace,” the final chorus of “Under My Spell”) if they were still on The WB?
- There’s some really fantastic technical work in the episode: the songs are obviously the focus, but Whedon directed the hell out of this. Not only are there some impressive technical shots, like Buffy’s big note exploding out from behind the dusted vampire or Tara and Willow spinning from the park to their bedroom, but there’s also a real sense of a visual signature on each piece. The episode uses the show’s standing sets incredibly well, using each space (the practice room, the Bronze, the graveyard, Anya and Xander’s apartment, etc.) in ways that added greater emphasis to the numbers in question. The scale (in terms of the amount of people involved) might have mostly remained small, but the spaces in which the numbers were performed seemed larger than usual – this is perhaps why they didn’t, outside of a single line from Dawn that’s interrupted by the henchmen, use the cramped quarters of the house at all?
- There are a lot of fun and memorable lines in here, but I think the one that struck me most was “Isn’t that what you sang?” I like the way “Isn’t that what you said” gets turned around, and it encapsulates the truth-telling that Sweet discusses quite nicely. It’s a bit on-the-nose, but it’s on-the-nose in a way that pulls some threads together, and calls attention to the right parts of the episode’s premise.
- A bit of a historical question: when the episode was coming up in the sixth season, how much did you know about it as regular viewers? Was it heavily promoted by UPN? Or online? At this point, I find it hard to believe anyone could be so in the dark that they don’t know the musical episode exists, but was there a point in time where it was possible to be surprised by the fact that Buffy suddenly starts singing at the start of the episode?