Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Life's not a song (Buffy: The Musical)

"I died, many years ago.
But you can make me feel
Like it isn't so."

I lived in a two bedroom apartment in the westernmost part of Los Angeles (three more blocks and it was Santa Monica), sleeping on the floor, and waiting until my roommate fell asleep so I could download filth. We were right off of Olympic Boulevard, and there was a big billboard a block before you turned for our apartment.

One day, in mid-October, the billboard became an advertisement for an upcoming episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" entitled "Buffy: The Musical." I remember that billboard vividly, even though I wasn't a watcher of the show.

And now I've just spent twenty minutes trying to find it online. God, I miss L.A.. They had movie (and TV) billboards everywhere, and I never had a digital camera there.

Maybe someone out there has a picture of it and will send it to me.

And maybe I'll wake up tomorrow able to grow chest hair and be irresistible to every unmarried lass I meet.

Anyway, I remember that billboard, and I remember people being really interested in that episode.

At Comic-Con last year, they held a special screening of the musical the Whedonopolis president invited me to. I stood in line for a half an hour before being told it was sold out. But they had added a second showing. But it was sold out. So they had added a third showing. But I was tired, so I went home.

And later that summer, my cousin spent hours talking about BTVS, where he told me about it, proclaiming it "depressing." His little brother wondered how in the world a musical could be depressing.*

And a couple of weeks ago, when I was mad at tyranist (as usual, the man really is a git), I told him I was going to find the episode online and watch it without him. But he told me I would regret it, that he knew me well enough to know that if I watched it out of order, it would spoil things and I would be miserable.

So I waited. Even though I had the songs and listened to them all the time out of context, trying to imagine who, where, what, and why.

"Once More With Feeling" is the actual name of the episode, written and directed by Joss Whedon. Apparently, he spent an awful long time writing it and rehearsing it with his cast, and shot bits and pieces of it during the shooting of the episodes that preceded it.

It's not a standalone episode, and now that I think about it, none of them since episode seven or so are.

I don't know how to recap this one. It's so different than all the other episodes that . . . well, I'll have to give it a try.

The next morning has arrived, and everything is much more colourful and in a widescreen format (would that every episode afterward would be too, but hey, maybe they are).
Buffy goes patrolling and through the cemetery, and while she does, she sings a song about how she doesn't feel alive anymore and is just going through the motions.

The next day, the gang gathers at the Magic Box and talks about something strange that happened the night before: they all burst into song complete with backing orchestra or dancing. Speculating what might be behind it, they sing a song about their theories of what's behind it. Anya gets her own rocking verse about how evil bunnies "aren't just cute like everybody supposes."

Turns out it's not just them, but everyone in Sunnydale is similarly afflicted, singing their thoughts and feelings seemingly without their control. Dawn shows up and talks about people singing at school, then shoplifts an exotic-looking necklace.

Tara and Willow slip out and go to a park we've never seen before, where Tara--in a Snow Whitesque dress--gets checked out by a couple of dudes. She makes a joke that because the boys noticed her, suddenly she's cured of her gayity. It's not really a noteworthy part of the episode, but it was something that struck me (both when I saw it and afterward). I've talked ad nauseum about Willow turning gay on the show and how it's never really spelled out whether that was in her all along, waiting to get out, or if circumstances turned her to the fairer sex. But Tara has made a couple of comments before about such things, and her joke did thumb its nose at the whole theory (which I admit I have shared) that lesbians are just hetero girls who've been disappointed with men so they change sides.

Tangent, I know, but her use of the word "cured," also thumbs its nose at the segment of the population that sees homosexuality as some kind of unfortunate condition or delusion. But Tara is such a positive, hate-free character that there's no malice or ugliness to her character at all.

And reiterating this, she sings Willow a song that's all innocence and young love, expressing her feelings to Willow and also that she has changed since Willow put her under her spell. It's the kind of song that wouldn't be out of place in a Disney musical.

So imagine my surprise when oral copulation begins during Tara's "Under Your Spell" song. My god, I thought they were just friends!

But senuously, folks**, it is pretty unsubtle, especially for network TV. And especially for a show that didn't show Willow and Tara kissing until a year into the relationship (and even then, the network wanted it cut out). I'm not complaining (like Paul Reiser used to say, "I love lesbian sex. The thing is, I agree with both of them."), but it was a little startling.

After that, we get some time with Xander and Anya at their place, as they each sing about their delight at being together, but their secret annoyances and fears about their relationship, thing's they would never tell. It's really funny and super-choreographed, with dancing and big camera moves and felt the most like something they would've done back in the heyday of movie musicals.

So I suppose what we're seeing is the inner secrets of our characters coming out in songs (really brilliant songs all written by Joss, in differing styles). But it's not all flowers and cartoon birds--we witness a shadowy figure and at least one person dancing themselves into spontaneous combustion.

There's more than one death and everyone turns to Giles to solve it, but his thoughts are elsewhere, at how changed Buffy is, and how distant. Xander reminds Giles that she was stuck in hell/ademondimension for an untold amount of time, so she's just readjusting.

Speaking of Buffy, as soon as the sun sets, she heads to Spike's lair to do her weekly goth thing, asking if he knows anything. But Spike begins to sing a song about how he knows she comes to visit because he's not a person, just a dead man, and she thinks she can be herself with him, despite his feelings for her. The song turns more than a bit angry, with him telling her it hurts to be around her and that she should stay away and "stop visiting my grave." She gets the drift, and stomps away.

Tara is babysitting Dawn (see, I wish English had a word that meant "babysitting" but didn't have "baby" in it***) and Dawn tells her she's glad she and Willow got over their argument, since they're such a cute couple. Tara, however, has no memory of any argument, and remembers the flower she found in her bedroom the night before (or maybe it's two nights before, I can't really figure out the math).

She rushes out for a minute, leaving Dawn alone with her box full of stolen wares. Dawn starts to sing a lonely song, but it is interrupted by the appearance of a trio of puppet-like henchman, who grab her.

She is taken before a red-skinned demon (bright red-skinned, not "How, kemosabe" red-skinned) who was called Sweet on the soundtrack, who explains (through song) that he was summoned by her for a little entertainment, and that he has the power to make people sing and dance . . . dance until they burst into flame. Oh, he also mentions that Dawnie is going to have to go back to his dimension and be his bride. Nice.

But Dawn mentions that her sister is the Slayer, so Sweet sends his henchmen to find Buffy and bring her back, so he can watch her burn.

Back at the magic shop, Buffy is training with Giles, and again mentions how safe and comfortable she is with him around. Giles then sings a heartbreaking tune about how he'd love to play the part of the protective father, he's standing in the way of Buffy's development as an adult, and must go. Buffy doesn't hear this song, though, so I'm not sure how the singing works.

In the next room, Tara has discovered that the flower Willow used was called Lethe's Bramble, a memory charm. Tara reprises her song "Under Your Spell," but it's got a darker tint to it now, as she realises what Willow has crossed a line that can't be uncrossed, and that their relationship is done. At the same time, Giles reprises "Standing," both singing about having to leave, and though both Willow and Buffy are in the room, neither of them hear the words.

Spike comes in with one of Sweet's henchmen, who reveals that Dawn is being kept at the Bronze and that Buffy has to go there (this could easily have been a song, but it's amusing that he takes about four seconds to just say it). Everyone wants to go there with her, but Giles forbids it, telling Buffy she has to do this alone. Spike ignores Giles, but Buffy brushes him off and he hits the bricks, telling her he hopes she and her sister burn.

Buffy goes by herself, singing a song about walking through the fire without feeling its heat. The song continues, with Spike vacillating between "I'm free if that bitch dies" and "I'd better help her out." Giles sings about whether he was right to send Buffy off alone, and Sweet sings about the Slayer's death being inevitable. Buffy seems to feel it too and goes to embrace it. In the end, all the gang (Spike included) turn around and head toward the Bronze to stand by Buffy's side.

Buffy arrives and tells Sweet she'll go with him instead of her sister, unless he kills her first. Either way, it's the same thing. He chuckles at her fatalism, and asks her if she really feels that way. Buffy responds with a song despairing all the silly platitudes about life and how what she really needs is something to sing about. Buffy beats up Sweet's henchmen, but can't help dancing (which is Sweet's trick). Giles and company arrive, and in one of the funniest moments, he tells Tara and Anya to go back Buffy up, which they do as backup singers.

The song continues, and Buffy reveals that she was at peace, finally, in Heaven, but then her unthinking friends pulled her out and back here to Hell. Xander and especially Willow respond with horror at this statement, and then Buffy begins to dance uncontrollably, smoke rising from her body.

And Spike steps in, stopping her. "The pain that you feel," he sings, "Only can heal . . . by living." Dawn stands up and reminds Buffy of her own last words: "The hardest thing in this world is to live in it." Sweet's plan is foiled, but Dawn is still going to have to go with him for summoning him.

But then Xander reveals that he was the one who made the wish/incantation/summoning/something-offscreen-that-I-don't-quite-understand, in hopes that everything would turn out all singy-happy between him and Anya.

Whoops. Sweet seems to really be defeated now (though it seems like he could've claimed Xander as his bride; he does have a purty mouth), but mentions that everybody's secrets are out now and in a way, that's a victory. He disappears, leaving everyone else to wonder where they go from here. I can't help but despair watching Willow during this song, she looks like the tiny, pathetic girl we met in season one, knowing what she did to Buffy and that she's somehow alienated Tara as well. But everybody is forced to join hands and sing, until, that is, Spike sees the absurdity of the moment and slinks away to the back alleys that he fills so well.

While the others finish their song, Buffy joins him in the alley, and they reprise their "Walk Through the Fire" tune, with Buffy saying, "This isn't real, but I just want to feel," and kissing him. As they kiss, the curtain falls, and the episode comes to an end.

So there you go. I was blown away by this episode, maybe more so on the second viewing, and now when I hear the songs I've been listening to for months, I can finally put images and places to the sounds. Pretty cool.

Here I am, several days later, finishing up this post, and I still find myself singing, "She does pretty well with fiends from hell, but lately we can tell, that she's just going through the motions . . ." That's either a very good thing, or something very, very bad.

I looked for the billboard, and found one of those silly, pointless quizzes. This one was which song from the episode are you? Turns out I am "Going Through The Motions," even though my favourite song is actually "Under Your Spell/Standing (Reprise)." Interesting.****

Oh, and in looking up the lyrics to one of the songs, I made a shocking discovery: Anthony Stewart Head is the brother of Murray Head, who continues to get airplay with One Night In Bangkok!!!!!

Maybe you already knew that, but then, you also know what's going to happen in the next episode. And so far, I've been lucky enough not to (though dammit, I found out something else that happens in the next handful of shows just this week that I wish I hadn't. If it had only held back a few more days . . .), though I am anxious to continue the tale and be entertained, tickled, and moved.
Yeah, I cried. How could I not?

I really ought to cry more often.

Rish "Doctor Sunshine" Outfield

*Well, I just got home from seeing it, and I want to blow my brains out. So, yeah, Ryan, you were right.

**I saw a Brazilian bootleg of a Phil Collins album when I was in South America that was called "But Senuously..." and I've never quite gotten it out of my head.

***There isn't, so don't give me "tending" or "sitting."

****I'm almost tempted to go on there and make up my own quiz, something like "What Truly Awful Way To Die Are You?" What do you think?

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