The best Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes: the story behind Once More, with Feeling

Buffy at 20: Sarah Michelle Gellar in Once More, with Feeling
Buffy at 20: Sarah Michelle Gellar in Once More, with Feeling

It started life as the spin-off of a largely terrible teenage horror film released in the early Nineties and surpassed its source material in every way possible. Since it first began on US network The WB, 20 years ago today, Buffy the Vampire Slayer has been adored, obsessed over, even studied in university. It pit a teenage girl with superpowers against an entire hell dimension's worth of vampires, monsters, a god, and even the very essence of evil itself.

In celebration of the anniversary of the show that launched grand-scale teenage fantasy drama, we look back on five landmark episodes, each completely different in style.

The stories behind the other four episodes can be found here:  

Once More, with Feeling

Season 6, episode 7
Broadcast: November 6, 2001

"Give me something to sing about": Sarah Michelle Gellar in the Buffy musical episode

If you were to look up the word ‘divisive’ in the dictionary, chances are one of its definitions will be Buffy’s sixth season. So late into its run, Buffy had earned the right to distance itself from some of the lighter stories that had propped up its first few seasons -- something made even more pronounced when Buffy switched US networks at the end of its fifth season, moving from the more dictatorial, advertiser-friendly WB to the grittier, less creatively-restrained UPN.

After five seasons, Joss Whedon wanted to explore the miseries of early adulthood. Season six therefore saw Buffy struggle to pay rent, suffer through menial employment and experience a kind of slow-motion breakdown. Even the season's villains were more horribly human than the Big Bads that preceded them: a trio of entitled nerds, whose casual misogyny and bitterness at the world come off like a shockingly insightful commentary on Gamergate over ten years before it actually happened.

Buffy season six works better in a vacuum, something binged on DVD, where it’s disc-in, disc-out, and straight onto season seven. Experienced over the course of a year, in the months immediately succeeding 9/11 of all things, the season is a slog, full of hate sex, drug addiction and characters jilted at the altar. Plus Buffy had just been resurrected after sacrificing her life in the season five finale, and anyone would be a bit grouchy after that.

Its one moment of levity occurred in its early stages, or so it superficially seemed. Once More, with Feeling is Buffy's iconic musical episode, in which a demon is summoned to Sunnydale and magically coerces its residents to burst into song, where dark secrets are revealed and relationships are forged.

Whedon had long wanted to make a musical, the genre being his secret love. In fact, musicals are present throughout his lineage: his father and grandfather wrote musicals for off-off-Broadway shows, and he has said that he was raised on a "steady diet of Sondheim."

He would even burst into song on the Buffy set. Future A-lister Amy Adams, who guest starred in season five as Tara's cousin, has recalled performing the theme song to The Little Mermaid with Whedon between takes.

Whedon would also host get-togethers at his home with members of the cast, which would usually result in group sing-a-longs. He knew actors Anthony Head, Amber Benson and James Marsters all had brilliant voices, that Emma Caulfield was a trained dancer, and that Michelle Trachtenberg loved to dance, and so decided to try and bring his vision to life.

I love TV. I love what you can do with it. And to be able to go this far emotionally, and be this silly on a regular old episode of television is a way of saying, 'This is just an episode. This is just what we do. It's not better, it's just TV in all its glory.'Joss Whedon

"I knew that everybody was game to go for it," he revealed on the DVD commentary. "Although some people were terrified. But none more than me, since I had never written anything professionally."

While the WB had regularly prevented Whedon from mounting his own Buffy musical, switching networks to UPN allowed for a bigger budget and greater creative freedom, and Once More, with Feeling was born. Whedon subsequently locked himself away in Cape Cod for three months writing the lyrics, melodies and harmonies for the episode, before presenting them to his collaborators Christophe Beck, Buffy's resident music composer, and the musician Jesse Tobias. The pair then arranged and produced what was written on the page.

In a thematic reversal of Hush, the Buffy regulars find themselves only able to truly confront their inner anxieties by singing about them -- with Anya and Xander expressing their mutual cold feet about their impending nuptials in the Rogers/Astaire throwback I'll Never Tell ("Clearly a retro pastiche that's never going to be a breakaway pop hit," Anya later quips), Tara inadvertently hinting at Willow's magical manipulation of her thoughts in the previous episode via Under Your Spell, and Giles recognising he needs to finally leave Buffy's side during the devastating ballad Standing.

It was important for Whedon to give Once More, with Feeling thematic resonance in context with the rest of the season, in comparison to traditional 'special musical episodes' of TV, which have little reason for characters to break into song.

"[I needed to] set up not just this show, but the rest of the season, the rest of the series," Whedon has said. "Because it was very important to me not to say, 'This is a special event.' I think one of the things about musicals is everybody saying, 'Oh, look! We're taking you outside the world of television. We're better than the world of television.' Which of course drives me crazy. I love TV. I love what you can do with it. And to be able to go this far emotionally, and be this silly on a regular old episode of television is a way of saying, 'This is just an episode. This is just what we do. It's not better, it's just TV in all its glory.'"

I do not sing. Then I read the script and realized what a huge arc it was for my character and went and made the decision that I did not have a choiceSarah Michelle Gellar

Once More, with Feeling ultimately builds to a devastating crescendo, with Buffy revealing through song that she wasn't rescued from a hell dimension by her friends at the start of season six after all. "I think I was in heaven," she sings. It was the emotional revelation that convinced an initially reluctant Sarah Michelle Gellar to jump on board.

"I do not sing," Gellar told E! News in 2011. "I never sold myself as a singer and I am not. I was going to let someone else do the singing, because I don't like to do something unless I can really do it. Then I read the script and realized what a huge arc it was for my character and went and made the decision that I did not have a choice."

Even so, Gellar was so tired from shooting four entire episodes of the show at the same time as vocal and choreography rehearsals for the musical that she requested time off soon after. The episode Gone, which sees Buffy vanishing after an incident with an invisibility ray, was specifically written to give Gellar a break.

Hand in hand: the cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer sing their final musical number

Alyson Hannigan was the only cast member allowed to barely sing, but only after "begging on her knees to have her sing as little as possible," according to Whedon. As a result, Hannigan sings just two lines in the musical, including the knowing lyric, "I think this line's mostly filler."

Quite naturally for a musical, the episode closes with a kiss -- Buffy and Spike finally giving into the strange, new attraction that had been bubbling under the surface since Buffy was raised from the dead.

Whedon has said: "The two things that needed to happen for them to get where they were going to go at the end were, one, for Spike to say 'Go away'. For him to tell her once and for all, 'Just leave me alone.' Because nothing attracts somebody more than telling them to go away. Believe me, as a fellow who's had many restraining orders in his time: what a turn-on.

"Where do we go from here?": the final shot of Once More, with Feeling

"But, no, the moment you say to somebody, 'You know what, I'm my own person. I don't need you. You know I love you but I don't want you near me,' is the moment they start to take you seriously. And that's just the truth of it.  And then, that he would save her. That he would be the person who would bring her the message of hope.

"Even though it's the classic in my stuff, a really desolate, almost pathetic hope. Still, those are the two things that would get them to the smoochy place. And where they will inevitably end up, because this is a musical, and if it doesn't end with a kiss I'm doing something wrong."

While retro curtains close in on said kiss, the cast plead into the credits, "Where do we go from here?" as the episode finally turns to black. As it turned out, it went somewhere messy...

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