By Paula Hendrickson
Long before Glee, in a less-crowded TV universe, a little series called Cop Rock tried—and failed—to draw viewers to a rare concept called a TV musical. In retrospect, the material didn’t really lend itself to the surreal, magical world necessary to support a musical.
Then, in 2001, Joss Whedon earned rave reviews for a groundbreaking musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A singing slayer battling dancing demons made more sense than musical cops and robbers. Since Buffy was set in a universe where people cast spells, and demons routinely cursed humanity, having everyone in town burst into song to express their hidden feelings made perfect sense. (OK, so innermost feelings weren’t all that were expressed, as one of the show’s executive producers joyfully held up his dry cleaning and sang, “They got the mustard out!”)
While Whedon wasn’t the first showrunner to have his characters burst into song, the critical success of Buffy’s musical episode paved the way for more shows to dabble in music. Scrubs’ musical episode was hysterical. A couple series even featured regular musical segments—Eli Stone did it well; Viva Laughlin failed (probably because the songs were lip synced). Other series created stand-alone musical numbers.
Last year, Fox encouraged many of its series to incorporate music into episodes of shows like Bones, House and even Fringe. (Fox’s animated shows took part, too, but bursting into song seems somewhat natural for characters on The Simpsons and Family Guy.)
Pushing Daisies was a perfect match for music, given its fairytale-like setting, and wisely took advantage of co-star Kristin Chenoweth’s Broadway pipes by letting her sing every now and then. Likewise, How I Met Your Mother (which coincidentally stars Buffy alum Alyson Hannigan) let Broadway vet Neil Patrick Harris loose for a song in its 100th episode, which got rave reviews.
When Tony winner Sara Ramirez joined the cast of Grey’s Anatomy, it was hard to reconcile that Callie was being played by the same multi-talented actress who created the award-winning role of Spamalot’s Lady in the Lake. It’s beyond time they let her sing. Given that Grey’s creator, Shonda Rhimes, and I have discussed our mutual fondness of Buffy on more than one occasion, I’m not at all surprised she waited for the right time to write her musical episode.
While Seattle Grace might not normally lend itself to the magical world of musical theater, Rhimes found a dramatic way to set this particular episode in a surreal environment where music makes sense.
Instead of going with original songs, a la Buffy and Scrubs, Rhimes included songs previously used on—and, in many cases, propelled to fame by—Grey’s: “Chasing Cars” by Snow Patrol, “How to Save a Life” by The Fray and “The Story” by Brandi Carlile. On the March 31 episode, Ramirez and other cast members—plus guest star Kate Walsh as Addison Montgomery—will re-interpret these songs, and more, that have already made an impact on long-time Grey’s fans. Tune in to be wowed by Ramirez’s powerful and amazing voice.
Programming note: Grey’s Anatomy airs Thursday at 8 p.m. on ABC.
Paula Hendrickson is a regular contributor to Emmy magazine and Variety, and has been published in numerous national publications, including American Bungalow, Television Week and TVGuide. Follow her on Twitter at P_Hendrickson and send your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
From the March 30-April5, 2011 issue