Everyone’s Doing a Musical – What Makes it a Good One?

The Musical episode. Something that sets many a fan’s teeth on edge. Or, something that is eagerly anticipated. But what makes a musical episode good? And what makes the inevitable songfest not so good?

First some good musical episodes: Buffy: the Musical – the one that started it all, or at least made it easier for genre television shows to do musical episodes. Once Upon a Time the Musical Episode – they didn’t miss a step or a beat with this one. Batman the Brave and the Bold “Mayhem of the Music Meister” is a brilliant episode. And for contrast, one bad musical episode: The Flash “Duet”.

First, the musical episode should be integrated into the show – it should fit with the show it is in. Batman The Brave and the Bold‘s musical episode works because it is just like any other episode of that show – in animation style, it the way that the plot works, in the almost stylistic way the plot unfolds – it’s just like any other episode. Plus the villain, the Music Meister, uses music to control people, so it makes sense that it would be a musical episode.

Once Upon a Time also fits their musical episode into both the season-long arc and the typical style of the show. The musical episode opens in the Enchanted Forest with a scene that looks like a live-action interpretation of Disney’s Snow White. As the story moves along, the musical and tempo become more modern, to fit with the style of the show. The last two songs take place in Storybrooke, as we see Emma use her song and a finale.

To be honest, it’s been a while since I’ve seen Buffy the Musical, and I’m more familiar with the soundtrack to the musical than the television episode itself. However, like Once Upon a Time, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a character wakes up and suddenly is singing. And, as the characters in Once Upon a Time also briefly do – in Buffy the characters try to figure out why they are suddenly singing. But in Buffy it’s a demon that uses “truth in song” to get the characters to be honest – yet also breaks them apart. In Once Upon a Time, the singing is caused by a wish on a star (and fairy magic) but it brings the characters closer together.

Not only does the musical episode need to be integrated into the plot, but the songs need to fit the characters. Every musical episode I’ve seen tends to be character-based. There may be a number or two that is used to resolve or fix the plot, but the big numbers are used to illustrate character. Once Upon a Time, in the tradition of the great “sung” musicals (where every line is sung, including plot) uses songs to advance the plot as well as giving major characters a song just for them. This is different than a musical such as Meet Me in St. Louis where the songs tell you what a character is feeling but not who they are. When Julie Garland sings “The Trolley Song”, we know she’s in love. When Zelena sings, “Wicked Always Wins” we know she believes she will beat her sister and be better than her.

Finally, it helps if the music and the songs are original. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Once Upon a Time, Batman: The Brave and the Bold – they all have original music written for the characters and the plot. Once could have used existing Disney songs – but they did not, and the musical is better for it. It’s possible to write, edit, direct, and choreograph a good musical with existing music (such as Moulin Rouge), but especially for television, new music wins out.

So my single example of a bad television musical is The Flash “Duet”.  Oddly enough, the villain in “Duet” also is the Music Meister, the same villain from Batman: The Brave and the Bold. But unlike in the animated series, where the episode is like any other episode, except for the music – in The Flash, Barry and Supergirl (Kara) are knocked unconscious by the Music Meister and sent to a fantasy world, where they meet other members of the cast, who are other people. Guess what? We don’t care about these other people. It’s like Barry Allen had a bad nightmare where he was trapped in the cast of Guys and Dolls or West Side Story, with Supergirl along for the ride for, in essence, no good reason. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I like Kara, and she and Barry have good chemistry, but I really don’t think sending the two to dreamland worked as a plot device. Second, instead of causing havoc and controlling people, the Music Meister seems to think he’s cupid – because the entire point of the episode is to get Kara back together with Mon-el and to get Barry back together with Iris. To me, the only song that really works in the entire story is when Barry sings “Run to You” to Iris and proposes to her. Because yes, not only is “Duet” set in a fantasy world – none of the music is original except “Run to You” which Barry sings to Iris in the real world! Honestly, if they’d had Music Meister controlling people, making them sing, and do what he wants (Can you see the Rouges like Captain Cold singing?) and kept the story in Central City like normal, it would have worked better.

So there you go – some opinions about how to do and how not to do a musical episode. What do you think? Do you like musical episodes? Why or why not? What are some of your favorites? Please respond in the comments.

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