Sing Along with Buffy

by Anthony Letizia

30 November 2006

How exactly did a cheerleading assassin of the undead become a Rocky Horror cult musical hit?

On May 20, 2003, the final episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer aired on now defunct UPN, ending a seven-year, 144-episode run.  Since then, dozens of Buffy action figures, numerous series of trading cards and a collection of books, including such titles as Sex and the Slayer (Wesylan University Press, 2005) and What Would Buffy Do: the Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide(Jossey-Bass, 2004), have been released.

The Buffy juggernaut does not stop with such traditional off-shoots, as the Buffy Sing-A-Long, involving screenings of the 2001 critically-acclaimed musical episode, “Once More With Feeling,” clearly demonstrates.  The event has packed the house in places like Austin, Texas, and New York City, and on September 23, 2006, it made its way to the CLO Late Night Cabaret in Pittsburgh.  With a 261-seat capacity, extra chairs had to be brought in to accommodate the overflowing crowd.

All of which begs the question:  why, three years after the show went off the air, is Buffy the Vampire Slayer still so popular?  The best science fiction often acts as an allegory for modern society and thus resonates with its audience.  Buffy, especially in its early years, served as a metaphor for the horrors of high school.  Students who were ignored by other students became literally invisible.  The attractive teacher who seduced male students was literally a man-eating praying mantis.  And in the series turning point, when Buffy sleeps with vampire Angel, the dream boy turns into an actual monster.  Although wrapped in the supernatural, these narrative arcs contain contemporary coming-of-age commentaries that viewers connect to.

Lauren Gilbert, for instance, was just starting high school when Buffy the Vampire Slayer began, and stumbled upon the pilot the night of March 10, 1997.  “It touched a part of my life,” she said after the Pittsburgh Sing-A-Long.  “Anyone in this theater or in this city can relate to Buffy.  We all went through the things she went through.  We’ve all been outcasts at times.  We’ve all fallen in love with the wrong person.  Buffy showed us that we aren’t alone.”

The outcasts, the unaccepted and the socially alienated ultimately always feel alone, and thus tend to gravitate to fictional outcasts likewise not accepted by their respective peers.  Fox Mulder of The X-Files, for instance, was a brilliant profiler and master of deductive reasoning (albeit by thinking outside-the-box), but was still an outcast in the FBI because of his belief in aliens and government conspiracies.  Buffy Summers has the same allure, because although popular before her calling as a slayer, she eventually became an outsider when her supernatural abilities made her different.

But Buffy reaches beyond the outcasts and sci-fi geeks of society.  Academics, intellectuals and simply fans of great storytelling are also among its greatest enthusiasts.  This was evident in Pittsburgh as well, as attendees blurted out answers like “the writing” or “great characters” when asked what attracted them to the series.  Much of that credit goes to the show’s creator, Joss Whedon, who although not a household name along the likes of Aaron Sorkin or David E. Kelly, has influenced contemporary television as much as anyone.  By utilizing self-contained season-long story arcs, Whedon proved that television could offer twenty-two hours (the number of episodes in a full season) to tell its narrative.  The characters he created were fully fleshed out, easy to identify with, and played to perfection by actors and actresses seemingly made for the roles.  Buffy was a drama, but it could also be funnier than any comedy on television.  It was an amalgamation of numerous genres, expertly blended, all adding to its broad appeal.

And not just for fans of science fiction.  Even Shonda Rhimes, the creator of Grey’s Anatomy, cites Whedon and Buffy the Vampire Slayer as influences.  “I realized a lot of the really good character development is happening on TV,” she told the New York Times (“Grey’s Anatomy Creator Finds Success in Surgery,” Lola Ogunnaike, 28 September 2006) before specifically singling out Buffy.  “The language was great, the world was great, and you completely invested in those characters.  I’m still not over its cancellation.” The crowd that packed the Cabaret at Theater Square in Pittsburgh certainly acted like they weren’t over the show’s demise yet, either.  Although the actual singing-a-long started off a little slowly, it didn’t take much time until everyone in the place was belting out the lyrics.

Aja Jones, the organizer and host of the night, said numerous attendees approached her afterwards, saying how much they had enjoyed the event.  It was such a success, that Jones immediately announced plans to hold another one. Amazingly, the concept of the Buffy Sing-A-Long seems to have sprouted organically; this isn’t a case of someone from FOX or Mutant Enemy, the two production companies involved with show, marketing it to venues.  According to Jones, cities and theaters are instead taking the lead in getting licensing rights and then doing it on their own.

The Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, Massachusetts, seems to have held the first Sing-A-Long on October 22, 2004.  The Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, followed two months later, and then Vancouver added its name to this list in 2005.  In a two-week span this past September, New York City and Pittsburgh also joined the fray. Because these Buffy Sing-A-Longs are fan-driven, without any formal “standard” structure, each location is free to tailor the event to suit its city and space.  The Alamo in Austin, which has held seven sing-a-longs so far, screens a “warm-up” episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer beforehand.  New York City had a Buffy-oke contest and offered fans the opportunity to act out scenes from the series, while Pittsburgh had a trivia contest showdown between two lucky fans of the show.

Still, these events do overlap in their planning.  “Goody bags” are given out, containing everything from plastic fangs to kazoos to bubble blowers to packets of mustard.  Fliers are available so the audience knows what to use when:  the bubbles are for Willow and Tara’s “Under Your Spell,” while everyone is asked to hum on the kazoo during “Something to Sing About.” Attendees are also encouraged to dance in the aisles during “I’ll Never Tell,” as well as stand, hold hands and sway for “Where Do We Go From Here?”  (Vancouver even passed out underwear for people to throw during “The Parking Ticket” song, which contains the line, “Hey, I’m not wearing underwear.”)

In Pittsburgh, arguably the most popular group activity was shouting “Shut up, Dawn” any time Buffy’s little sister entered the scene.  Loud applause also followed every musical number, as well as any time fan-favorites Spike and dancing demon Sweet were on the screen. As for New York City, an audience member posted afterwards on the fan site, “The sing-a-long worked particularly well, I think, in songs that involved multiple characters—the audience usually spontaneously divided itself into roles, and there was a lot back-and-forth”.  If all this audience participation sounds vaguely familiar, you are correct.  In fact, the IFC Center in NYC even billed the Buffy Sing-A-Long as being “in the tradition of Rocky Horror.”

Could we then be witnessing the birth of Rocky Horror: The Next Generation?  After all, those with common interests have always sought ways to bond as a community.  That is one of the reasons why the internet, with its multiple chat rooms and message boards and web sites geared towards specific segments of society, has become a cultural staple.  But having the chance to physically congregate with fellow like-minded individuals is still the core of our human experience.  It just needs a strong enough attraction, and “Once More With Feeling” could indeed become that kind of vehicle.

In late 2003, for instance, Channel Four in England offered the opportunity to vote for the “100 Greatest Musicals” via their website.  While the Rocky Horror Show finished number seven on that list, the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer wasn’t far behind, coming in at number thirteen. The Alamo Theater in Austin’s website, meanwhile, proclaims, “Sure, HBO’s got all those shows that get the critics talking and help to teach us all new curse words, but the musical episode of Buffy is the only piece of episodic television we’ve seen that holds up to repeat viewing after repeat viewing after repeat viewing.”

Attendance is another strong indication there’s something beginning to brew in this sliver of underground culture.  Not only is the Buffy Sing-A-long now a regular event in Austin, not only is Pittsburgh leaning towards the same level of consistent audience commitment, but even New York City, which had back-to-back showings on a Friday and Saturday night, is likewise considering a return engagement.  As Pittsburgh-attendee John Reoli pointed out, however, the Rocky Horror Picture Show is a self-contained story.  One can view the show without having any previous knowledge.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer, on the other hand, is ultimately about the relationships of the characters, making it harder for novices to jump into “Once More With Feeling,” the series 107th episode, and understand the dynamics of the show. 

Buffy’s return from the grave, Willow’s persistent dabbling in magic against the wishes of lover Tara, Xander’s engagement with ex-demon Anya and Spike’s unrequited love for Buffy could all be lost on someone experiencing the show for the first time.  But not only are the characters’ relationships with their on-screen counterparts important, so is an understanding of the fans’ relationship, for better or worse, with the characters. Shouting “shut up Dawn,” for example, would be wasted on newcomers not aware of how the character became annoying and whiney during season six.  Enthusiastic applause and cheers of “Spike!” could likewise prove confusing without knowing the popularity of the blonde-haired, leather-coat-clad vampire. 

Buffy is the rare series that is more than just a television show, but a bonafide pop culture phenomenon that could indeed attract neophytes wanting to get in on the experience.  There aren’t many series like that, and none have produced anything even remotely close to “Once More With Feeling.”  “If Star Trek had done a musical episode, we would all be here on a Friday night,” remarked Elizabeth Cromwell.  Her friend Reoli agreed.  “If The X-Files had done a musical episode we would be here, but they never did. There is nothing else,” Cromwell continued.  “The kind of shows that hit to this level are few.  Rocky Horror was first.  Maybe this Buffy is second.” 

As for how far the Buffy Sing-A-Long can go, the jury is still out.  As Reoli remarked, they are still doing Rocky Horror 30 years later.  “Maybe we’ll see in 30 years,” he said in terms of whether the Rocky Horror/Buffy comparison is legitimate.  Who knows?  Considering how Buffy the Vampire Slayer still resonates in the pop culture consciousness, the Sing-A-Long could indeed still be going strong.

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//Mixed media