Musical TV shows like “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” or “Glee” have a built-in understanding with audiences that bursting into a song or dance is part of the storytelling. When it comes to non-musical series, however, staging a musical number or episode can be a more challenging when it comes to finding an organic way to work it into the plot.
Recently, The CW’s superhero show “The Flash” and Syfy’s fantasy drama “The Magicians” dipped their toes into the world of musicals. “The Flash” tapped a character called Music Meister (Darren Criss) to knock out Kara and Barry (Melissa Benoit, Grant Gustin) and send them into an alternate reality, where they had to sing and dance their way to finding solutions. Music Meister, a super villain who could control people through music, has already been introduced in the DC Universe via animated series “Batman: The Brave and the Bold” (and voiced by Neil Patrick Harris).
“From the get-go, [Music Meister] was going to be the villain for the episode,” executive producer Todd Helbing told IndieWire. “It was just really a natural fit. We come in, whammy these guys and then go off to this magical world.”
Having that world look and sound like the “Guys and Dolls” actually made it easier to enter this musical world from the The CW’s Berlanti-verse.
“I think it helped sort of sell the idea quicker. It just really lends itself to a sort of magical world, a heightened world,” Helbing said. “It really helps storywise with Kara and Barry being able to comment that they’re in a musical. It transported you into that space where it accentuated the fact that these two were the only to that realized that they were in this world.”
Over on Syfy, “The Magicians” framed their musical number as a rousing battle song to get Eliot (Hale Appleman), who is the current High King of the magical realm of Fillory, pumped up for his duel. His friend Margo (Summer Bishil) recalled how well he had done in a production of “Les Miserables” on Earth, and used her magical skills to force him and other Fillorians, such as Eliot’s queen Fen (Brittany Curran) to take part in the number.
Series co-creator Sera Gamble acknowledged that having magic as a fallback to explain anything, such as an impromptu musical number, was handy to have a storyteller.
“Whenever we get stuck in the writer’s room, we sort of drily turn to one another and shrug and say, ‘Well maybe they just do magic,’ which is sadly for us, rarely the solution when we’re breaking the plot of an episode,” Gamble told IndieWire. “In this case, it was the perfect excuse for us to have a music number that is an American Broadway show that somehow everyone in the magical world of Fillory knows all the lyrics to. It was so much fun to watch the actors embody the idea that they were being hijacked by Margo, who had a spell on them. I really love it when Fen walks in singing because she so clearly looks like she does not understand why the fuck this stuff is coming out of her mouth.”
With a resurgence of musical episodes on TV, we compiled a list of IndieWire’s favorite musical episodes from the recent past and measured how well they were able to incorporate musical elements into their plot. Genre shows that allow for fantastical elements seem to work the best, but a few outliers figured it out also, in sometimes surprising ways.
(Editor’s Note: The list below includes live-action series only.)
“30 Rock,” Season 2, Episode 10 “Episode 210” (Netflix)
How the Musical Element Was Explained: It wasn’t! The cast just burst out singing “Midnight Train to Georgia,” once Kenneth left to catch said train.
How Well Did It Work? In the rather fanciful world of “30 Rock,” it wasn’t too out of the ordinary for characters to start acting irrationally as one does in a musical. The number came in at the end to cap the episode, and afterward, Gladys Knight even made a cameo.
“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Season 6, Episode 7 “Once More With Feeling” (Hulu)
How the Musical Elements Were Explained: A demon known as Sweet has made everybody in Sunnydale sing the truths that they’re hiding.
How Well Did It Work? Although other shows have done musical episodes, “Buffy” was the first in this century to prove that it can be done well. Granted, musical episodes appear to work best with genre shows where a fantasy element is involved, but in this case, the music was a crucial part to the storytelling and moved the characters forward in their arcs. Also, the original songs ranged in style from 1950s sitcom-lite to rock opera, had clever lyrics and were accompanied by some fine dancing. Hilarious, heartbreaking and innovative, “Once More With Feeling” has become the gold standard for musical episodes.
“Community,” Season 3, Episode 10 “Regional Holiday Music” (Hulu)
How the Musical Elements Were Explained: “Community” spoofed Fox’s “Glee” by making multiple references to the Ryan Murphy series, including the club’s obsession with making it to Regionals and the logic of musical numbers. In this case, each song marked how one member of the study group was convinced to join the glee club in order to do the Christmas pageant.
How Well Did It Work? There was no problem having the song sequences fit at all. The comedy was already well-known for one-off concept episodes at this point (the puppet episode, mockumentaries, the stop-motion animation one, etc.).
“The Flash,” Season 3, Episode 13 “Duet” (The CW)
How the Musical Elements Were Explained: The Music Meister (Darren Criss) used his weird powers to send Kara (Melissa Benoit) and Barry (Grant Gustin) into an alternate reality in which the rules of a musical apply.
How Well Did It Work? The whole episode was entertaining, even though it didn’t make that much sense. It was a one-off, and it allowed us to hear Victor Garber, Jesse L. Martin and John Barrowman all sing together – giving us the adorable “I’m Your Superfriend” original number.
“Fringe,” Season 2, Episode 20 “Brown Betty”
How the Musical Elements Were Explained: While babysitting Olivia’s niece, Walter tells her a story that is envisioned as the musical. Also, he was smoking his strain of marijuana called Brown Betty, so maybe pot contributed to the quirkier musical elements.
How Well Did It Work? The story framework made it easy — kind of like how “The Princess Bride” made sense — and surprisingly, the detective noir genre melded well with the musical elements and the bizarre yet scientific “Fringe”-y touches – such as autopsied corpses singing “Candyman.”
“Grey’s Anatomy,” Season 7, Episode 18 “Song Beneath the Song” (Netflix)
How the Musical Elements Were Explained: Callie (Sara Ramirez) is severely injured in a car crash, and the resulting brain trauma causes her to hallucinate a version of herself standing outside of her body, singing and observing the chaos as her co-workers try to save her life. At times, her colleagues also sing as they work, but this is neither acknowledged by the others around them nor by the singers themselves. It’s assumed to be a bigger part of the hallucination.
How Well Did It Work? Depending on who you ask, it either failed miserably or was a stroke of genius. Having the second Callie standing there looking beautiful and singing past songs made famous in “Grey’s Anatomy,” such as the iconic “Chasing Cars,” is an odd contrast to the frantic, life-saving activity. She’s sort of a less intrusive Greek chorus, but more importantly, since it’s her own life on the line, it plays out more as self-reflection about life and its ephemeral nature.
“How I Met Your Mother,” Season 5, Episode 12 “Girls Vs. Suits” (Netflix)
How the Musical Element Was Explained: It’s a fantasy sequence in Barney’s (Neil Patrick Harris) head that represents his true feelings.
How Well Did It Work? Since it takes place in Barney’s imagination, just when he’s about to score with a hot bartender, it’s a nice, lighthearted moment, especially considering it’s an homage to his true love: suits. The number takes place outside with Harris dancing in the streets, on a lamppost and on top of a cab, joined by his pals and other city dwellers wearing suits while singing, “Nothing Suits Me Like a Suit.” Also, since this was the series’ 100th episode it delivered twice over: once with the musical number and again by bringing Ted (Josh Radnor) crucially closer to finding the “Mother.”
“The Magicians,” Season 2, Episode 9 “Lesser Evils” (Syfy)
How the Musical Elements Were Explained: Margo (Summer Bishil) used magic to make Eliot (Hale Appleman) and the Fillorians sing “One More Day” from “Les Miserables.”
How Well Did It Work? It’s a show about magic and has already had a few odd fantasy sequences before. Breaking out into song is the least of the oddities. Besides, there will probably be more musical interludes in the show’s future.
“The Office,” Season 7, Episode 3 “Andy’s Play” (Netflix)
How the Musical Elements Were Explained: Andy (Ed Helms) is performing in a local production of “Sweeney Todd,” and most of the songs are from the musical, either when he and his cast mates drum up interest by doing a number at Dunder Mifflin or in the play itself. At another point, Michael (Steve Carell) asks Andy to sing, and he performs Macy Gray’s “I Try” for his co-workers.
How Well Did It Work? The musical elements didn’t really take the place of storytelling like a more conventional musical would and were more of background or framework, and therefore didn’t interrupt the plot at all. That said, the “Sweeney Todd” production was actually well done when Andy or Michael weren’t distracting the actors with ringing cell phones or dropped wine bottles.
“Pushing Daisies,” Season 1, Episode 2 “Dummy”
How the Musical Elements Were Explained: They weren’t!
How Well Did It Work? Great, and that’s owed to 1) the show’s overall fantastical nature where anything goes and 2) the fact that most of these musical numbers involved Kristin Chenoweth, whom we want to believe always breaks into song and is followed by an 80-piece orchestra at all times. The show actually had many musical numbers, but we picked her take on “Hopelessly Devoted to You” as an early favorite, partially for the dance she does with the dog Digby as he lies on the pie shop’s tile floor.
“Scrubs,” Season 6, Episode 6 “My Musical” (Netflix)
How the Musical Elements Were Explained: A patient who has collapsed wakes to find that has a condition where she sees the world as if it were a musical with the doctors and staff at Sacred Heart are singing and dancing.
How Well Did It Work? Very well, since the show has always had a whimsical air to it. The cast looked like they were having a lot of fun for this full-blown musical episode with no skimping on the elaborate choreography, excellent songwriting or clever lyrics. Each of the 10 original songs were specific to the hospital setting (“Everything Comes Down to Poo”) or the characters themselves (“Guy Love,” “For the Last Time, I’m Dominican”). The elaborate production was even more impressive considering the episode was only 22 minutes.
“The X-Files,” Season 9, Episode 13 “Improbable” (Netflix)
How the Musical Element Was Explained: Well… the one song was fun, but it was not explained at all why it was there. If you want to read between the lines, the episode is about patterns and numerology and possibly God, played by guest star Burt Reynolds, so maybe it was an expression of his feelings or power.
How Well Did It Work? Overall, this standalone episode was quirky with occasionally downright goofy moments courtesy of Reynolds. The ending scene also seems to be just as odd but hilarious: Two older gentlemen sing the comical Neapolitan song “Io, Mammate e Tu” while walking through a festival. As the camera pulls up into the sky, we see the cityscape transformed into a picture of Burt Reynolds himself… or is it God? We have no idea if we interpreted this correctly, but the episode did dispense with the usual “The Truth Is Out There” tagline to state instead, “Dia Ti Ama” (“God Loves You”).