Friday, April 8, 2011

Friday Dance Party: Musical Medics

I've never seen Grey's Anatomy, but even those of us who are not fans couldn't miss all the hoopla regarding last week's episode, in which the cast of this weekly drama did some singing. After it aired, the web was full of critiques of the show, both pro and con, and the ratings went up 30% for that particular episode. Despite the presence in its cast of Sara Ramirez, who won a Tony for Spamalot a while back, and who has apparently sung on the program before, I can't imagine the thing was much good. It makes me uncomfortable when actors who cannot sing try to, mostly because they themselves look so uncomfortable. The idea of turning an episode of a dramatic series into a musical is not a new one, not by a longshot, even leaving Glee out of the discussion. Grey's 's creator Shonda Rhimes freely admitted that her inspiration came from the famous musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 2001. I was not a fan of that show, either, but there are many Buffy buffs who claim that episode was the best the show ever offered. I ran across that episode during a rerun cycle and watched it; just as I suspect would have happened had I caught last week's Grey's Anatomy, the episode of Buffy was uncomfortable for me to watch and, clearly, for the actors to perform.

I actually like the occasional musical sequence which rises organically from a TV show's plot. Writer/producer David Kelley does a pretty good job of integrating musical sequences into his shows, though to my knowledge, he has never devoted an entire episode of one of his programs to music. The long run of his Ally McBeal had heavy musical influences. Singer/songwriter Vonda Shepherd was a virtual unknown before Kelley hired her to anchor the scenes in the piano bar where the characters often ended their day. In fact, the majority of Alley McBeal episodes concluded with a musical sequence which reflected the mood, emotion, or theme of the preceding episode. Kelley was also responsible for revealing the surprising musical talents of Robert Downey, Jr., who was a recurring guest on the program in 2000, before another drug arrest forced the show to dump him. But during his 15 episode story arc, he performed several songs, in character, which were later preserved on CD.

While we're on this subject, David Kelley's current show, Harry's Law, featured a swell musical performance in this week's episode. With a sly wink to those of us his age, he constructed an episode around actor Paul McCrane, who has been playing one of the show's recurring characters. McCrane has been a reliable player on TV dramas for quite a while, having spent many years on ER:

But back in 1980, McCrane looked like this:

I wrote a bit about Paul when the remake of Fame hit the cineplex a couple of years ago. The original Fame made a big impression on student actors like myself, and one of McCrane's own compositions, "Is It Okay If I Call You Mine?", has become one of the more memorable songs from the film. In this week's Harry's Law, 31 years after introducing the song, Paul McCrane sang it again.

But as I said, I don't believe David Kelley has ever been foolish enough to turn a complete episode of one of his programs into a musical. He probably learned a lesson from one of his mentors, Steven Bochco, who was one of the most influential TV producers of the 80s and 90s. Building on the success of Hill Street Blues, LA Law, and Doogie Houser, in 1990, Bochco created Cop Rock, which attempted to mix realistic police drama with musical comedy.

The show was one of the biggest flops of the decade, and TV Guide includes it as one of the top ten worst television programs in the history of TV. See what happens when you force dramatic actors to sing and dance?

This week's Dance Party does not come from any of the dramatical shows mentioned above. Instead, it comes from a sitcom, a genre much more amenable to a musical episode. Dating back to the invention of television, the sitcoms relied heavily on talent plucked from radio and the theatre, and those early programs always capitalized on their stars' musical abilities. Let's face it, Desi Arnaz was no actor, but I Love Lucy was frequently buoyed by his musical sequences. When Margaret Whiting died a while ago, I wrote about her sitcom, which always featured a musical number by its star. Rick Nelson's musical career was launched on his family's sitcom, as was David Cassidy's. When Carl Reiner plucked song-and-dance man Dick Van Dyke from Broadway and teamed him with dancer Mary Tyler Moore, he would have been foolish not to incorporate their musical talents into The Dick Van Dyke Show. That sitcom often featured their stars in musical sequences.

If we fast-forward several decades, we come across (FINALLY!) this week's Dance Party. It comes from the musical episode of Scrubs.

The show's creator, Bill Lawrence, always wanted to concoct a musical from his sitcom, and when the show was in danger of being canceled in season 6, he made his move. He hired the song-writing team of Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez, who won the Tony in 2004 for Avenue Q, and constructed an episode surrounding a patient with a brain aneurysm, which caused her to believe everyone around her was singing. (I understand that the musical episode of Grey's Anatomy which started this never-ending discussion also involved a head trauma patient). The Scrubs episode, titled "My Musical," is structured like a conventional musical comedy. It has a big opening number, which is highlighted below, a love song (between two men!), a patter song inspired by Gilbert and Sullivan, an Act One finale, even an eleven o'clock number (which, since the episode was only 22 minutes long, would make it the "8:19 number").

Which is a long-winded way to introduce this fun number from Scrubs. Our guest star is none other than Stephanie D'Abruzzo, who starred in Avenue Q on Broadway. The full episode is terrific, even as it includes actors who are not accustomed to singing and dancing. But somehow, on a sitcom, I forgive such things: