At the “Buffy Musical Big Screen Extravaganza” at the Crest Theater in Westwood, I sat next to a guy named Mike, who knew, by heart, all the lyrics to “Once More With Feeling.” For those of you who have been buried in a crypt the past decade, “Once More With Feeling” is the Emmy-nominated episode of the late great television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer in which a demon arrives in Sunnydale and casts a spell on the inhabitants, causing them to sing and dance and reveal their innermost feelings. Mike had, by his estimate, seen the episode “hundreds of times” and admitted he could probably stand to see it a few million times more.
The Buffy sing-along started not too long ago in Boston “as a lark,” according to organizer Clinton McClung. (“If they can have interactive screening experiences for Rocky Horror,” wondered McClung, “then why not for Buffy?”) Instead of the handful of hardcore fans he expected, 600 people converged on the theater. A theater programmer by trade, McClung initially screened the original 1992 film starring Luke Perry and Kristy Swanson. “But that flopped,” he says. “Nobody came. The movie is not what people love. It’s the TV show they want.” Sure enough, when the Buffy sing-along went to New York’s IFC Center, tickets sold out faster than for any other screening held at the movie theater.
“I know you already do this at home,” McClung tells us as the lights dim and the music swells. “I know you guys. I am you guys.” The crowd bursts into song.
The sing-along is a natural extension of the weekly Tuesday-night gatherings McClung hosted in the late 1990s, when he and some pals would get together at his apartment to watch the show. Like the aforementioned Mike and most true Buffy aficionados, McClung has seen “Once More With Feeling” more than, well, once. (By year’s end, he says, the actual number will surpass 1,000.) You would think that watching the same episode and listening to the same songs over and over again would get old fast. But McClung is forever finding new and surprising nuances: a certain way Giles moves his arm or turns his torso during one section of one song, for instance, or a funny little inflection in Sarah Michelle Gellar’s voice in a bit of lyric. The closer you look, the more the Buffy universe expands. After assembling a permanent cast for the sing-along — made up of a few “serious” regulars who lip-synch onstage as part of the act — he found himself watching the episode yet more times.
For those less monomaniacally inclined, and in a general sense simply “to keep things fresh,” McClung strives to have a different pre-show each time. He and the audience will play a game of “Buffy Jeopardy,” perhaps (e.g., What episode doesn’t have Xander? How old was Buffy when she died the second time?). He hands out buzzers and, in the final round, asks everybody to hum the Jeopardy theme song with kazoos. Or he’ll show video montages created by fans. In honor of Mother’s Day, he assembled a video tribute to Buffy’s mom, Joyce Summers, set to the Spice Girls song “Mama.”
In “Once More With Feeling,” Buffy, nursing a secret existential crisis, feels like she’s just going through the motions. Vampire Spike can’t decide if he hates Buffy or loves her. The Sunnydale citizens, awed by their wonderful dry-cleaning service, cavort in the streets. On cue, McClung passes out 99-cent shirts in plastic bags, and people dance with them. We blow bubbles, pop poppers, hold hands. “I’ve been honing those gags over the years,” McClung tells me. He used to hand out his own shirts, but wised up when people started stealing them.
As the end credits roll, series mastermind Joss Whedon, who snuck into a back-row seat right after the program began, strides down the aisle. It’s the first Buffy sing-along he’s ever been to, and he has the sheepish, overwhelmed look of someone who’s just received a massive outpouring of love. “This was way more moving than I expected it to be,” he confesses. “This was magical. You guys are gorgeous.”
In the future, McClung envisions a time when the “Buffy Musical Big Screen Extravaganza” is not just a touring gig, but a permanent fixture in Southern California. It’ll run as a midnight screening, most likely, the hour when all the weird, fun programming happens. Minions will carry the torch, stuff the goodie bags with the vampire teeth and assorted props. Buffy, though her show has long since been canceled, will come back from the dead. Again.