A funny thing happened on the way to the millennium: the movie musicals which had been a cinematic staple since the 1930s started slowing down to a trickle through the 1980s and 1990s. Hollywood seemed unwilling to embrace acted-out musical sequences that didn't involve a cartoon teapot or lion.
The success of 2001's Moulin Rouge! and 2002's Chicago somewhat revitalized the genre, and the recent adaptation of Broadway's Dreamgirls netted a respectable gross since its December release, but lately it seems like Hollywood and Broadway are colliding in the unlikeliest of places-television.
It shouldn't surprise longtime Scrubs viewers to learn that today the series will be the latest in a long string of shows to bring some of that Broadway razzle-dazzle to the small screen with a musical episode.
Musical numbers aren't exactly foreign to Scrubs. The second season episode "My Philosophy" ended with cast members singing Colin Hay's "Waiting for My Real Life to Begin," while other episodes have fondly tweaked stage and screen musicals like West Side Story and The Wizard of Oz.
And the Scrubs scribes are wisely accepting help from theater pros-the Tony Award-winning authors of Avenue Q have been tapped to lend their particular brand of musical sarcasm to the show. Surely the guys who gave us "The Internet Is for Porn" and "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" can give even the surly Dr. Cox something to sing about.
So what's behind the musical television episodes trend? Maybe Steven Bochco is partially to blame. Hot off the success of his late 1980s hits Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law, the writer/producer decided to try his hand at melding television and musical theater. The result was Cop Rock, an unintentionally hilarious musical procedural that was mercifully euthanized after 11 episodes in 1990.
But Cop Rock's flop didn't completely daunt television writers from trying to marry the two vastly different mediums. In 1997, Chicago Hope decided to capitalize on having a Broadway veteran, Mandy Patinkin, in their cast and produced a one-off musical episode using pop standards. By working the old "it's all an aneurysm-induced dream" angle, they were able to fit musical numbers in without disrupting the overall tone of the show.
A few months later, however, Xena: Warrior Princess took a more straightforward approach by producing a fully-realized and in-character musical episode, "The Bitter Suite," that used original songs written specifically for the show. Thanks to Xena's inherent (and arguably intentional) cheesiness, the musical numbers didn't feel overtly out of place, and the fact that they were tailored to each character and advanced the plot made the episode reasonably close to something you'd find playing at the New York Theatre Workshop.
Chicago Hope and Xena helped set up the two approaches television writers would use for future musical episodes and gave TV actors with poor singing voices a reason to panic. In 2000, Ally McBeal did a musical episode that followed the Chicago Hope pattern and a recurring pattern in Ally itself, in which the cast sings popular songs during the title character's assorted daydreams and delusions. And in 2005, the cancellation-resistant 7th Heaven threw its hat into the ring with characters bursting into classic musical theater songs. Even That '70s Show celebrated episode 100 in full Gershwin fashion.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer's 2001 episode, "Once More, With Feeling," used, fittingly enough, the Xena approach. Characters, under the spell of a slick tap-dancing demon (played by celebrated Broadway hoofer Hinton Battle), sang songs composed by the show's creator, Joss Whedon. And the episode wasn't just a fun distraction-the plot points raised had repercussions throughout the rest of the series' run. In the summer 2005 issue of The Sondheim Review, Whedon said: "Most musical episodes are variety shows; I wanted to write an original book musical with a beginning, middle, and end. I knew it had to be a real episode, one that mattered, and I knew the next episode had to be just as good."
Wondering which approach Scrubs is going to take? In an August interview with TVGuide's Michael Ausiello, creator Bill Lawrence discussed the framing of the musical numbers: "We found an actual medical case of a woman who had an aneurism and [started] seeing everything as a musical. In her head, anytime someone spoke to her, they were singing." Hey, there's that aneurysm-induced musical fever dream again.
Scrubs is probably the current television show best suited for a musical episode. Wacky fantasy sequences are practically the show's bread and butter. The episode will only be an extended version of what's made the show popular for six seasons now. So tune in today, and feel free to place bets on how far into the episode it will be before Dr. Cox snaps at J.D., "Sing out, Louise!"