In this episode, a mysterious force compels Sunnydale residents to sing songs that reveal their true feelings and deep secrets. Buffy is forced to finally admit to her friends that they pulled her out of heaven—not hell as they believed. Later, she and Spike share a kiss.
Buffy is patrolling in a cemetery at night, but there is something wrong with her and with the demons and vampire's she meets and kills: they are all singing and dancing. Buffy sings about her life after returning to Earth, and the way she feels detached from it ("Going Through the Motions").
The morning after, the friends find out such things have happened to them all. They suddenly burst into song again, first wondering what can possibly be the cause for this ("I've Got a Theory") - including a novel idea by Anya ("Bunnies") - and then, guided by Buffy, asserting their ability to deal with it together ("If We're Together"). They further learn that it's not just happened to them—all the people in Sunnydale are forced to sing about their inner feelings ("The Mustard").
Later Tara sings a love song to Willow about the difference she's made in her life ("Under Your Spell"). Xander and Anya sing together about things they would otherwise have never told themselves or each other, namely their fears about their coming marriage ("I'll Never Tell"), and Spike sings to Buffy about the torturous nature of their relationship ("Rest in Peace").
Unfortunately, some people are singing and dancing so much that they spontaneously combust, because of the dramatic release of their pent-up emotions.
When Dawn gets home from school, she talks with Tara, who tells her that it looks like a demon (referred to as "Sweet" in the credits) is responsible for the singing. Dawn mentions to Tara the recent fight Tara and Willow had, which makes Tara realize that Willow has used magic to make her forget about the fight. Tara rushes out to check on whether this hunch is right, while Dawn, now alone, goes through her stash of stolen goods, and puts on a necklace she took from the Magic Box. She starts singing about her life ("Dawn's Lament"), but is kidnapped by minions of Sweet, interrupting her song. When Dawn wakes up in The Bronze, she and three of Sweet's minions engage in an interpretive dance, which is Dawn's attempt to escape. ("Dawn's Ballet"). Sweet tap dances as he sings and explains that he thinks she is the one who summoned him, and he intends to take her to the Underworld and make her his queen ("What You Feel"). He also explains if the melodies go on too long, people will combust and burn up from the intensity of emotion. Dawn tells him that her sister is the Slayer, which pleases rather than frightens him—he tells his minions to bring her to him so he can see her burn.
Meanwhile in the Magic Box, Giles sings his thoughts, that his continued presence encourages Buffy to remain emotionally dependent on him and that he should no longer act as a father to her lest she never mature, thus he decides to leave again and return to England for good ("Standing"). Tara finds out about a forgetting spell Willow had cast the evening before to make her forget about a fight they had, and decides to break up with her. Giles and Tara's songs merge into a duet about leaving as they look at Buffy and Willow respectively, the two of whom are distractedly chatting. The two sing about how much it hurts to leave, yet each knows they cannot possibly stay. ("Under Your Spell/Standing (Reprise)").
However before either get a chance to bring the subject up, Spike arrives with one of Sweet's henchmen, who reveals that Dawn has been kidnapped. Xander, Anya, Tara and Willow are eager to help save Dawn, but Giles insists that Buffy goes alone. Spike, dismissing Giles' stubbornness, offers to back Buffy up, but Buffy questions why he'd do that after saying he wanted her to stay away from him, and a humiliated Spike skulks away, telling her he hopes she and Dawn burn. Buffy leaves alone, once again singing about her inability to feel, as both a conflicted Spike and the Scoobies express their desire to fight along with her, accompanied by Sweet, who summons them in song ("Walk Through the Fire"). Arriving at The Bronze, Buffy starts to sing and dance defiantly, cynically expressing her current condition and the hardships of being the Slayer.
Then she finally reveals to Sweet and her friends that, by resurrecting her, they had ripped her out of heaven rather than rescuing her from some kind of hell dimension as they had thought they had. As her friends react in horror to the admission, and once she has vocalized her anger and despair, she dances maniacally to the point of smoking, in a somewhat suicidal effort. Spike arrives and helps her recover, comforting her by telling her that the only way to mend her wounds is to carry on living, "so one of us is living" ("Something to Sing About").
Applauding, Sweet prepares to leave with Dawn, but it turns out that it is not Dawn who had summoned him, but Xander—who had not understood the implications. This leads to Sweet telling Xander he'll waive the clause about making him his queen, and he goes back to hell. As Sweet leaves, he points out that because of all the hidden feelings he caused them to reveal to each other, none of them can claim "it ended well", daring them to say that they are really happy "once more with feeling" ("What You Feel (Reprise)"). The group does, questioning the Pyrrhic victory they've achieved and what to do next ("Where Do We Go from Here?").
The episode ends with Spike and Buffy kissing, as the curtains fall, as predicted in the previous song's final verse, as the chorus swells one last time ("Coda").
As the episode opens and the characters begin their day, Tara finds a sprig of dried flowers under Willow's pillow and cheerfully sniffs it, not realizing that Willow had used it in the previous episode to make Tara forget their argument of that episode. Tara then wears the sprig later in the episode.
When Giles asks Buffy "Have you spoken to Dawn about that incident on Halloween?", he's referring to the events of the episode "All the Way".
Buffy's line, "Dawn's in trouble. Must be Tuesday", is a reference to UPN, which was airing Buffy on Tuesday nights. Buffy also aired on Tuesday nights on the WB for the majority of its run.
When Buffy asks the Scoobies if they had burst into song the previous night, they reveal that they each had but only thought it had happened to themselves. Giles was playing his guitar and singing at the hotel when he heard a backing orchestra accompany him and the room service staff performing synchronized dancing. He previously performed "Behind Blue Eyes" by The Who at an espresso bar in the episode "Where the Wild Things Are" and "Free Bird" by Lynyrd Skynyrd at home in "The Yoko Factor". Willow and Tara started singing whilst doing the dishes after dinner; there was a whole verse about cous cous. Xander and Anya had been arguing when their words started rhyming and they presumably started singing. Xander finds the whole thing disturbing, yet Willow seems to enjoy it. Ironically, it was Xander who summoned the demon responsible, and Willow, who has stage fright, sings only backing vocals and a few sparse solo lines.
Anya is very concerned that her duet with Xander, "I'll Never Tell", is a retro pastiche and isn't likely to become a 'breakaway pop hit', reflecting the trend of musicals often featuring songs that become popular after being covered by singers other than the original cast members. She also asks Spike if his song, "Rest in Peace", was a breakaway pop hit 'or more of a book number'.
Anya's line "His penis got diseases from a Chumash tribe" refers to the fourth season episode "Pangs", in which a Native American spirit infects Xander with a cornucopia of various diseases, including syphilis.
The song "I've Got a Theory" features numerous references to previous episodes:
Willow suggests that "some kid is dreaming, and we're all stuck inside his wacky Broadway nightmare", a reference to the events of "Nightmares" in season 1. In that episode, when the characters come to realize that people's dreams are coming true, Giles says, "Dreams? That would be a musical comedy version of this. Nightmares — our nightmares are coming true."
Anya reinforces her fear of bunnies, introduced in "Fear, Itself", as she blames the singing on them ("Bunnies", a short rock and roll section inside "I've Got a Theory").
Buffy sings "I've died twice", referring to the season finales of season 1 and season 5.
Dawn ends the song "Something to Sing About" by saying "The hardest thing in this world is to live in it". This is the same line Buffy used when speaking to Dawn in "The Gift".
In the season 7 episode "Selfless", there is an extended flashback to this episode. Anya and Xander reference an earlier song involving coconuts, and Anya sings about wanting to become 'Mrs. Xander Harris.' She also opens the window to hear a man complaining (in song) that he got mustard on his favorite shirt, providing backstory for a well-known gag in this episode.
It's the third time Buffy kisses Spike after Something Blue and Intervention (and the second intentional kiss although under a spell)
One unidentified demon, impaled by Buffy with a sword
One unidentified man, burned by Sweet
Behind the Scenes
Joss Whedon had wanted to create a musical episode since the first season of Buffy, but wasn't allowed to until the show was moved to a more permissive network, UPN.
At 50 minutes, this is the longest episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Even with shortened opening credits, it is much longer than the usual 42 minutes. Joss Whedon comments in the extra material on the DVD that the network graciously allowed him to run past the regular hour.
This is the only episode shown in the US in the widescreen format used for Seasons 4-7.
In the production documentary included as extra material on the DVD version, it is mentioned that as well as singing, James Marsters played guitar for "Rest in Peace".
Choreographers Adam Shankman and Mama Fletcher appear in the background after the parking ticket lady song.
In a press interview Amber Benson admitted to dancing into a pole during the backup dance at The Bronze. The viewer can see her laughing as she steps back (this occurs during the lyric "and every single verse / can make it that much worse" within "Something to Sing About").
Sarah Michelle Gellar said she "hated" making this episode (in particular the complicated singing and dancing she had to perform for "Something to Sing About"). She admitted she was glad she did it, and was glad she would never do it again.
Writer Joss Whedon said in the audio commentary on the DVD that part of the lyrics in "Under Your Spell" was "pornography" and that they were the dirtiest lyrics he had ever written.
Writer and Producer Marti Noxon can be seen singing and acting as the "Parking Ticket Girl" as Giles, Anya and Xander walk the street. David Fury also cameos in the episode. Fury is the man outside the Magic Shop singing about his dry cleaning - "They got the mustard out!" Fury started his career in musical comedy and also appeared in the Angel episode Smile Time.
The entire cast sang in this episode, albeit many who weren't comfortable singing with a limited number of line. Alyson Hannigan actually begged Joss Whedon to not give her a lot of lines.
To keep up with the fact that the episode is a musical, the Mutant Enemy logo monster says his signature line in a sing-song voice.
The three henchmen (Zachary Woodlee, Timothy Anderson and Alex Estronei) played Buffy's graveyard opponents in the opening sequence of "Going Through the Motions" as well as a trio of street sweepers.
In the DVD commentary, Joss says that the backpack Dawn is seen emptying is actually one he brought in from home.
The original airing of "Once More, with Feeling" received 5.4 million viewers.
The scene featuring Amber Benson's musical number, "Under Your Spell", featured heavily-implied sex between two females, and was edited out during the episode's first broadcast in some countries like the Philippines and China.
Henchman: "Her ... plus chaos and insanity and people burning up, but that's more big picture stuff."
Pop Culture References
At the end of the episode, Spike says to Buffy, "The day you suss out what you do want, there'll probably be a parade. Seventy-six bloody trombones." This is a reference to the song "Seventy-six Trombones", from the musical The Music Man.
Sweet's henchmen appear wooden and puppet-like. When Spike is unable to stop a henchman from escaping, Spike mutters "Strong. Someday he'll be a real boy". This is a reference to the story of Pinocchio.
"I'll Never Tell" also references the song "You're Just Too Too" from "Les Girls" by Cole Porter. Both songs have a very similar filming style (two people dancing around a living room) and content (a couple somewhat-facetiously discussing each other's good and bad points), and it even features one direct reference: Anya's line "Look at me, I'm dancing crazy!" is also said by actress Kay Kendall in the original song, in both cases during the song's dance breaks.
Xander's line, "Respect the cruller. And tame the donut!" is a reference to a similar (yet far more obscene) line from the film Magnolia.
Spike's line, "Finish the big group sing. Get your kumbaya-yas out", is a reference to both the song "Kumbaya" and to The Rolling Stones album Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!.
Spike makes a reference to the legendary Peruvian soprano Yma Sumac. When Buffy visits him in his crypt, he tells her he's "seen some damn funny things the last two days - a 600-pound Chirago demon makin' like Yma Sumac," before his number "Rest in Peace." Sumac was popular in the US in the 1950s and 1960s, and noted for her 4-octave vocal range.
One of the lines in "Going Through the Motions" references the song "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)". Buffy sings "You'll find this fight just doesn't mean a thing..." and the vampire she punches finishes, "...she ain't got that swing."
Tara makes a reference to Michael Flatley's Lord of the Dance when she says to Dawn, "Willow said they have a lead on the whole musical extravaganza evil. This demon that can be summoned, some sort of Lord of the Dance. Oh, but not the scary one. Just a demon."
The flower used as a catalyst for the memory spell is revealed to be Lethe's Bramble. Lethe is Greek for "forgetfulness" and is also one of the five rivers in Hades, causing forgetfulness in all who drink from it.
When Anya says that underworld child bride deals never end well, 'Well, maybe once,' it is presumably a reference to Persephone, stolen bride of Hades and greek goddess of springtime.
Anthony S. Head & Amber Benson - "Under Your Spell / Standing — reprise"
Sarah Michelle Gellar, Amber Benson, Nicholas Brendon, Emma Caulfield, Alyson Hannigan, Anthony Head, James Marsters, Hinton Battle & Michelle Trachtenberg -"Walk Through the Fire"
Sarah Michelle Gellar & James Marsters - "Something to Sing About"
Sarah Michelle Gellar, Amber Benson, Nicholas Brendon, Alyson Hannigan, Anthony Head, Michelle Trachtenberg, James Marsters and Emma Caulfield - "Where Do We Go from Here?"
Sarah Michelle Gellar & James Marsters - "Coda"
Goofs, Bloopers & Continuity Errors
In the Magic Box, Anya asks if they're the only ones bursting into song, as "that would indicate a spell". However this conflicts with a flashback in "Selfless" where she closes a window after hearing a man singing about getting mustard on his shirt; it is possible she may not have connected the two.
Scot Zeller portrayed the tap dancing victim, but was miscredited as Henchman.
The dress that Sweet magically puts on Dawn can be seen to be already on her in the close up headshot before he supposedly puts it on her
In the song "What You Feel/Sweet's song" Sweet touches his chin, and it bends. This happens after Dawn asks him if he's a good demon, "bringin' the fun in". He chuckles and shakes his head right before he sings "All these melodies, they go on too long."
During Spike's solo at the graveyard, he attacks some funeral attendants and a priest, though his chip doesn't go off.
During the showdown at the Bronze, when Buffy sings "And every single verse..." Amber Benson accidentally bumps into a support beam.
This is Joss Whedon's second favorite episode. (The first being "Innocence".)
The opening guitar segment in "Walk Through The Fire" sounds very similar to Simon & Garfunkle's "Sounds of Silence."
Although he is never named in dialog or lyrics, the demonic villain of this episode is called Sweet per the episode's closing credits and the shooting script.
A soundtrack album was released of this episode.The album features the original series cast singing the songs from the episode, as well as additional music from other popular episodes by regular composer Christophe Beck (including "Hush" and "The Gift") and a demo track of "Something to Sing About" performed by Joss Whedon and Kai Cole.
Dawn - "Oh my god! You will never believe what happened at school today."
Buffy - "Everybody started singing and dancing."
Dawn - "I gave birth to a pterodactyl."
Anya - "Oh my god! Did it sing?"
Xander - "Merciful Zeus!"
Xander - "You're the cutest of the Scoobies/With your lips as red as rubies/And your firm yet supple/tight embrace!"
Giles - "I was able to examine the body while police were taking witness arias."
Spike - "Don't be a stupid git."
Giles - "When I want your opinion, Spike, I'll ... I'll never want your opinion."
Buffy - So Dawn's in trouble. Must be Tuesday.
Buffy - "How are you with death scenes? You got a name?"
Sweet - "I've got a hundred."
Giles - "She needs backup... Anya, Tara." [Anya and Tara step in to provide backup singing in Something to Sing About]
Anya - "It has to be stopped. It was like we were being watched, like there was a wall missing from our apartment. Like there were only three walls and not a fourth one."
Anya - "Dawn may have had the wrong idea in summoning this creature. But I've seen some of these underworld child-bride deals, and they never end well. Maybe once."
Willow - "I think this line's mostly filler."
Woman - "I've been having a bad, bad day/Come on, won't you put that pad away/I'm asking you, please no!/It isn't right, It isn't fair/There was no parking anywhere/I think that hydrant wasn't there./Why can't you let it go?/I think I've paid more than my share,/I'm just a poor girl, don't you care?/Hey, I'm not wearing underwear...
Buffy - "I'm not exactly quaking in my stylish yet affordable boots, but there's definitely something unnatural going on here. And that doesn't usually lead to hugs and puppies."