Musicals in the Media: DR. HORRIBLE'S SING-ALONG BLOG

Musicals in the Media: DR. HORRIBLE'S SING-ALONG BLOG

By Kathryn Harris on March 30, 2010
In July of 2008, DR. HORRIBLE'S SING-ALONG BLOG became the latest Internet sensation.  Roughly the length of a standard prime time TV drama, DR. HORRIBLE was originally released online in three fourteen or fifteen minute installments over the course of a few days, which allowed excitement and anticipation to build between acts.  DR. HORRIBLE has won the People's Choice Award for Favorite Online Sensation, the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form, and seven Steamy Awards for web television, including Best Original Music and Best Writing for a Comedy Web Series.

Joss Whedon is no stranger to musicals on television, having written The BUFFY musical episode, which aired in 2001. Creating a musical with original characters and an original story, however, is quite different to taking established characters and making them sing. Wheedon, along with his brothers (writer Zack and composer Jed) and actor, television writer, and lyricist Maurissa Tancharoen, have met that challenge.

The story is simple: Dr. Horrible, a slightly awkward supervillian played by the increasingly popular Neil Patrick Harris, has applied for acceptance into the Evil League of Evil...and is trying to summon the courage to talk to Penny (Felicia Day), a girl he's seen at the laundromat. As narcissistic superhero Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion) foils his attempt to steal a van filled with wonderflonium - which Dr. Horrible needs for his freeze ray - it endangers Penny...whom Captain Hammer seemingly saves. Dr. Horrible's friendship with Penny develops as does her romance with his nemesis. When the Evil League of Evil informs him that his only chance of acceptance is if he assassinates someone, Dr. Horrible reluctantly settles on Captain Hammer - with heartbreaking results.

Thirteen songs is a lot for a musical that's not even forty-five minutes long, but while the songs certainly drive the story, the score never feels overwhelming. None of the numbers are very long, and the emphasis on lyrics - along with the simple storyline - ensures that the viewer won't get lost in the music. DR. HORRIBLE has a much more balanced score than the BUFFY musical, which is (perhaps appropriately) ballad heavy. Tancharoen and the Wheedon brothers make full use of their three characters, with a good mix of duets ("My Eyes"), solo numbers ("Brand New Day"), and even an extended musical sequence with an ensemble of sorts ("So They Say").

"My Eyes" has a structure that's fairly common in musical theatre: two people in different spaces sing the same words, but with very different meanings. Here, Dr. Horrible sings that the world is so "filled with filth and lies" that he can't believe his eyes, while Penny can't believe her eyes by how "the world's finally growing wise." The song not only emphasizes the contrast between Dr. Horrible's cynicism and Penny's optimism, but also makes it clear that a connection exists between them. A similar number is seen in JEKYLL & HYDE. In "In His Eyes," Emma, Dr. Jekyll's finacee, sings about how she misses the way he used to be, as Lucy, a prostitute, believes she can bring out the kindness she sees in Jekyll's alter ego, Mr. Hyde.

"So They Say" is a classic second act opening number. This is the only time the story opens up, as we find out how other people feel about Captain Hammer. Like "Omigod You Guys," the opening number from LEGALLY BLONDE, "So They Say" begins with ensemble members - some of whom only appear in that song. Using these other characters, minor though they may be, varies the score structurally and vocally; viewers are given a rest from hearing the same three voices over and over. It also condenses the narrative beautifully, signifying that time has passed, and shows viewers Dr. Horrible's outsider status in comparison to Captain Hammer's celebrity. Dr. Horrible's decision to go after Hammer to be accepted into the Evil League of Evil, despite his hesitation, makes more sense in the context "So They Say" provides.

Like many stage shows, DR. HORRIBLE'S SING-ALONG BLOG stands up to multiple viewings, as it's very possible to get something different out of the piece each time. The story's tone walks the line between comedy and tragedy; Dr. Horrible's "My Freeze Ray," for example, is both funny and deeply sad - particularly in light of the story's ending:

There's apparently a sequel in the works that will either be another internet release or a feature film, and DR. HORRIBLE'S SING-ALONG BLOG has reportedly been done on stage by various groups. DR. HORRIBLE's continued popularity nearly two years after its release has shown that theatregoers aren't the only ones who can embrace an original musical.

For more information on DR. HORRIBLE'S SING-ALONG BLOG, visit its website.