I'm Still Not Over... when Grey's Anatomy made a musical episode
Still crying over a fictional character’s death from a movie you saw years ago? Having trouble letting go of that one episode of your favorite series? Grieving a gone-too-soon show? We are, too — so with this column, EW staffers pay tribute to something in the pop culture world they’re still not over. This time, Eric King celebrated the upcoming 300th episode of Grey’s Anatomy, airing Thursday on ABC, by revisiting the medical drama’s 2011 musical episode.
Grey’s Anatomy is synonymous with its expert use of contemporary music to underscore its most dramatic, fun-loving, and McSteamy moments. That’s why, when I think back on the show’s decision to make the 18th episode of its seventh season a musical episode, I ask, what took them so long? Ten years before, Buffy the Vampire Slayer debuted its Joss Whedon-composed musical episode to critical acclaim. In a wonderful 2007 episode of Scrubs, a patient character complained of incessant music, turning Zach Braff and Donald Faison into chorus boys. HBO’s Oz nailed their try in 2002. There was a pattern for success.
Of course, Shonda Rhimes is always seven seasons ahead of us. Rhimes, the show’s creator, had a master plan for a musical episode cooking in her brain since the third day of shooting the Grey’s pilot. According to her, ABC was reluctant to greenlight the special event, so the years went by. Then, to convince the studio and the network, Rhimes invited the execs to a performance lead by series stars Sara Ramirez, Chandra Wilson, and Kevin McKidd. It was so good it convinced them to give the musical a chance — it helped that Rhimes wanted to use songs that the show had spotlighted before, ones that already resonated with fans.
The episode, titled “Song Beneath the Song,” aired to mixed reception on March 31, 2011. There was a lot of pushback against it, with most critics saying the concept was too tricky to pull off for a drama. However, the musical event also has some fierce defenders — like me. The very premise of the high-concept special makes sense for a show with as much ingrained camp and drama as Grey’s Anatomy. The show’s established relationship with music, operatic plot, and overstated acting lends itself to singing. Of all the crazy things to happen to the characters (Cristina performing surgery on Derek at gunpoint, Meredith pulling a bomb out of someone, a plane crash that killed Lexie and Mark), a brief jaunt into Glee territory seems pretty reasonable.
So here’s how the show slyly explained everyone at the hospital formerly known as Seattle Grace breaking into song: Callie and her girlfriend Arizona are driving down a country road when she asks Callie to marry her. Before Callie can answer, a truck comes out of nowhere and they crash, sending Callie flying through the windshield. When they arrive at the hospital, a neurologically traumatized Callie hallucinates an out-of-body experience where she and the other doctors are singing.
When you have a powerhouse vocalist and Broadway alum like Sara Ramirez in your cast (who has said the reason she was cast is because ABC executives saw her Tony-winning performance as Lady of the Lake in Spamalot), you have to make her sing somehow. In the episode, Ramirez takes on the bulk of the vocals with Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars,” “Running on Sunshine,” Kate Havnevik’s “Grace,” and Brandi Carlile’s “The Story.” There’s something so cheesy but so affecting about Callie standing in a hallway in a tasteful cardigan, hair blown out, makeup perfect, stoically singing at the camera while her bloody open skull is being wheeled off to an OR.
Not to mention fellow Broadway vet Chandra Wilson (Caroline, Or Change; Chicago, Avenue Q), who plays Dr. Bailey. She has such a lovely, measured voice showcased perfectly by her solos on “Chasing Cars” and the hymnic “Wait” by Get Set Go. For both Callie and Bailey, these solos are a rare opportunity on the show for soliloquy, where the audience can see their thought process and emotions unfiltered. Bailey’s moments of reflection during “Chasing Cars” are especially poignant considering the guarded nature of her character.
This doesn’t mean the episode is perfect. Kevin McKidd’s take on “How We Operate” by Gomez is one of those scenes that reminds you, Oh, they’re singing — that’s weird. Chyler Leigh (Lexie Grey) singing “Breathe 2AM” while literally just walking around trying to find Mark is pretty, but doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Neither does the sexy dream sequence set to “Running on Sunshine,” where Callie is considering how love feels to her friends and if she might be feeling it for the first time. It’s a bright spot in the otherwise dark episode and a really great musical moment, but definitely gets too Inception-y at points. Also, in general, lip-syncing becomes very difficult when all the characters are wearing surgical masks.
But it’s all worth it. The episode concludes with two amazing musical moments: The whole cast sings unofficial Grey’s Anatomy theme “How to Save a Life” by the Fray, which might be a little bit too on the nose, but what better time to sing it when they are literally saving their colleague and her unborn baby?
The most memorable moment from this episode, though, and maybe even the whole series, is Callie covering Brandi Carlile’s “The Story.” This is a beautiful, reflective song, and Ramirez’s voice is perfect for it. Her ghost/spirit/out-of-body manifestation runs around the hospital belting it, visiting her newborn in the NICU, and grabbing her comatose ankles, waking herself up in time to answer Arizona with a groggy, “Yes, I’ll marry you.”
Part of what makes this episode so compelling is how polarizing it is. But even in its awkward moments, I’m still totally captivated by the novelty and charm of characters we know and love opening up a whole different acting toolbox — song — and exploring new ways to emote.
To conclude, here is an exclusive GIF of me, evaporating back into 2011 now that I’ve gotten this off my chest.