NEW YORK, March 20 — The Flash has super-speed and time-travel chops. Supergirl can fly and fry stuff with her eyes. But can these CW superheroes sing?
In “Duet”, tomorrow’s episode of The Flash, our incredibly speedy superhero and Supergirl fall under the sway of an enigmatic villain, the Music Meister, and fight back with songs on their lips and taps on their shoes. Some of the songs are standards, like Moon River, but others have been written specifically for the show by Rachel Bloom of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (another CW show) and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who recently took home an Oscar for La La Land and have Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway.
This may seem like an unusual turn of events for the cape-wearing set, but Andrew Kreisberg, a creator of The Flash, disagrees.
“We have them fighting sentient gorillas the week before, so for us it’s not any crazier or sillier that they’re singing,” he said.
Musical episodes have become increasingly familiar in series television, especially following the toe-tapping trailblazer Once More With Feeling, a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode that became a sing-a-long classic. Other shows, like Glee and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, have integrated musical numbers throughout.
But The Flash and Supergirl and the DC Comics family of shows have something those other programs don’t — casts that have an unusually high proportion of musical theatre stars.
Grant Gustin, who plays the Flash (aka Barry Allen), and Melissa Benoist, who plays Supergirl (aka Kara Danvers), have theatre backgrounds and both appeared on several seasons of Glee, as the scheming Sebastian and the winsome Marley Rose. Supporting actors include Jesse L. Martin, an original cast member of Rent; Victor Garber, who starred in an early production of Godspell; and John Barrowman, a West End luminary.
“At some point it became entertainment malpractice to not do it,” Kreisberg said.
But first Kreisberg and his co-creator Greg Berlanti needed something more: A good reason for their caped crusaders to break into song and a baddie to hit the low notes. The Flash and its family of shows have tried experimental forms before — maybe in pursuit of art, maybe in pursuit of ratings. Sometimes they work, like a Flash-Arrow-Legends of Tomorrow crossover episode, and sometimes they don’t, Berlanti said. “When they don’t, it’s because we don’t begin with character, character, character,” he said.
He and the writers had to find a problem that only song and dance could solve. As Barry Allen says in the episode, “When you sing, you open up your soul and let who you really are shine through.”
Though Berlanti guards the plot closely, he did reveal that the episode is “a love story, because those are my favourite musicals.” (Berlanti, who included fantasy-sequence musical numbers in his 2008-9 series “Eli Stone,” knows his show tunes. Whenever he visits New York, he likes to stop at the piano bar Marie’s Crisis and sing along to Broadway classics.)
But where to find an antagonist so depraved that he’d force his victims to warble? In a cartoon. The Music Meister first appeared in an episode of the animated series Batman: The Brave and the Bold, voiced by Neil Patrick Harris. An extravagant character with loud taste in suits and mesmeric capabilities, he used the catchphrase, “I’m here to settle the score.”
To play the live-action version, they reached out to Darren Criss, the Glee heartthrob who recently appeared on Broadway in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
Criss was eager to play a character he described as “a trickster, a mischievous guy, kind of a stinker”.
“I had to do this episode,” he added. “If somebody else had done it, I would have really thrown a hissy fit.”
The creators envisioned a mix of styles for the episode. Besides Moon River, there’s More I Cannot Wish You from Guys and Dolls, the adult contemporary hit Put a Little Love in Your Heart and two originals: a ballad from Pasek and Paul, and a giddy duet from Bloom. She asked to write a song, in part to silence a social media torrent once rumours of the episode began to swirl. “People were tweeting at me,” she said.
Writing for such plot-heavy shows is a challenge for people unversed in the superhero mythologies. “We caught them up to date, and we sent them videos,” Kreisberg said. But even then, adjustments were needed. For her song Super Friend, Bloom had originally written a line where the Flash sings, “And if I’m not there in time I’ll just go back in time and give it another shot.” The show’s creators had to tell her that the Flash’s time travel “actually ended up being a very bad decision.”
The shoot was not easy. “There were scheduling concerns and practical concerns and financial concerns, so it was a megillah,” Kreisberg said. It required extra work from the actors — dance calls, recording sessions and plenty of weekend hours. Money that might have gone to CGI instead went to music, so the actors had to be their own triple-threat special effects. They don’t wear their superhero costumes — Berlanti thought it looked too silly — and there are no green screens to save them.
“No one was faking it or going through the motions,” Gustin said.
The same applied to the singing. Garber, who plays Martin Stein on Legends of Tomorrow, another show in CW’s superhero stable, said that the episode prompted him to hire a vocal coach. “So I was grateful to have something to focus on that was really interesting to me, rather than time travel,” he said.
Benoist described the process as “measured chaos”. For her, the episode was a Glee reunion of sorts, enhanced by the choreography of Zach Woodlee. She and Gustin reverted to that Glee style a bit. “We became bigger and broader and more theatrical,” she said. “We were laughing at ourselves for it, but I think it’s perfect.”
Berlanti isn’t sure what viewers will make of the experiment, but he said that he doesn’t especially care. “Every so often you’re like, if I die tomorrow, if the show went off the air tomorrow, at least we did this episode,” he said.
And if it fails, he can always send the Flash back in time to fix it. What could go wrong? — The New York Times