ABC drama preps song-driven seg

Call it the seven-year itch, or perhaps a by-product of the “Glee” effect, but the producers behind ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” — now in its seventh season — are hoping a musical episode airing March 31 might generate renewed interest in the medical drama.

Although the idea by show creator/exec producer Shonda Rhimes pre-dated “Glee,” one can’t help but assume Fox’s hit jukebox series, which has spawned concert tours and whose cast sold more than 3.6 million albums last year, might have provided the inspiration to finally go forward with the concept.

“I’ve been thinking about doing a musical episode since we made the pilot,” Rhimes says. “I love musical episodes but it never seemed to be the right time to make it until now.”

Dawn Soler, senior VP of TV music at ABC Entertainment Group, says the material was culled from “iconic songs of the past seasons.” And while the selections were narrowed down by Rhimes, the material can also be largely credited to music supervisor Alexandra Patsavis, whose indie pop sensibility has helped make shows like “Grey’s” and “Gossip Girl” the gold standard for music placement.

“Someone (from ‘Grey’s’ production team) said to me, ‘we make music videos and string them together to make a show, which I thought was an interesting perspective,” says the episode’s musical director Chris Horvath.

To this end, the songs being used in the episode, “motor the storyline,” according to Soler. “There’s not going to be a moment where you stop and have a song that isn’t driving the story,” she says. “It’s really integral and beautifully woven.”

Producers are tight-lipped about the plot, but Horvath reveals “there is a kind of altered-consciousness” aspect to the episode, which is titled “Song Beneath the Song,” Horvath adds that “it’s told from the perspective of one of the characters. The music really happens in a space between life and death.”

The series, which has had its share of behind-the-scenes drama, has been accused of jumping the shark more than once over its seven-year run, with gun-wielding lunatics, bomb scares, out-of-body experiences and all manner of sexual couplings occurring among its cast members.

The musical concept, however, is not without precedent: “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” aired a musical episode called “Once More With Feeling,” written and directed by the show’s creator Joss Whedon, in 2001, while “Scrubs” featured “My Musical” in 2007. Those events occurred late in their runs, during both shows’ sixth seasons, when the series were considered past their peaks. “Buffy’s” musical actually resulted in a slightly lower rating than the previous show; while the “Scrubs” tuner averaged 6.5 million viewers, up slightly from the 6.1 million average of the episodes that bookended it.

“Ratings don’t drive the creative on my shows,” assures Rhimes. “So I didn’t consider that as part of my reason for doing the music event. I did it because it was fun and it was a challenge and (cast member) Sara Ramirez exists.”

The “Grey’s” music episode has been seriously in the works since October, but the process wasn’t easy. Rhimes had to convince network execs and leery cast members with a formal pitch. “She got the (original) artists to come sing the songs,” recalls Soler. “Then the actors sang some of the songs and it was like, ‘wow, how could we not do this?’ ”

For some, like Ramirez, the singing was natural; she won a Tony for “Spamalot”; Of Scottish player Kevin McKidd, Horvath says “I would start a band with him tomorrow”; and Chandra Wilson, who began performing in musicals at age five, “has a beautiful, gospel-tinged voice,” according to Horvath,

“Then there were people who literally had never even sung in the bathroom,” says Horvath, “and we got them to the best of there abilities with a little nipping and tucking.”

Songs include “Chasing Cars” by Snow Patrol, “How to Save a Life” by the Fray, “The Story” by Brandi Carlile, and “How We Operate” by Gomez. In each situation, the song’s placement in the show either helped break the artists behind it, further boost their popularity and/or spike sales of the single or album from which it was culled.

“We’ve been given stats from anywhere from 100% to 1000% uptick in an artist on both their My Space and Facebook and iTunes accounts depending on the use,” says Soler.

A digital soundtrack from the episode will be released on iTunes April 5. Past “Gray’s” compilations — which have ranged in sales from 35,000 units to 413,000 units, according to Nielsen SoundScan — have been released through Disney’s Hollywood Records. An upcoming “Grey’s” collection will be released in July through Patsavas’ label, Chop Shop.

The event will be heavily promoted on the net’s website Music Lounge, with all manner of behind-the-scenes and “making of” segments, with a tie-in to Facebook, while sneak peeks have already started airing on another medical show, “Off the Map,” also exec produced by Rhimes, beginning March 2.

But whether one is a longtime fan of the show or a recent convert, Horvath warns viewers not to tune in March 31 cold.

“Anyone who wants to watch this episode and enjoy it really needs to watch the one before it,” he says, “because there’s a lead-in that’s dramatic. And for fans of the show who are invested in the characters, there’s really going to be an ‘Oh my God!’ moment.”

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