Dance, Dance, Brain Surgery: The Chicago Hope Musical

Chicago Hope (Photo: CBS)

Musicals week at WEIO continues with a look at Chicago Hope’s ‘Brain Salad Surgery’.

Just one day apart in September of 1994, two new medical dramas hit the network airways.1 NBC’s ER would run for fifteen seasons and anchor a Thursday night ratings domination for years with its large ensemble cast and at-least-once-an-episode use of viscera. Chicago Hope would last six seasons, presenting a realer version of a medical soap opera, more in line with its predecessor St. Elsewhere than its spiritual successor Grey’s Anatomy.

Neither was ever at a loss for pathos (see – most of Goran Visnjic’s well-acted run) nor doctors who Cared Too Much (see – Peter Berg’s chainsaw). And both were willing to damage or destroy main characters in all sorts of ways.2 But where ER would (spoiler) slowly kill Anthony Edward’s with a brain tumor, elegantly showing his steady decline and the reactions of those around him, Chicago Hope never sat in the same part of the realism spectrum. Case in point – three episodes in to its fourth season, Chicago Hope gave its main star (Adam Arkin), a world-renowned neurosurgeon, a brain aneurism. His fate wouldn’t be known for several episodes3 but while his life hung in the balance Chicago Hope took the opportunity for a dream/deathbed sequence into rather creative territory by staging itself an episode-long musical.

The cast was both game and (mostly) talented enough to pull this off.4 In a bonus to the writers, the dream-sequence basis allowed song-and-dance-man extraordinaire Mandy Patinkin’s character to return without rejiggering plotlines yet again. Most of all, a show that was mostly about emotions didn’t just use music to heighten and sway those emotions, it embraced music to drive a story in a very different way.

Probably the best thing about this episode – and this struck me when I watched it for the first time back in 1997 – is the way it juxtaposed highs and lows at a pace and in a way that standard dialogue can rarely achieve. The clearest example comes when the entire cast does a full, choreographed routine in support of Arkin singing ‘Luck Be a Lady Tonight’, a tune that builds and builds, pumping up both performer and audience – until it crashes at the end with our unlucky gambler rolling snake-eyes, and his real-world self crashing on the operating table.

The episode (sadly) does not appear to be available in any online format, though the entire series is out on DVD or Blu-Ray. It’s a bit of a shame since Chicago Hope‘s mid-90s medical drama pacing might not be for everyone, but this one episode – including, ahem, Peter Berg and Mark Harmon making bizarre eyes at one another while crooning a 50s lullaby along with other doctors in an operating theater turned recording booth – is a good example of the concept episode done right.

Plenty of other shows have done a musical, some better5 some worse6 but Chicago Hope sang and danced and stitched7 together an hour that achieved something pretty neat: they made you believe that jazz hands and scrubs belonged together. Oh and a lot of the singing and dancing is pretty good, too.

  1. No, seriously – Chicago Hope went up on the 18th, ER the following evening.  
  2. There’s a whole separate article to be written sometime about Julianna Margulies’ character not dying in the pilot as was originally intended.  
  3. For a while he lost his ability to operate, switching to a psychology residency in the meantime, and laying the groundwork for his helpful murmuring on The West Wing.  
  4. Arkin grew up in a Broadway family, Vonde Curtis Hall would star in the original cast of Dreamgirls, Rocky Carroll is the graduate of two theater conservatories, Hector Elizondo went to LaGuardia, etc. etc. etc.  
  5. I’ll argue tomorrow that Buffy is a prime example of using the medium to its fullest.  
  6. Gray’s Anatomy… who cares?  
  7. Yes.  

A Brief Word From Our Sponsors:

About Aaron Mucciolo 206 Articles
He does things. That's all we can say at this time. E-mail: