In late 2011, Once The Musical, ran, or rather flew, through three sold-out months of performances Off-Broadway at the New York Theatre Workshop. The stage adaptation had been developed by Enda Walsh from the Academy-award winning (for the song “Falling Slowly”) film Once, starring the Irish busker Glen Hansard and Czech immigrant Marketa Irglova. The film accelerated the rise of its actors and flowered their musical project The Swell Season. This group (and Hansard’s earlier group The Frames) emerged with a rabid fanbase who undoubtedly bought tickets to multiple nights fueling the decision to move the production to Broadway. It was a good decision.
In its move to a larger venue, I feared that some of the unique charm of Once would be phased out. In the less commercial space of the NYTW, audiences were treated to a pre-performance jamboree from the cast and could purchase beverages from an on-stage bar. It turns out the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre kept this personal touch, though a larger overall capacity meant less people could physically experience standing on the stage, or suffer the indignity of paying $13 for a single beer. The beer price might be the biggest complaint I have about the musical. And it might be the only major change. I didn’t notice much different in terms of lines or dance number and no one decided to add slick tricks like flying from a wire. Perhaps the only gimmick is calling Once (directed by John Tiffany) a musical so it may be a better box office draw. Once is a love story with music.
This love story is told upon a stage whose main set-piece, a simple semi-circular Irish bar, functions for multiple locations in and around Dublin, including flats, a recording studio and a Hoover repair shop through the use of minimal spotlighting, rearrangement of tables and chairs, and a little imagination. More relevantly, the stage is visible at all times. There is no curtain that descends. Almost every inch is visible, mirrors situated over the walls share their glances, and supporting actors sit on the side waiting for their turn.
The stage, just like Guy (Steve Kazee), is laid bare. Guy reveals his heart to the audience, and to Girl (Cristin Milioti), through his intimate songs. The mirrors might represent Girl more. She never reveals her feelings to Guy, but the audience knows them through a metaphorical Czech translation. Both have unfinished love that stands in their way. The two leads are never given names. Catchalls convey universality. This may essentially be another gimmick, but an important one. Everyone in the audience will experience the universal sensations of longing and unrequited love.
Each supporting character does have a name, and each does double duty as a member of the “house band” as well. While pleasing overall, these cast members do not emote anywhere near the level of the leads. They earn some laughs with memorable quips, leading from lines like, “I will muffle the drums…” or “If a shower is not available…”, but they have inconsequential sub plots next to Guy and Girl. But these multitalented actors and musicians are constructive, since Guy and Girl, on guitar and piano respectively, do not make a complete band. The house band is rounded out with nearly a dozen other musicians who envelop the theater with richness and warmth through addition of a violin, cello or even an accordion.
Like Mel Brooks’ The Producers before it, I could imagine Once transferring from film to stage and back again. Kazee sings Guy’s songs evocatively, showing off his vulnerability without falling deep into mopeyness. Meanwhile Milioti brings her own innate strength to the role of Girl, persuading the audience to recognize the difficulty of her decisions through her determination. The music furthers the emotional plot and becomes another living character with the aid of subtle dance (in some cases, “dance” is achieved through gestures) choreography courtesy of Steven Hoggett, whose style graced the American Idiot musical.
“If You Want Me”, performed by Milioti, becomes a sensual number, with three females gliding across the stage, moving their hands as if in a gentle caress. Guy’s confidence takes some shots from an open-mike audience, but by the end of “Gold”, Kazee has won them over. The cast adds their instruments to Guy’s melody, swaying and stomping simultaneously, as the first act draws to a close. A reprise of “Falling Slowly” closes out the show. Guy and Girl’s voices join in unison; their lingering desires left evident in Kazee’s wrenching regret.
Once is a passionate story that will work wonders on Broadway. Guy and Girl will charm audiences, even if people are not familiar with the film. The play succeeds because of its leads and because of its music; music which some people may prefer not to hear, for fear that it would stir up those emotions they prefer to drown by the pint.