I first saw Once in August 2012 on Broadway as a part of a four show weekend theater binge. I was not sure what to expect going in as I had seen the movie it is based on and not cared much for it. I specifically remember feeling frustrated with the movie’s melancholy non-ending. However, as I sat with my friend Rachel in the very last row of the mezzanine at the Jacobs Theater in New York, I found myself moved to tears and essentially bawling by the end of act two. I connected with the stage musical in a way that I hadn’t with the movie. It was easily my favorite thing I saw during that trip to NY, and eventually my favorite show I saw that entire year. Although I did not burst into tears when I saw the show for the second time at the Pantages this past weekend, probably to the relief of those around me, I loved the show just as much as I did the first time, and was reminded of why I find it to be so special.
For anyone who is unfamiliar, Once is based on a 2006 film starring Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, who also wrote all of the music. The plot follows two broken-hearted musicians who meet by chance in Dublin, Ireland and quickly establish a deep connection through music over a period of several days. The two main characters are never named, and simply referred to as “Guy” and “Girl”. The stage adaptation won 8 Tony Awards in 2012, including Best Musical.
The plot of Once is simple. It is a love story without a traditional happy ending. What makes the show something special is the atmosphere it creates, which begins before the official beginning of the first act. On Broadway and on tour, the minimalist set features a functional bar that is open to the audience before the show and at intermission. At the Pantages, my friends and I drank wine out of sippy cups onstage (presumably a precaution in case of spills, as you are standing on the actual set with the instruments around you) and enjoyed the pre-show music, which was a very cool, unique experience. The band comes onto the stage early to set the tone with some lovely Irish tunes, and gradually patrons are encouraged to leave the stage. The transition between the pre-show and the actual show is seamless- the lights dim throughout the course of the first official number, easing the audience into the main performance. Once is a show that fully holds your attention throughout. At least to me, both acts flew by, and I felt completely immersed in the setting and the story, which I know was in part due to the effort taken to wrap you up in the feeling of being in a small Dublin music shop before you even take your seat.
The cast is relatively small, featuring only 13 actors and actresses who also serve as the orchestra, playing instruments both in scenes and from chairs lined on both sides of the stage. I was concerned a house as large as the Pantages would swallow such an intimate show, but they smartly used the set to make the active area of the stage appropriately small. Even from the rear orchestra in a theater that seats nearly 3,000, I still felt incredibly connected to everything that was happening. The tour cast, led by Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal, was fantastic, especially considering they are expected to play multiple instruments, sing, dance and move set pieces to continually transform the simple semicircular room into whatever locale is needed for each scene. It is a show with no frills, staged beautifully by director John Tiffany, who won the Tony Award, and choreographed by Steven Hoggett. I found it interesting that Hoggett was credited in the Playbill for “movement” rather than choreography, but it is certainly a more appropriate word for what he created for Once. He also choreographed one of my personal favorite shows, American Idiot, which while more traditionally choreographed still features loose, natural movement that is often left up to the interpretation of the individual actors.
As wonderful as these other aspects of the production are, the shining star of Once is its incredibly beautiful score. Most people are familiar with the song “Falling Slowly”, which won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 2007 and is featured, stunningly, twice in the musical, but it is only one of many beautiful, raw songs. I encourage you to watch the original Broadway cast’s performance of “Gold” from the 2012 Tony Awards, starring Steve Kazee, who won the Tony for Best Actor in a Musical that night. The afternoon I saw the show with the original cast, Kazee was unfortunately out sick, which I am definitely not still bitter about.
The main criticism I have heard of the show is that the plot is a bit schmaltzy and stereotypical- broken man is saved by a girl, who gives him the validation he needs to pursue his musical ambitions. While this is true, I think a lot can also be said for the fact that the plot takes no easy outs. Spoiler alert: the two main characters do not end up together, despite mutually recognized love for one another, because their respective baggage is too overwhelming and the timing simply isn’t right. To me, these characters are simply called “Guy” and “Girl” because this is a story that is intentionally not unique. It is an ordinary tale that occurs time and time again both in real life and in media, and perhaps that is a part of what makes it so moving and easy to connect to.
Once is still playing on Broadway, as well as around the country. Visit http://www.oncemusical.com for more information.