Once – The Musical on Broadway
Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent
– Victor Hugo
The obsession started when I first saw the film Once, a work whose honest beauty stunned me and saved me when I felt the world I lived in had completely lost its sense of humanity (in pre-emptive war and cluster bomb times). Then there was the Christmas card with a toast, ‘Here’s to Once, March 24th, New York’ that led me here to a theater on Broadway to see the musical version of Once. And you really have to understand, I am NOT the musical-going type. But then again, nothing about Once has ever been usual. It was an anti-Hollywood film and for that I loved it. Now, I fervently prayed that its sacredness would be preserved: the human connection, the sheer beauty of the music, and the purity of its message.
Composers and the film’s Guy and Girl, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová
♫ Words fall through me and always fool me ♫
– Glen Hansard
The human connection in Once is what grabs you and gives you hope. It takes a real spark to make that work and the film’s Guy and Girl could not be matched. Yet there are other forces in this play to break down the barriers between audience and cast and build connections. It starts when you enter and hear the music on stage and venture up to the bar on stage. And that’s clever.
What’ll ye have?
A beer, please.
Would you like … or …?
Whichever is closest to yer hand is grand.
This one is richer.
Fair enough. It’s for himself and sure as long as there’s alcohol in it he’ll be happy.
That gets a laugh out of the bartender. I forget I’m on stage. I and those around me have become part of the play before it starts. Ah, but when does it start? That’s another brilliant move. There is no clear start. We have just dropped in on some part of some people’s lives in the energy of live performance and got caught up in that. We are already connected.
Raising their voices. David Kelly on the far left shines on Raglan Road
♫ Raise your hopeful voice, you have a choice ♫
– Glen & Markéta
The sheer beauty of the film’s music cannot be surpassed. I am sure of that. Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová made magic with their music. Back in my seat I listen to the pre-show music being played on stage. They’re good, very good I have to admit. I think that’s a single jig with words I hear, then a Czech song and then it all gets quiet for Raglan Road and I realize my jaw has dropped. There are people still coming in, many are chatting and the lights haven’t dimmed but I’ve already heard a performance worth the price of the trip and it isn’t even the lead singing. It’s a man with only a few lines in the whole performance but he has just surpassed the Dubliners and (gulp) Glen in his new and definitive lyrical version of this song set to Paddy Kavanagh’s gorgeous poem. I don’t know where to look or who to share this with. Help. So here I tell you this lest the truth be lost. I want a recording of this NOW. I raise a glass to you David Kelly for that unexpected pleasure.
The musicianship in this show is amazing. They cover most of the hits (Lies is gone, Sleeping is added) and change some of them. The new a cappella Gold is a hit but using Falling Slowly’s four notes to make a jingly transition tune feels like a miss as it diminishes the song’s power. Nonetheless, I am in awe.
The musical’s Girl and Guy, Cristin Milioti and Steve Kazee
♫ Cause if your skin was soil how long do you think before they start diggin’ and if your life was gold how long would you think you’d stay livin’? ♫
– Fergus O’Farrell
For me art has a message and it must be worth the telling. In Once the message is that love hurts and is complicated and we don’t always get what we want but we get glimpses of heaven here on earth in people with good hearts. The purity of that message of Once restored my faith in humanity and that’s a tough act to follow. Still, I can’t deny that already the best of humanity abounds in the camaraderie I see on stage before me. I enjoy all that’s the same and all that’s different until I cringe at the direction of the ‘humor’ when Girl gets a friend to sleep with someone so as to help Guy. Her friend has to down a few strong ones to do this and now we’re in ‘humor’ that is far from the purity of the message of the film. Why? Sigh. All in all though, Girl is wonderful and funny and selfless.
Who hears music feels his solitude peopled at once
– Robert Browning
At the core of it all is Guy and Girl. How they communicate with us and with each other is key to our belief in the beauty of their story. Glen and Mar’s songs are powerful tools here.
When Guy is singing on stage and the lights have dimmed, people are quiet and you realize it has started and he doesn’t hold back. Glen as the film’s Guy has that rough edge to his voice no one can match but Steve as the musical’s Guy is far better than I expected. By the time we reach his heartbreaking final Falling Slowly I am won over and wish I had brought some Kleenex. Even when speaking, he did well. Considering how many awful Broadway Irish accents there are out there, I’m delighted Steve got this so right. Okay, so he slipped on three words (‘Cork’, ‘forgetting’ and ‘her’) but he’s very good and for a typical American audience he is far easier to understand.
Girl’s performance on stage is more Broadway play and less Once realism and maybe that was needed but I don’t think so. Hers was the hardest character to adjust to. In the film version Girl’s genuine performance and humor when reacting to guy’s suggestion that they should move to England was brilliant. Cristin’s performance did not convince me on this part as she was playing the ‘serious’ Czech but she could have let it go on that line. It would have been worth it. She really should see the film. Still her If You Want Me is lovely. She makes her role comedic and that changes everything but she wins us over in the end. The feminist in me is happy to see a strong female lead.
It is cruel, you know, that music should be so beautiful. It has the beauty of loneliness of pain, of strength and freedom: the beauty of disappointment and never-satisfied love
– Benjamin Britten
There are many saying that the play is better than the film but that is not true. They are different and, in my book, the film still wins for its sheer commitment to realism, respecting the viewer, and artistic performance. For this to be closer to perfect I’d leave out the friend sleeping with the shop owner, the four note based transition music (the five note Fallen From The Sky would have worked better), some of the movements (limp wrists), and the many affirmations of the music’s worth. They are not necessary. Never tell the audience what they are supposed to think. Don’t spell it out for them. That’s disrespecting them and they feel it. Win them over. Trust them to understand. This musical doesn’t need anyone to say it’s great. It just is. Let me repeat that in case it’s not clear: this musical is GREAT. I leave feeling sad and happy and hopeful and wanting to see it again.
♫ You have suffered enough and warred with yourself, it’s time that you won ♫
– Glen Hansard & Markéta Irglova
A smart young kid behind me on his way out of the theater repeats the funniest line of the performance which has to do with when the transaction is complete. Like one of the best songs of the night, the whole performance is Gold and it deserves major praise and awards. Viva la revolución. It makes me want to record some songs or even make a whole album. Don’t quote me on that though.
PS. I might never have gone to this had it not been for Brandon’s excellent review well worth reading here: http://www.theswellseason.com/discuss/topic.php?id=1876
Also read Elizabeth Davis’ testimony to her joy of being part of this at http://www.broadway.com/buzz/161419/elizabeth-a-davis-on-her-heaven-sent-journey-as-actress-violinist-in-once/
Update: Congratulations to Once on winning 8 Tony Awards including Best Musical and Best Actor.
See the update: https://ancroiait.wordpress.com/2012/06/11/once-performance-at-the-tony-awards/