When you enter New York Theatre Workshop’s space on E. 4th St. to see Once, the musical adaptation of the 2007 Irish indie film (see my 2007 blog post on the film), the well-worn theatre suddenly feels like a party hall. The stage has been transformed into a bar, replete with distressed old mirrors and sconce lights, and a low counter that serves double-duty as a place for spectators to get a pint before the play proper starts and as a secondary acting platform for the considerable talents of this musically distinguished and emotionally empathetic cast.
In Irish playwright Enda Walsh’s faithful adaptation, the Dublin community on which the story focuses is bound by its music making. The cast is small by musical theatre standards, since the “community here,” usually represented by dozens of supernumeraries, is the close-knit one of Dublin street buskers and musicians who remain soulfully devoted to music as an expression of their pining spirits.
Steve Kazee plays “the guy,” a recently jilted, emotionally and artistically ambivalent singer/song-writer who at the show’s beginning, after a wrenching solo, has decided to abandon his battered guitar on the street as a kind of remnant of his own lost soul.
But “the girl” (like “the guy,” also nameless, an odd conceit borrowed from the film) overhears his ballad and brings him emphatically back to his music and to his life. Played by the lovely, energetic Cristin Milioti (last seen at NYTW in Ivo Van Hove’sLittle Foxes), she drags him to a music store where she borrows a piano on which to accompany him in her resonant, equally soulful style. Through sheer will and a bit of artfully withheld romance, she encourages him to resume his music-making in America, where he can reconnect with his departed girlfriend and have a wonderful life.
As in the film, music expresses the duo’s personalities and their yearnings. The musical’s loveliest and most haunting number remains the Academy Award-winning “Falling Slowly,” written and performed by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, the original guy and girl who remain credited for the music and lyrics of this adaptation. The ballad grows as a duet between the two, whose voices blend perfectly as their separate instruments play a kind of syncopated, already sad flirtation.
Although the pair fall in love as soon as they begin harmonizing together, the musical keeps them apart rather than uniting this typically central heterosexual couple as more conventional musical stories are wont to do. In fact, one of the pleasures ofOnce is watching it resist the stereotypical formula. The community that typically mirrors the central couple’s initial opposition—like the cowboys and the farmers who should be friends in Oklahoma—here are already united.
Walsh manufactures some humorous initial conflict between Billy (Paul Whitty), the music store owner, and the bank manager (Andy Taylor) to whom the girl and guy turn for a loan to make their album. When the banker turns out to be a closeted musician (and a not-so-closeted gay man), he gives the couple the money and joins the band, overcoming Billy’s suspicion of capitalists to become part of the singing and playing ensemble.
In fact, that band of sympathetic brothers and sisters is one of the sweetest things about this very sweet show. Director John Tiffany (Black Watch) keeps his instrument-playing and singing cast on stage throughout Once, John Doyle-style. He guides them toward saloon-style chairs that line the wide proscenium stage in between numbers. From there, they watch the action intently and provide the occasional musical punctuation or undertone.
The several acoustic guitars, an electric bass, a banjo, an accordion, a ukulele, a bass, and two violins, as well as a drum set employed in the climactic studio recording scene, compose the orchestra, all played by members of the cast. The mournful ballads underscore the fated love story, and the musicians provide pre-show and intermission Irish pub music to persuade the audience into the Dublin world of Once.
And the audience loves it. They approach the bar on stage willingly before the show and during the intermission, where cast and crew pull pints of Guinness and other beers. Several spectators the night I attended danced with the musicians who sang together center stage, stomping their feet Riverdance-style and making that particularly Irish sort of merry before the central story got underway.
The pre-show party is a fun theatrical choice, shaking up, as it does, the conventional separation between performer and spectator. The choice to create a pub-style environment that lets the show be small and intimate, signals from the start that Onceis not aspiring to more typical musical spectacle that would mock the more personal commitments at the film’s heart.
The guy lives with his father (David Patrick Kelly), a crusty old Dubliner named “Da,” above the vacuum repair shop they run together. When the girl finds the guy losing heart on the street, she asks him to fix her Hoover, insisting that he make the machine “suck.” Because she’s Czech—and Walsh gets a fair amount of mileage from her Eastern European seriousness—she soberly sets about the task of re-inspiring the guy toward his own talents.
He’s grudging at first, floundering on the shoals of lost love and confusion about his own ambitions. But she’s insistent. In the first act, in fact, she’s a bit too single-minded in her intention to repair his heart, and appears the stereotypical girl in the service of a guy’s future rather than her own.
But Walsh gives the character more nuances in the second act. She has a child and a husband who’s on his way back to Dublin from a trial separation. And although she’s drawn to the guy, she has a stalwart ethic that requires her to try to make her marriage work. That the guy and the girl clearly love one another but don’t become lovers is a refreshing tactic for a musical. Their attraction shimmers around the show, and their sad but somehow right failure to consummate their love makes Once wistful and somehow true about those complicated affairs of the heart.
Bob Crowley’s evocative set and costumes are lit beautifully by Natasha Katz, who gilds the actors with the kind of romantic, introspective warmth that seems to deepen their emotional complexity. Many of the show’s scenes take place in squares of light that mark off the space, carving it into intimate encounters between pairs of characters–the guy and his father; the guy and the girl; Billy and his date. Once, as a result, is an intimate, surprisingly quiet affair, in which between the numbers, the characters spend time simply talking to one another about their desires, hopes, and dreams.
The Czech background of the girl and her extended family—her mother, daughter, and cousins figure heavily into her Dublin life—is played for laughs. The cousins, of all the musical’s characters, are cardboard stereotypes meant to elicit the national confusions and language humor that comes from immigrants navigating new worlds.
Walsh and Tiffany handle the film’s international flair with supertitles which, in a creative twist, project the English dialogue into the characters’ native tongues. That is, the audience sees the girl’s exchanges with her family projected in Czech, and some of the Dubliner’s dialogue projected in Irish. The actors speak in English with various degrees of Eastern European and Irish accents, none of which are pronounced enough to get in the way of comprehension.
The show’s choreography is light and unobtrusive, but occasionally inspired, as when the girl and the guy, in separate images, seem to sculpt the air with their arms, providing circles of warmth and intimacy into which one of the other performers walks. For instance, the girl, downstage center, curves her arm out in front of her, and one of the other women moves into her embrace, leaning her back into the girl’s chest and circling her arm around her waist so that the girl can lay her chin on the other woman’s shoulder.
In another light but poignant dance moment, when the girl listens to the guy’s music on a pair of large headphones, the two other young women in the cast (both of whom play the violin) mirror her as she moves about the stage, their hands outstretched into the air with the exhilaration of listening to sounds you love.
Once is a charming production, currently selling out at NYTW and poised to move to Broadway in February. The show’s investors premiered the production at Diana Paulus’s American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge before the move to NYTW; they apparently have always planned on a Broadway run.
When the show moves to the Bernard Jacobs Theatre, I only hope it finds a way to retain the intimacy of its appeal for a larger audience. It would be a shame to sacrifice the pub-like atmosphere of the theatre, and the quiet simplicity of the acting and the singing, or to make the show wholly bigger for a Broadway crowd.
The appeal of Once comes from the appropriate scale of its ambitions—to tell a story through lovely ballads, sung from broken, yearning young hearts.
The Feminist Spectator
Once, New York Theatre Workshop, December 16, 2011.