Once: The Musical

While we were in New York City we took in a Broadway show, which I am wont to do when we are up there. This time it was Once, which is based on the 2006 film of the same name. Once had pretty much been at the top of my list of shows to see since I heard it was being workshopped. My excitement only grew the more I heard about it. It also won 8 Tony’s including Best Actor, Best Musical, and Best Book. I would have seen it the last time we were in New York except that I wanted to make sure to see Peter and the Starcatcher while Christian Borle was still playing Black Stache, so that won out instead. Thus, Once was at the top of my list for this trip.

The movie stars Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, who wrote the songs, one of which won an Oscar. It’s a bittersweet story of music, love, and loss. Glen Hansard plays an Irish street musician down on his luck, while Marketa Irglova plays a young Czech girl who befriends and inspires him. They begin playing music together and work to a demo recorded in order to help Glen’s character pursue his music career. If you haven’t seen the film you should. Then after that you should watch the documentary The Swell Season, which follows Glen and Marketa as they tour as the Swell Season, which they did following the movie until recently. Now it appears they are both playing solo for now.

I was curious how they were going to effectively translate the small and understated but beautiful film into a Broadway musical given that they tend to involve a lot of grand music and dance numbers, but they did a wonderful job. The show is different from any other musical I have ever seen because it is so much more understated. This is the largest musical number in the show as performed during the Tony’s last year and as you can see it pales in comparison to what you would see in most musicals.

The story in the movie and the musical are very similar though there are some changes. The musical is written in a much more humorous fashion than the movie was, some of the plot is left out of the musical, and I guess to make it more palatable to an American audience they changed the fact that the guy was trying to get to London to New York instead. Unlike most musicals where the characters burst into song to express what they’re saying most of the music in Once is sung as if the characters are actually performing the songs either in a bar, for each other, singing to themselves, or in the recording studio. Most of the dancing comes during the scene changes, which is effective. There are a couple of musical numbers they try to add some artsy dancing to, which I actually found distracting. I get why they did it because of people’s expectations for a Broadway musical, but I kind of wish they had left most of it out. That was very minimal though, so it’s not like it ruined the show for me or anything.

There are a couple of clever things about the show that I really liked. The set for the show is a bar, and prior to the show and during intermission you can actually go up and order drinks from the bar. Prior to the show members from the cast come out and play a bunch of music on stage as if they’re just hanging around a bar playing music, which then pretty much leads directly into the show. There is no sharp distinction from that and the start of the show except that the lights go down. The other thing they did does pertain to a minor spoiler so stop reading now if you don’t want to know anything about the show. There are a number of characters who are supposed to be speaking to each other in Czech at several points during the show. They had a sort of reverse subtitle thing going during the show with the actors actually speaking in English, but an LED scroll above the bar displaying the actual Czech. For most of the show I was thinking that’s kind of interesting, but whatever. That is until the real reason for that display came into play. Near the end of the show the Guy character (currently played by Tony winning Steve Kazee) and the Girl character (currently played by Tony nominated Cristin Milioti) asks her if she is still in love with her husband. She answers him in Czech, which he doesn’t understand saying “I Love You”. In this case, the actress speaks the Czech and it is the English translation that is displayed on the scroll so that the audience knows what she said even though the guy doesn’t. I thought it was a genius bit of staging.

If you get the chance I would definitely recommend it. It’s obviously still playing on Broadway and I don’t think there’s a closing date set yet, so you should have some time to see it there though I don’t know how much longer the original cast members are signed on for. The show is also going to go on tour starting in the summer of 2013, so you can look for it in a theatre near you next year as well.

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