When I saw the new musical Once Off-Broadway at the New York Theatre Workshop, I found it disarming and sweet, but I had serious reservations about plans to move the show to Broadway. It's a lovely show, but it seemed a bit too delicate and small for Broadway. I had to wonder whether a commercial transfer was wise.
Well, the critical response to Once, which opened last week on Broadway, was almost universally positive. Downright ecstatic, in many cases. And, so far, the Broadway grosses for the show look pretty solid. So, what do I know, right? Well, for once, it seems that the critics and the ticket-buying public are rightfully in-sync, because Once is an unqualified winner.
I had a chance to see Once again shortly before it opened on Broadway, and, whereas I was charmed the first time I saw it, the second time I was blown away. I'm not quite sure how to explain this, except perhaps that the Wednesday matinee audience I saw at the NYTW was a tad listless, and this may have had an effect on the performers.
But the Friday night Broadway audience was all in, taking full advantage of the on-stage bar, and mingling jovially with the performers during the raucous pre-show jam session of Irish and Czech songs. There's no real start to the show: the action emerges almost imperceptibly from the warm-up concert. What follows is a refreshingly heartfelt expression of simple, honest emotion, but nonetheless brimming with human complexity. Once is a restorative tonic of simplicity amid the non-stop barrage of spectacle and glitz that most of the movies-turned musicals these days have to offer. (See Sister Act, Priscilla, Ghost, etc. Or rather, don't see Sister Act, Priscilla, and Ghost.)
The musical Once is, of course, based on the movie "Once", which was written and directed by John Carney, whose screenplay was adapted for the stage by Enda Walsh. The story is simple: boy loses girl, boy writes songs, new girl persuades boy to record his songs, boy and new girl may or may not fall in love in the process. Despite the seeming simplicity of the tale, the appeal here is in the richness of the telling and the characterization.
The subject matter of Once could easily have careened off into the land of the precious, but director John Tiffany shows a firm hand in keeping the interactions real. Choreographer Steven Hoggett aids Tiffany ably here with movement that not only propels the story forward, but is also thematically additive. Some of Hoggett's Bill T. Jones-esque hand-ography is a tad awkward, but for the most part the movement helps to drive the hypnotic build of the songs, particularly in the act 1 finale, in which the young man and woman at the center of the story (known only as "Guy" and "Girl" in the program) bring the young man's songs to an open-mic night at a local pub. It's one of those wonderful moments in musical theater when song, movement, and character coalesce into something genuinely thrilling.
It's interesting, but one of the things that really struck me about the songs to Once is that they are all diegetic: that is, the characters are actually performing songs within the context of the show. (The songs are mostly by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, who also starred in the original movie.) Now, according to musical-theater purists, scores that comprise a series of unintegrated pop songs shouldn't be effective. And this actually tends to be true. Witness the plague of "songbook" and "jukebox" musicals, and how for every show of this ilk that actually works (Jersey Boys) there are at least a dozen that don't, at least not dramatically (Mamma Mia, Baby It's You, Good Vibrations, All Shook Up). What makes the songs work in Once is that each number has a strong emotional resonance with what the characters are experiencing. Plus, they're just really good songs, seemingly simple, and yet rich in atmosphere and timbre.
I'm surprised that I haven't heard anyone denounce the whole "actor/musician" aspect of Once. Nearly everyone in the cast plays at least one instrument during the performance, and there is no pit band or off-stage orchestra, at least that I could see. I've heard many people decry director John Doyle and what they see as his "lazy" reliance on the same actor/musician "gimmick." Well, anyone who thinks actor/musicians are just a gimmick should definitely see Once. Whereas the idea of all the people in Bobby's life playing musical instruments in Company may seem like a stretch, here it makes perfect sense, partly because the characters themselves are actually playing instruments, but also because it adds to the communal nature of the piece. Should every musical have actor/musicians? Most assuredly no. But should it remain a viable option for other musicals? I'm thinking yes.
The cast members of Once add immeasurably to the show's appeal, particularly Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti as "Guy" and "Girl." Milioti makes a stunning impression from her very first scene, bringing a heartfelt buoyancy to a character who could very easily have come off as forced and annoying. A major (and pleasant) surprise here is my old friend Steve Kazee. Long-time readers may recall that Kazee and I had a bit of a run-in a few years back when he was appearing as the Pirate King in an updated version of The Pirates of Penzance, called Pirates, which played the Huntington Theater here in Boston. (Read my review.) At the time, I expressed dissatisfaction with his performance, and said that it was beginning to look as though his "charisma-deprived" performance as Starbuck in the 110 in the Shade revival wasn't a fluke. Kazee contacted me and took issue with my observations.
Well, based on Kazee's performance in Once, I think I can safely say that he is an extremely talented man who was simply waiting for the right part to come along. Starbuck and the Pirate King are about larger-than-life showmanship. Guy is about quiet dignity and vocal expressiveness, which seem much more in Kazee's idiom. Guy starts Once with the wail of a shattered man, and as the show develops, we see him open up and begin to heal, driven by the inexorable force of Girl entering his life and imbuing him with a sense of purpose. Kazee handles this transformation with deceptive ease, and along the way provides a series of spine-tingling song performances, one of the major highlights of this all-around excellent production.
So, congratulations, Steve. I'm genuinely thrilled to see you in a show so suitably matched to your undeniable talents.