ON THE RECORD: Broadway's Irish Folk-Pop Musical Once

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Broadway's Irish Folk-Pop Musical Once This week's column discusses the original cast recording of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova's Once, the new Dublin-set Broadway musical.

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Once [Masterworks Broadway 88691948242]
To call Once the best musical of the season (so far) doesn't count for much, given the quality of the musicals of the season (so far). To say that it is the finest dramatic musical since The Light in the Piazza is more like it. So let's just say that Once is Broadway's finest dramatic musical since The Light in the Piazza and leave it at that.

Once opened at the 199-seat New York Theatre Workshop on Dec. 6, 2011. (NYTW was the birthing ground of Rent as well; those of us who have been around long enough will fondly recall two initial tenants — John Guare's The House of Blue Leaves starring Harold Gould, and Bruce Jay Freidman's Steambath, starring Charles Grodin or Anthony Perkins — back in the days when it was called the Truck & Warehouse.) (Okay, this is way off topic but Grodin replaced Rip Torn who replaced Dick Shawn; by opening night, director Perkins had taken over the role — but Steambath, which was wildly funny, still didn't work.)

In its intimate downtown venue, Once was wonderful: refreshing, exquisitely romantic (in a bittersweet manner), and thoroughly enchanting. What happens when you take a near-perfect musical and move it from a 200-seater to a 1,100-seater like the Jacobs, where it reopened on March 18? A loud, brash piece like NYTW's Rent or the Atlantic's Spring Awakening can just turn up the volume; other recent examples, like the Public's Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and the Vineyard's Scottsboro Boys did not fare so well.

Once, happily, works just as well at the Jacobs; in my considered opinion, it is even stronger. It can be readily understood how an explosion of laughter from an audience of 200 people — or let's say, two-thirds of them — is not quite so explosive as roars from 750. This multiplying effect has even more impact on a song which lands with show-stopping excitement, of which there are several here. In a Broadway house, the music and the emotion wash across the orchestra and mezz in a glorious fashion that you didn't get at a one-level, ten-row theatre. This, by the way, was also the case with an earlier Off-Broadway transfer. A Chorus Line was absolutely dazzling down at the Public, in the 299-seat Newman; you felt as if the dancers, frenziedly doing those Michael Bennett combinations, were about to fly into your lap. This was never quite the same once the show moved to Broadway and elsewhere; but sitting in the Shubert with 1,500 people, A Chorus Line received an extra jolt of electricity. As does Once, although here the electricity is coated with a fine Dublin mist in place of the earlier show's rehearsal room sweat.

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Cristin Milioti and Steve Kazee in Once.
photo by Joan Marcus

For those who wonder how you can take a show from a tiny Off-Broadway house and expand it, guess what? The stage of the NYTW appears to be wider than the Jacobs. (And to those traditionalists out there, this is the Royale; I never got Bernie and Gerry mixed up — it was pretty much impossible to confuse them — but I'm still not quite sure whether it's the Schoenfeld or the Jacobs that's next to the Booth.) That's right. Bob Crowley's barroom set — and the set, with its five dozen-or-so mirrors, is a major asset among major assets — seemed to have some air space on the sides downtown; here it crams the stage from wing to wing. So much for the notion of needing to enlarge the show for the move. At the same time, the Royale — er, the Jacobs — has fly space, with a massive upstage brick wall serving to crush down these struggling characters. If Crowley's set works perfectly in the new venue — and I wouldn't put it past this team of canny producers to have lined up the Jacobs in the first place and Fedexed Crowley the groundplan — the added height allows lighting designer Natasha Katz to delight us even more than she did downtown. (I still, after repeat viewings, marvel at the way she carpets the stage with twinkling lights in the hill scene.)

And what of the intricacies of making an Off-Broadway score fill a big house without adverse effect? Anyone who saw the show downtown knows this will not be an issue, not with 12 actor-musicians who play onstage throughout. (Downtown, many of them seemed to be musicians who act; up here, the ensemble acting has improved to the extent that the identical cast seems comprised of actors who play multiple instruments. And extraordinarily well.) Some of your big-budget musicals nowadays — Jersey Boys, Mamma Mia! and The Book of Mormon — have orchestras of nine, so Once is larger by a third. And there is something to be said for the sound you get from as many as eight guitarists standing in front of you, strumming together.

Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová at the Off-Broadway opening
Photo by Monica Simoes

Here we have numerous ingredients, all of which work splendidly alone and together. These start with the book by Enda Walsh, which is sensitive, evocative, and often wildly funny. The direction comes from John Tiffany, the movement from Steven Hoggett (the pair responsible for Black Watch). None of the three are musical theatre sort of guys, it seems. Maybe what Broadway needs is more non-musical theatre people doing musicals. Although having seen some recent musicals, let's withdraw that statement.

But it is the songs that are the strength of Once. This is musical theatre writing of a very different manner than we are accustomed to — no book songs, here, for starters — but in this particular case it all works. Splendidly. Yes, the score was written not for the stage but for the screen. Which signifies nothing. The songs, by the film's stars Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, work far better on stage than many written-for-Broadway scores I can name. "Falling Slowly," which won the Oscar for Best Song, is not unexpectedly the hit of the show. "If You Want Me" is just as good. "Leave," "Say It to Me Now," "Gold," "When Your Mind's Made Up," "The Hill": Hansard and Irglova keep impressing us. This is one of those shows where one character sings a song and another character says: "That's good!" This happens at least three times, and in each case the song is every bit as good as the on-stage character says it is. How often does that happen?

The music and the musicians sound spectacular from start to finish, which I suppose is creditable to orchestrator/musical supervisor Martin Lowe. Once is different than other musicals, and it sounds different than other musicals; but this is extra-special musical theatre. And let it be added that one of the peaks of the score comes when everyone stops playing near the end to give us an a cappella rendition of "Gold." Glorious, truly. Visit PlaybillStore.com to view theatre-related recordings for sale.

Kazee in Once.
photo by Joan Marcus

Given the nature of the piece — about a guitarist and a piano player who meet on the streets of Dublin — most of the songs feature the two leads. Steve Kazee is the fellow who had the thankless task of starring opposite Audra McDonald in the 2007 Roundabout revival of 110 in the Shade. Kazee was impressive for a virtual newcomer, but had an understandably difficult time holding the stage with McDonald singing up a storm and John Cullum chewing up the scenery. What a difference a few years makes. Kazee here is a Broadway leading man, and no mistake. His character is in emotional pain — "stopped," as the heroine explains — and a cry of anguish comes across in his voice in the very opening number, "Leave." Which immediately creates sympathy and interest in the character, the performer, and the show. Kazee entertains us all night, with his acting and singing and guitar playing; and when in the second act he finally finds something to smile about, it is as if the Dublin storm cloud momentarily lifts.

He is met every step of the way by Cristin Milioti. In the role of a Czech immigrant which calls for a humorous accent and a humorous demeanor, Milioti manages to dance on the border of too much without ever once touching her toe to the line. She, too, makes her character sympathetic and pretty much lovable in this unconsummated love story. And makes beautiful music, too.

The rest of the cast is filled with excellent musicians and some fine performances. Standing out musically are David Patrick Kelly with his mandolin (he plays the father) and Elizabeth A. Davis with her violin (she plays a Czech roommate of the heroine, with gusto). The fine performance from Paul Whitty, as Billy the music store owner, is even better than before. He was excellent downtown, but has added a layer of warmth to the comic awkwardness. You can't tell from the CD, of course, as hardly anybody has solos except Kazee and Milioti.

Kazee and Cristin Milioti in the recording studio.
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Which brings us to the CD of Once, which is what we are here — technically — to discuss. Needless to say, I think it is pretty nifty. That said, prior to listening to the CD I saw Once thrice. How would I react coming to the CD cold, without the advantage of already admiring the thing? I expect I would like the songs quite as much, but would I find the score — with its lack of plot-specific lyrics — theatrical? Don't know, can't say. I can say, though, that everyone who loves Once on stage will love the CD; and everyone who loves the CD will be eager to see this exquisitely special musical.

The 16-track CD, excellently produced by Steven Epstein and Martin Lowe, is also available in an online iTunes edition (with a bonus track) and an online Barnes and Noble edition (with two different bonus tracks). These three tracks are pulled from the 20-odd-minute preshow entertainment, in which the audience is invited onstage — with liquor service, at Broadway concession prices — while the cast perform as street buskers. Watching this sequence at NYTW, you noticed that audience members were up there thronging the bar. At the Jacobs, at least the night I saw the show, the audience members were up there thronging not the bar but the cast of musician/actors. Visit PlaybillStore.com to view theatre-related recordings for sale.

(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations" (now available in paperback), "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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