THE LEADING MEN: Paul Nolan Explores Depth, Music and Vulnerability as the New "Guy" of Broadway's Once

By Michael Gioia
07 Feb 2014


Nolan in Once.
Photo by Joan Marcus

What was the song you were learning for your sister's wedding?
PN: It was "'Til Kingdom Come" by Coldplay. I honestly didn't start playing a ton until — I don't even know… It just kind of happened gradually. "Once," the movie, made me play a lot more, to be honest, but I couldn't play most of the songs. At that point, I didn't understand tunings, and eventually I discovered [the website] Ultimate Guitar Tabs on the Internet. The more popular that's gotten, the better the tab charts have been, so I gradually learned to play like that.

You were a fan of the movie before you went into the show?
PN: Yeah, I saw the movie on a plane from Toronto to Saskatoon on my way out to do a contract in Saskatoon, Canada. It was really new. No one had heard about it, and I [thought], "What is this?" I fell in love with Glen [Hansard]'s music and Markéta [Irglová]'s music and loved the movie.

When you're playing the guitar, do you feel more connected to the music and the material? As a performer, being accompanied by someone else and being accompanied by yourself are very different experiences, yes?
PN: The ultimate goal, for me, is to be playing so well I'm really not thinking about my hands as much. My interest in music is — whether it be Once or West Side Story — that it needs to come from the Earth, so it's like channeled through you. It's tricky when you've got to put a lot of attention to something that you're not used to putting attention into, for sure. Whether it be Tommy or Jesus Christ Superstar or Les Miz, I don't see music, ever, as performance; I see it as communication. The goal for me is to sing from the guts, and that takes time to build your imaginative world. When Glen sings his music, he's not thinking about performance. It's coming from somewhere deep in his psychology and his body. He's not trying to do anything. He's simply expressing his life through music, and, I mean, that's what Guy should be.

Obviously, this is a very different mode of musical theatre that Once has brought to Broadway — but I do notice, for me at least, [an] interconnectedness from where I choose to work from. I don't know if that's an intrinsic thing or if that's just me…

That's what Guy is really about — he lets the music take over him, and these songs are deeply confessional. What excites you about taking on something that makes you very vulnerable throughout the night?
PN: Well, being an artist is vulnerability, right? And, obviously, there are parts that you play that are less vulnerable, but to reach an audience, there's still vulnerability there. First of all, I don't like to discuss too much [about that side of] characters because a lot of the work is done by an audience… As an actor, you're already a part of a lot of different factors — starting with the script. The script really is our job — our job is to serve that script and to serve that music. As far as vulnerability, that's also my job — to let my heart out — and that's a work in progress, always. If your heart isn't out there, it can never touch an audience. People are moved by other people's vulnerability, at least in live theatre, and that, to me, makes it exciting. I have trouble talking about that side of things because so much of what we do is unconscious in the end, you know?

( staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)

Watch the pre-show at Broadway's Once: