Broadway Favorites in England: The Book of Mormon and Once

By Steven Suskin
07 Nov 2013

Declan Bennett
Photo by Manuel Harlan

The show is a major hit, with my London contacts telling me that it is, by far, the hottest ticket in many years. The premium tickets, though, are considerably less expensive than in New York. This is not to say that people who can't score Broadway seats should consider making the journey to London. I can assure you, though, that the production at the Prince of Wales is every bit as sharp, precise and dynamic as the one at the Eugene O'Neill.

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My relationship with Once is not quite so familial, but I was an early supporter of the show. After seeing a press preview of the initial production at New York Theater Workshop, I emailed a dozen friends and suggested that they order tickets quickly, before the reviews came out. For various reasons, I managed to see the original cast five times. (Other than Mormon and Once, twice is my absolute limit. Although as a then-Tony Award nominator, I needed to see Billy Elliott three times — with diminishing returns, entertainment-wise.)



Mormon is a vibrant crowd pleaser that virtually cudgels you, in the most delirious manner, with wild humor and outrageous songs. Once is something else altogether: A mood piece that imperceptibly sneaks its way into your heart and takes you to exhilarating heights. Arriving at the Phoenix Theatre, I instantly noticed a perceptible difference. Audiences in the U.S. throng the on-stage pre-show bar, with entertainment provided by the musicians (who turn out to be the actors as well). While some hearty souls (tourists, perhaps) participated in the busking, the West End audience was far more tentative. This seems to be cultural; by half-time the audience was thoroughly loving the show, but they nevertheless avoided the stage bar at intermission (during which the "Gertrude Lawrence Bar," in the lower lobby, was packed).

Zrinka Cvitešić
photo by Manuel Harlan

The show itself — lovingly recreated by director John Tiffany, movement director Steven Hoggett and designers Bob Crowley and Natasha Katz — was very much the same. Stars Declan Bennett and Zrinka Cvitešić were reminiscent of originals Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti, but with slight differences. As the rudderless songwriting Hoover-man whose woman ran away, Kazee expressed an exposed-nerve anguish when he sang "Leave," "Say It to Me Now" and "Gold"; this is not so easily replicable. Cvitešić plays the Czech heroine with a warm smile that betrays a hint of humor and lovableness, which makes the plot's impossible romance seem slightly more possible. It's a reasonable choice, and it adds to the overall effect. After five magical sessions with Kazee and Milioti, though, I don't imagine any future players are likely to supplant them for me.

That said, the show works on all cylinders. Once is built on the power of the music and the musicians, and the London show is as every bit as impressive as New York. Some of the roles are cast and played identically, with others — like the cello-playing bank manager from Cork — quite differently but equally effective. The one element I missed, strange as it may sound, was Billy's beard. (Billy is the intense music-store owner). It's not that the bald-and-beardless London actor doesn't play his part well; it's just that after repeat viewings, that beard is as much a part of the show for me as the wash of Dublin city lights and the hero's dark-wood guitar with the light patch across the middle.

On Broadway, The Book of Mormon opened March 2011 while Once arrived the following March, placing them in different seasons (and allowing them to take nine and eight Tony Awards, respectively). In London, Once premiered a mere four weeks after Mormon, when the media blitz was still underway and even the most well-connected people in town were struggling to score Mormon tickets. This left Once fighting for attention and audiences, although my understanding is that the show is now doing well. The word of mouth on both musicals, as in New York, is phenomenal, and deservedly so. I emerged from the Prince of Wales and the Phoenix, on successive nights, thrilled that the London audiences were given the same high-quality experiences as at the O'Neill and the Jacobs.