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

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25 Mar 2012

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This week's column discusses the original cast recording of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova's Once, the new Dublin-set Broadway musical.


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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