Book by Enda Walsh
Music and Lyrics by Glen Hansard & Markéta Irglová
Based on the motion picture written and directed by John Carney
Directed by John Tiffany
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on 45th Street
Official Website

Reviewed by David Spencer

I wonder if it matters that Once really isn’t a musical. All its songs, you, see, are source songs—a term of art describing songs that are consciously acknowledged as song. None of them are character songs or story songs or songs that are meant to stand in for speech as an organic mode of expression. Nor, strictly speaking, are they even theatre songs, but rather independently functional folk-pop songs meant to double in a theatrical context (written by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová  who, though not professional actors, starred in the film playing characters modeled on themselves). No, Once tells a story in which characters who are singing are consciously performing songs that one or more of them is supposed to have written; and never expressing spontaneous in-the-moment thought. (Of course the songs somehow reflect or comment upon the action, that’s stagecraft 101, but they’re not of the action, nor do they carry it forward, though, this being a love story, a few are used to advance emotion or expose it.) This technically makes Once a “play with music”—these days a label nobody much wants to be saddled with. But it’s true: additionally, none of its creative team has musical theatre experience (at least none they’ve put into their bios), nor have they bothered building Once as a musical; it’s really just an expansion of the recent, popular film on which it is based, preserving many of the songs from the movie and following a very similar story trajectory. However, the proportion of music to dialogue is unusually even, for a play with music, and the central character is a songwriter (albeit not a theatrical one) and the staging concepts are highly poetic…so for lack of easier categorization, Once gets to masquerade as a musical.

                        Really, though, it belongs more to the family of music-besotted events like Nicholas Nickleby, Amadeus, Coram Boy and the like—which is not bad company to be in—but is something of its own creature too, because far from providing an over-arcing epic, it is a simple tale of a chaste but intensely intimate love affair built on music. The two at the center are an Irish busker identified as Guy (Steve Kazee) and a younger, often comically sober Czech girl—yes, ID’d as “Girl” (Kristin Milioti) who finds him on the brink of not only abandoning his music, but his very guitar, and coaxes him back to inspiration, and even ambition. (One must note that the audience loves Ms. Milioti, almost upon the instant of her first appearance, with an affection reserved only for the rarest and most distinct of the “adorables,” the petite heart-stealers like Kristen Chenoweth, Barbara Harris and Alice Playen. She belongs to that tribe.)

                        The musicians are the generally excellent cast, the orchestrations are the sounds of Irish folk-pop (guitars, drums, piano, fiddles, cellos) and the evening starts with a “pre-show” in which game members of the audience get to come onstage and hear a little concert of energetic tines and while they’re at it have a pint of actual beer served from the bar set. All of which is important because the show means to tell a kind of pub story, and the bar floor and will provide the neutral playing space upon which all locales are represented, with whatever’s at hand in the bar for props. This is of course a rather ingenious (if also obvious) way of adapting a cinema verité style film, because it allows director John Tiffany to deliver the fluidity of suggestive black-box technique, which in turn allows virtually limitless geography, unsaddled by the need to literally change the set (instead, they sometimes, and quickly, change the configuration of set pieces, often as action continues), which in turn preserves the Aristotelian unity of place…wherever we may be, we never leave the bar that represents home and community. Fans of the film will note that there’s a new role—that of a bank manager who is also, conveniently, an aspiring musician (Andy Taylor), and that a cameo role in the film, that of a music shop owner has been greatly expanded into that of a sweet eccentric (Paul Whitty), very protective of the girl. It is in such delightful flourishes that Enda Walsh makes his bones as a librettist, even in this not-quite-libretto. (I must also note with bemusement that also in the cast is David Patrick Kelly who at one point in his career might easily have been cast as Guy, here though doing a nicely sensitive turn as Guy’s father.)

                        The show is all of a highly refined, atmospheric piece and in no small way a theatrical coup, but this is not to say it’s a slam dunk for your approval. En masse, the audience seems quite in love, but individual responses I’ve heard (and have) can run the gamut. I admired it in all departments and went with its mood, but I found the story too slender to be that attenuated, and found an over-reliance on ballads making it seem even slower. My significant other simply found it dull. A colleague of mine kind of shrugged and likened Once surprisingly, but not unreasonably, to an Elvis Presley movie (“Don’t give up your dreams, young man; you belong up on that stage!”), in which all the songs are similarly source songs. I know people who’ve made peace with it—some grudging, some helplessly, happily resigned—and, yes, some who flat out love it too. Because, as I say, it’s not a genuine musical, it doesn’t elicit reaction in quite the same manner as a musical—nor just to have it said, even an unconventional musical. (Believe me, for all the freshness of its combined, serendipitous elements, it ain’t close to breaking new ground; in its scenic fluidity, it offers no technique that wasn’t fostered by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt in The Fantasticks, which only goes back to 1960; and having cast members serve as orchestra goes back at least to I Love My Wife by Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart, as directed by Gene Saks in 1977.) In that sense Once merely recombines and rediscovers well-established tropes.

                        But that’s perfectly okay, because Once does it awfully well and is unequivocally among the major events of the season.

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