Once in a decade a show comes to Broadway that redefines what we mean by “Broadway musical.” Once is the show of this decade. It has choreography without dance, show-stopping music without belting, laughter without jokes, central figures without names, and a love story without a single kiss. Once you’ve seen Once, you will have a completely different idea of what a Broadway musical can be.
Once upon a time in Dublin, a guy met a girl. The guy was a busker, the girl was a Czech immigrant. Once upon a time his music soared, but as this show begins, he has given up on music, and given up on life as well. He is headed for the bridge over troubled waters when the girl stops him and tells him that his music has value. What she means is that his life has value. Once she comes into his life, his life changes. For once, and always.
Onceis based on an independent film of the same name whose central song, “Falling Slowly,” won the Academy Award for Best Song in 2007. Those who saw the award show will remember the humble, unbridled joy of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, who wrote the music and directed and starred in the film, as they accepted the Oscar. They were so overjoyed that host Jon Stewart brought Marketa back out after the commercial break to finish her speech, which had been cut off by a thoughtless timekeeper. Class act, Jon.
As good as Hansard and Irglova were in the film, however, they can’t hold a candle to the performances of Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti as the guy and girl onstage in the Broadway production of Once. Milioti is particularly earnest and charming as the girl, who elicits gales of laughter from the audience even when she is simply reminding the guy, “I am serious. I’m Czech.” Tiny but powerful, she seems to personify the word “hope.”
The score by Hansard and Irglova is pure Irish folk, but this is no “Riverdance.” The songs convey a deep, plaintive resonance that matches the plaintive, unrequited longing of the guy and the girl. Unlike typical Broadway shows in which people suddenly break into song in the middle of a conversation, the music here is an integral part of the story. Characters sing because that’s what they are doing — on a street corner, in a recording studio, at a pub or a family gathering. Music is as natural to them as speaking or breathing, and as essential. In this show, music doesn’t interrupt the flow of the story; it is the story.
The music is played onstage by a crew of talented “buskers” who weave seamlessly into roles as minor characters in the story and back out again as street musicians performing at a pub or on a sidewalk. The effect is mesmerizing. It’s intensified by the fact that the set is an active onstage pub where audience members can buy drinks and mill around with the musicians before the show and during intermission. Everything else is created through imagination — a chair becomes a living room; two tables create a bedroom; several tables become an apartment. All of this occurs in the blink of an eye and the whirl of a table as the busker-musicians act in carefully choreographed unison to move the furnishings and props on and off stage. There is no dancing in this show, but there is some stunning choreography.
The dialogue is modern Irish too, and by that I mean it is peppered with the f-word. But the way they use it, as an adjective and an interjection, is somehow gentle and not at all offensive. It is just part of the Irish accent, as anyone knows who has spent much time in Ireland recently. They use it almost caressingly, with a soft vowel to match their soft personalities.
Once a Broadway musical had to end with a wedding. In fact, it would often end with two or three weddings, as the oft-mismatched couples in the story finally sorted themselves out into appropriate pairings. Audiences sighed with cathartic relief and left the theater smiling. But life isn’t a fairy tale, and relationships more often end in the reality of unrequited love; the mismatched couples are already matched with someone else, and those previous entanglements simply won’t be sorted out. What resonates in Once is that the relationship between the guy and the girl celebrates a true love that transcends romance. It is deep, whole, and pure. Like the music.
Eleven Tony nominations. Every one of them richly deserved. If you are in New York this year, even once, don’t miss the chance to see Once.
Once,directed by John Tiffany. Bernard B. Jacobs Theater, New York City. Discount tickets usually available through broadwaybox.com.