Once: The Musical
Performance date: 8 June 2013
Sometimes romantic love seems like a fairy tale, once upon a time, in a land far, far away, so remote from the mundane reality of sock sorting and grocery shopping, online dating profiles, curated selfies and carefully drafted text messages. Sometimes it teases you in a song – you can hear it but never participate. And if you find someone special, how hard do you fight the obstacles? When do you grip and when do you let go?
Once, a low-budget, naturalistic Irish film from 2006, sketchily explored these ideas and captured the hearts of film-goers with its bittersweet story of a vacuum-cleaner-repairing Dublin busker and a Czech immigrant cleaner with a musical soul. The simple story was deeply enhanced by outstanding music contributed by the film’s stars, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, with the song “Falling Slowly” beating out the usual ra-ra Randy Newman and Disney theme-tunes to take the Oscar for Best Song in 2007.
The film has since been developed into a Broadway musical, which picked up eight Tony awards in 2012. Now, Once: The Musical has opened in London’s Phoenix Theatre with new leads, Declan Bennett playing Guy, and Zrinka Cvitešic, playing Girl.
Given the no frills film, it is fitting that Once: The Musical eschews the traditional trappings of musical theatre. It just wouldn’t work with toe-tapping razzle-dazzle. Instead, its touching story is conveyed on one set: a semi-circular and functional Irish pub at which the audience are invited to drink before the show (with a stomping jam session from cast members) and during interval. Clever lighting and minimal props convey scene changes, and the supporting cast are often sat on chairs around the sidelines as the action plays out before them.
None of the charm of the original film has been lost – maybe it has even been enhanced through staging and the inspired book by Enda Walsh. Bennett transforms from sullen to liberated, and is outstanding performing the vocally-challenging songs by Hansard. Cvitešic is equally great, beginning with a beguiling free-spiritedness, but revealing glimpses of hurt as the story progresses. The Guy and Girl are well-matched, and the leads appear to have a genuine affection for each other which shines through the performance. The clever use of surtitles makes one of the most touching moments of the film, when Girl confesses, in Czech, “It is you that I love”, to Guy, more immediate.
The supporting cast are superb – all-singing, all-dancing, multi-instrumentalists that sprinkle some lighter notes into the show and provide all of the musical backing. A particular highlight is the group performance of “Gold” just before interval, building layers into the song not evident in the house party film version. “Falling Slowly” and “Gold” are both performed twice, wonderfully and differently, and there are some new songs to round out the folky smorgasbord.
With its inspired songs and avoidance of schmaltz, Once: The Musical may win over traditional musical skeptics. Luckily this type of heart-brimming experience can be easily purchased, because I’d like to be part of it twice at least.