"Once" More with Feeling

Kimberly Colburn
 | Aug 25, 2017



Amanda Leigh Jerry and Rustin Cole Sailors as Girl and Guy in Once.


Scott Waara, Scott Anthony, Andy Taylor, Zach Spound, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper in a performance on SCR's Terrace.


Christian Pedersen (Emcee), Marnina Schon (Ex-Girlfriend) and Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper (Billy) in Once.


Rustin Cole Sailors and Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper in a performance on SCR's Terrace.


​Cassidy Stirtz (Reza), Alex Nee (Andrej), Diane King Vann (Baruska) and Zach Spound (Svec) in Once.


Diane King Vann, Cassidy Stirtz and Marnina Schon in a performance on SCR's Terrace.


Scott Anthony (Eamon), Scott Waara (Da) and Andy Taylor (Bank Manager) in Once.

“If music be the food of love, play on,” Shakespeare instructed in Twelfth Night—when thwarted in love, music soothes. Jimi Hendrix said “music is my religion.” Even Friedrich Nietzshe, with his famously nihilistic diagnosis of modern life, said “without music, life would be a mistake.” Hans Christian Anderson said “when words fail, music speaks,” and that is true for many musicals. Once is no exception—it’s a musical that takes a typical girl-meets-boy love story and complicates it with real life.

The production is inherently theatrical, with the action unfolding onstage as is typical, but blurring the line a bit between artists and audience. The actors are all musicians, and the show starts long before the published curtain time. The actor-musicians will be playing music and serving drinks, inviting the audience to join them onstage, and even get a wine or beer from the “bartender.” Director Kent Nicholson explains the draw of the piece and its unusual framework: “Once is extraordinary for many reasons. The fact that the actors are the orchestra, the use of movement, the fact that it’s a romance but no one ever kisses. Many people are experimenting these days with musical form, and how to incorporate a sense of event into the form by blending the energy and excitement of a concert, and the narrative drive of a musical. It’s an extraordinary testament to the power of music and the power of story.”

The romance in question is between Guy and Girl. Guy is attempting to abandon his guitar and songwriting “career” (which consists entirely of busking, or street performing, on the famous busking Grafton Street in Dublin). Girl runs into him and insists that he engage with her. She presses and finds he’s a vaccum cleaner repairman…and she happens to have a vacuum that needs servicing! He agrees to fix it for music instead of money, and a new relationship is born.

Once the musical is based on a 2007 movie of the same name. The music and lyrics are by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, who met when they co-starred in the film Once. The movie’s haunting central love theme, “Falling Slowly,” written by Hansard and Irglov​á, won the Oscar for Best Song in 2008. During the making of that movie, Hansard and Irglová fell in love in real life. Hansard once said in an interview: “Playing a guy who writes songs and busks on Grafton Street in Dublin and falls in love with Markéta Irglova wasn’t very difficult for me. There was very little acting going on.”

Hansard and Irglová formed a band called The Swell Season and performed their music​—some of it from the movie, some written after. When the band went on tour, Hansard asked Carlo Mirabella-Davis, who was his film teacher, to document the tour. While he was shooting, Hansard and Irglová's romance ended, and in between performances, his camera caught the fraying relationship, captured in the documentary titled The Swell Season. They weren’t involved in the adaptation of the film for the stage, though their music was transferred and they both expressed their joy and appreciation of the adaptation. Both are successful musicians and continue to produce albums—Irglová now lives in Iceland with a baby daughter, while Hansard is touring Europe. Irglová has often expressed amazement at the continuing and varied life of Once. “Making something and sending it out into the world and then people not only responding to it but adopting it for their own and making a separate thing for it, that’s beautiful. It just shows you how much you can affect other people…the butterfly effect of everything you put into the world.”

South Coast Repertory’s production of Once captures the unique bond the musical creates. The rehearsal schedule is demanding, but the actors are committed to the music and have formed a band-like bond. They can be seen wandering the lobby and hallways of SCR, absent-mindedly strumming an instrument or counting choreography steps. They recently played a lunchtime gig together, on Ela’s Terrace, and showed the solid relationships they’d been building and showcased their musical talents. Several of the casgt have worked on Once before, including musical director Andy Taylor, who also plays the Bank Manager, a role he originated on Broadway.

Bono, of U2 fame, is another musician whose career was launched with busking on Grafton Street in Dublin (like the character of Guy and creator Hansard) and he claims that “music can change the world because it can change people.” Guy and Girl meet and get to know one another…but it is their bond over music that ultimately changes them.

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