By Karen Sommer Shalett
On New Year’s Day 2008, a friend and her husband waxed lyrically about an indie flick my husband and I had to see. “The music, the soulfulness, the minimalism of the camera work and street set realism,” they said as they forced a DVD in our hand and sent us home to watch Once.
The story of an Irish vacuum repairman and street busker referred to as Guy, played by Glen Hansard, and a piano-playing young Czech mother listed in the credits as Girl, played by Markéta Irglová, went on to win an Oscar not for the duo’s heartbreaking acting, but instead for their songwriting. They had written all of the music, including the award-winning “Falling Slowly,” while actually falling for each other off-screen.
We watched the romance, swathed in tension and tough choices. I’m sure I cried. I always do. My husband downloaded the soundtrack and while we never watched the movie again, we listened to each track countless times, with the rich love and longing of the lyrics washing over us each time.
I knew there was a Broadway musical version with a book by Irish playwright Edna Walsh and that it had won some Tonys (eight, in fact) in 2012. I’d heard that the casting and performances of Guy and Girl were overseen in part by Hansard and Irglová well after the couple had broken up. But like the movie, I left the beloved indie project on the proverbial shelf, choosing to see other, edgier shows when I trained up to New York City.
So when Once the musical came to D.C., I thought it would make for a good date night. We could revisit part of the soundtrack of our marriage while enjoying an award-winning show. One problem — what to do about that movie on the shelf. Should I watch it again seven years later? I knew I’d be writing about it. Did I owe anyone a comparison between the two?
I didn’t really decide. Time got the better of me and I showed up at the Kennedy Center hoping I remembered the nuances of the movie well enough to do the whole compare and contrast. But, the movie was all nuance and subtlety, while musicals can’t be. The stage is set so far away from the audience, unlike the close-up shot of a camera, that movement and sound on a stage must be big enough to project to the very last row.
But the comparisons are going to end there — at least from me. You can Google to find a myriad of reviewers who are happy to tell you what was missing from one and added to the other. But, in my opinion, the show stands on its own. You don’t need to know that back story of how the musical came to be. It’s true, I can’t separate that I knew much of the music going in to the theater from my enjoyment of it, but I don’t think I would have needed to have a previous connection to the material to appreciate it as much as I did.
The show begins before the show actually begins. The audience is invited on stage to purchase drinks from a cash bar — the set is a Dublin pub — in a tradition that began with the Broadway run. Within 10 to 15 minutes of the play’s start, the ensemble comes onto the stage playing string instruments and singing increasingly rousing folk songs until audience members are quietly encouraged to go to their seats. The show transitions into the actual drama after the yet-to-be-identified Guy (played by Stuart Ward) is invited to choose the “next” song. It soon becomes clear that the action has moved outside of the pub where Girl (played by Dani de Waal) watches Guy as he gets frustrated with his street-singing career and attempts to leave his guitar behind.
The story progresses with the entire ensemble nearly always on stage, whether or not the focus is on only a few members of the cast or all 12 of them. The actors continue to play a variety of instruments including violins, mandolins, a cello and acoustic guitars, as well as an accordion, throughout both acts, rendering an orchestra pit (and canned music, blessedly) unnecessary.
Humor injected through a show about two lost souls who seem to keep making either the wrong or ill-timed connections in love is a hallmark of musical theater. The jokes make it cute. But the show is hardly without depth as Girl inspires Guy to re-embrace his music and use it to ignite his future, while she struggles with whether or not to allow her own future to catch fire using the feelings she has for him as kindling. That rich love and longing we felt from Hasard and Irglová’s original music is very much present on stage, with Da Waal showing her emotional range in the second act’s torch song, “The Hill.”
Ward, playing a far less plucky character than Da Waal, gets the lion’s share of the opportunities to go deep with songs like “Leave,” “Gold,” and just about anything else he sings, save the silly, “Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy.” But even in that song, he hurts and we know it. The only other emotion we see this much abundance for Guy is fear. And for him, I cried. I always do.