Once closed on Broadway yesterday with all the bittersweet energy of a band’s last charge. The cast, which doubles as the band, delivered plaintively passionate performances to an audience that brimmed with teary-eyed devotees. And me. I was the sole attendee, crouched in the third mezzanine, who came with virtually no knowledge of the show or its source material. I did not know that Once won Best Musical – and 7 other Tony Awards – in 2012, or that it won Best Musical Theatre Album at the Grammy Awards in 2013. I did not know that John Tiffany directed, that Edna Walsh wrote the book, or that Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, who star in the John Carney’s indie motion picture, Once, penned the music and lyrics for the musical adaptation. The only knowledge that I had was a vague recollection of The Swell Season’s Academy Award-winning song, “Falling Slowly,” from 2007. That said, I am a smart theatergoer, and my experience of Once the musical likely differs from most fans of the show.
Clearly, the show works well enough to have garnered the slew of aforementioned Awards and to have had 22 previews and 1,167 regular performances on Broadway. Let that marinate for a minute, because it’s a remarkable accomplishment on behalf of all the creatives involved. Still, from a dramatic standpoint, the show has its flaws. To me, chief among them is that the story lacks sufficient stakes and tension. Guy, the protagonist, wants to give up music because no one wants to hear his songs. Join the club. And Girl influences his choices and, ultimately, the direction of his life all too easily. She says, “Do this.” He says, “Okay.” Too little argument, too little struggle, seduction, manipulation, or negotiation. However, Once earns big points for the way in which its music works. It’s not a traditional musical in which characters suddenly sing, “I have feelings / Quizzical feelings / Equivocal feelings / About a boy / About a bird / About a wonderful encounter that never before occurred…!!!” Thank Christ and the Irish for that. Rather, Once’s score functions similarly to how music functions in the lives of singer-songwriters.
All of the songs are diagetic and reflect not only the characters’ emotional responses to external and internal forces that act upon them, but also their active will to effect change directly through music. We don’t see this often in musical theater. Even with jukebox musicals, writers tend to contort pre-existing songs to suit their story. Yet Once effectively shows how life inspires art and how that art informs life. My chill moment came with “When Your Mind’s Made Up,” an ensemble song in which the primary characters finally band together for a 24-hour recording session. Lastly, and again on this point, the Once cast kills it because they double as the band. It’s a brilliant creative choice because it reinforces the world of the piece and entertains the audience with yet another layer of artistry.
Hopefully, the success of Once leaves a door open for similar musicals to shine in its wake. Musical theater writers will do well to push in the direction of Once and to improve upon the model. Insofar as Once is a sign of things to come, songwriters and theatergoers have an encouraging future ahead of them.