Once the Musical: The best show you have never heard of


By Emma Birkett

Once is an unusual award winning musical. It’s based on a film where the lead characters don’t have names and its sweeping love story doesn’t neatly categorise or preach.

More importantly there is also a real bar on stage. No really. This is where theatregoers can go before performances start and during the interval and purchase drinks served by cast members.

It really is a truly unique interactive experience. Not your usual presentation of high-gloss, razzle-dazzle offered up by such permanent West End residents such as Wicked or We Will Rock You.

Unfortunately, I also suspect as a result of this, it’ll end up in the category of best musical you’ll never have heard of and be cancelled fairly soon into its debut West End run.

And what a crying shame that would be.

Once is yet another musical import from America’s capital of musicals, New York. It won eight prestigious Tony awards (the theatre equivalent of the Oscars) including one for best new musical.

Incredibly intimate, the entire show is performed on one set and the cast are for the most part always on the stage.

In fact, the set-up rather feels like you have intruded into someone’s private life at a time of personal crisis.

Location changes are indicated by a clever system of lightening and positioning of cast members and clever dialogue.

The plot itself is fairly standard. A heartbroken Irish song writing musical genius and vacuum repair man meets a quirky upbeat immigrant Czechoslovakian with a perchance for talking to pianos.

It’s what they do with this standard plot which takes it from being predictable fare to something else entirely.

The two leads practically sizzle with chemistry and yet not once do we have a single kiss exchanged. It’s all told through song, actions, and, at some points, ingenious use of subtitling.

The performers also double as the orchestra and they are all equally as outstanding in musical ability as they are in the acting field.

The majority of the ten supporting cast members have all been assigned at least one specific character to play.

I found this to suit the intimate nature of the play far better than having nameless rent-a-crowd figures hovering around on stage.

The two leads are superbly played by Declan Bennett and West End newcomer Zrinka Cvitešić .

Fantastically supported by a talented collection of West End regulars and musicians, the show reflects a production which prizes content over looks.

Once is funny, heartfelt and poignant. It has a simple overriding message that the essence of music is love and vice-versa and told through soulful songs.

The only thing I wasn’t particular keen on was the inclusion of some background interpretive dancing in a couple of the more emotional solo numbers.

I recognise that some people appreciate having something to watch whilst people sing, although personally thought it was fairly unnecessary, as the songs are extremely powerful on their own.

That minor criticism aside, I completely and utterly 100% recommend this musical to anyone.

It is a fairly realistic look at love and relationships of all kinds, taking in modern day issues and set in the not too far away location of present-day Dublin.

Rotten Tomatoes, the popular film review website, captured the spirit of the Once plotline best by saying that it harked back to an era before Hollywood largely lost the ability to distinguish between romance and sex.

So before it is too late, go and see this musical.

Photo courtesy of Broadway Tour, with thanks.

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