ONCE seen, never forgotten, but you won’t have seen Once like this before, except in…Ipswich or Hornchurch.
First a cult, micro-budget Irish film written and directed by John Carney in 2007, then a Broadway, West End and Dublin show, Once The Musical embarks on its first British tour in January, playing the Grand Opera House, in York, from February 3 to 8.
Telling the uplifting yet yearning story of the hopes and dreams of two lost souls, a Dublin street busker and a Czech musician, who unexpectedly fall in love, Once is being directed by Peter Rowe with musical supervision by his regular cohort Ben Goddard.
The cast will be led by Scotsman Daniel Healy as Guy and Emma Lucia, from Durham, as Girl, reprising their roles from 2018’s premiere at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, and Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch.
The company invited press and media to meet them three weeks into rehearsal at Toynbee Hall in London’s East End: a question-and-answer session introduced with rousing performances of Irish ceilidh songs and the show’s opening scene, leading to Healy and Lucia’s performance of the Oscar-winning signature song Falling Slowly, with all the actor-musicians playing their part around them, “leaning into the story” in the pub setting.
“This production is very different to the West End,” says Ben. “We very much started, as we would do with any story, any musical, by taking it off the page and then basically trying to get as many people as possible into the story we present on stage.”
Peter says: “What’s particular about this production is that everyone on stage is telling the story and that gives it a real charge. We have skilled actor-musicians trying to re-create the acoustic sound of Irish pub songs, and rather than trying to make it a bigger razzmatazz production, we want to draw people in.”
This reflects the song-writing of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová that frames Irish playwright and screenwriter Enda Walsh’s story of the Guy and the Girl’s relationship across five short Dublin days.
“Glen is a singer-songwriter who writes thoughtful songs from the heart, and so our production is an extension of that,” says Ben. “That’s the difference from other musicals: the music really does the job for you.”
Peter says: “You can feel that the band are impressed by this man, his voice and his music, and they become part of the flowering of his songs.”
He and Ben have worked regularly in the actor-musician world of theatrical performance. “That’s pretty much what we done with all the work we’ve done together, but putting the band together for this show has been very challenging, bringing together the right collection of people,” says Ben.
“Not just how they each play, but how they play together and work together, so that we have a combination of people to make the story work.”
Peter concurs: “Seeing an ensemble of 16 with all that skill, swapping instruments, will be a pleasure for the audience.” Ben rejoins: “I think we’ve found a combination where the levels of performance are pretty much at a peak, which is hard to find, with everyone showing their powers of musicianship and their acting chops.”
Peter’s research took him to Dublin for the “terrible task” – said with his tongue in his cheek – of visiting as many pubs as possible, combining the pleasures of an Irish pint with taking photographs of the pub interiors and the musicians playing there, and now bringing that atmosphere to the stage.
At its heart, Once is a love story. “But it’s also an unrequited love story, the most painful of all love stories, and that’s why Once really gets to people,” says Peter.
“It’s the lives that you don’t live that you think about: if only you had turned left rather than right, and everyone recognises that story in the songs. And these are not musical theatre songs where people get to the point where they can’t say anything more without bursting into song.
“Here it’s a different convention. The songs in Once stand alone; they’re mostly solo songs or duets that are being sung in the street or Billy’s music store, so they have a naturalistic place in the story.”
Ben adds: “The story in Once came from an already written collection of songs, and with those songs being strong, a very strong story followed. At the start, the Guy seems quite repressed when he talks to the Girl, but then all the passion he felt in his failed relationship comes pouring out in his songs.”
Working in tandem with their regular choreographer, Fran Jaynes, Peter and Ben have made a point of changing the way musicians were used in past productions of Once The Musical. “When we saw it in London, they were on stage, to the left and to the right, watching what was going on, but, for me, they never really felt part of it,” says Ben. “But we’ve been involved in actor-musician work for a long time, and we’ve found it really potent to take their involvement further.”
Peter adds: “We could see the show’s potential as an actor-musician piece, and we just felt we could do more with it, making the most of the ensemble.”
In what way? “Using everybody on stage at all times, it’s like a European troupe of actors, where they all tell the story,” says Ben.
“But we also spent a long time trying to get the right chemistry in the whole cast, though the two leads, Daniel and Emma, had to come first.”
Once The Musical runs at Grand Opera House, York, from February 3 to 8 2020. Box office: 0844 871 3024, at atgtickets.com/York or in person from the Cumberland Street theatre.