News Column

In this 'Once,' the orchestra's onstage

October 31, 2013


Oct. 31--One thing about Once : It's not the movie.

It's the international touring show budded off from the Broadway show budded off, in turn, from the movie.

Starring Irish musician Glen Hansard and Czech musician Mark ta Irglov , Once was a dark-horse smash in 2007, earning two Grammys and an Oscar. Persuasive, passionate, it's a busker's love story.

But Once in Philadelphia (Academy of Music, through Nov. 10) is different. Sure, it has the guitar-playing Guy and the pianist Girl, plus Hansard and Irglov 's poignant songs. The difference: Everybody in the show plays musical instruments.


Like John Steven Gardner, in the role of Eamon. He's a busy guy.

"In the show, I play guitar, piano, melodica, harmonica, and a bit of mandolin," he says, "and in life I can also play banjo and bass guitar."

Fortuitously enough, Gardner came to Once fresh from an all-musician As You Like It. "Very good practice," he says. Rehearsals began at the end of August, and the tour launched this month in Providence, R.I.

Gardner is the "musical captain" for the cast, in which capacity he ensures that "tempos and performances stay true to the integrity of the tunes from night to night." It's music, so "there's a certain amount of leeway for variation and doing slightly new things."

Musical director Martin Rowe, speaking to us from "a comfy chair in the lobby of the National Theatre in London," says the concept of an all-musician show "started with the two leads. It was when [director] John Tiffany realized we had to find an actor and actress who could play -- but then we said, 'If these two can play, why have a band and a pit with a conductor?' Of course, it was obvious: Everybody was going to play."

And the show called Once was going to grow beyond the movie called Once, to include 13 fully realized characters, played by 19 cast members, each a musician who moves.

Enda Walsh, the Irish playwright who wrote the book, "went back to the film," Rowe says, "revisiting every tiny moment, every relationship, and these began to grow. Remember the guy who owns the music shop, who hardly speaks? Enda brought him completely to life, and he plays an instrument. Remember meeting Guy's father? Well, we asked, 'What if the father played the mandolin?' We go to Girl's house, there are Czech people there, you meet them, you meet their music."

(In an artistic Q&A, Walsh said: "In addition to the story of the Guy and the Girl, we needed to be sure there are all these other love stories in the air. Each person is riffing off a love that's been lost, that got away.")

Some tunes are done pretty much as in the film. You couldn't do the Hansard/Irglov world smash "Falling Slowly" any other way than with Guy on guitar and Girl on piano. That's how the world knows and wants it. But other tunes are bigger and more ensemble-oriented.

"We auditioned and selected all these actor/musicians," says Rowe, "and right away we realized they were all at different levels and had different needs. Some, such as the string players, could read music, and some, such as the guitarists, tended to want just the lyric sheet and have me shout out chords."

Rowe is unfailingly generous, but, even if you're not a musician, you know it could have been a nightmare. "We worked our way through it," he says.

So the actors have to be good actors and excellent musicians, plus they have to be good on their feet, with choreography by accomplished movemaster Steven Hoggett. Which you'd think would be a handful.

But Gardner says, "You know when we knew the production was really coming together? When we'd be so into the music it was almost as if we weren't playing. A few nights ago, one of us came offstage after a number and said, 'Wow, I totally blanked. Did I actually play just now? I have no conscious memory of that.' That's how second-nature it's getting to be."

Since the production evokes such a musical world, "we wanted the audience, when they come into the theater, to step right into the midst of it," Rowe says. And that is where the idea of a preshow jam emerged.

"Every night the musicians do a preshow," Gardner explains. "It's totally not songs from the show, but Irish and Czech folk tunes. It's different every night, and the musicians really get into it. People will bring in different tunes, some familiar, some not, and maybe they'll play different instruments, or even instruments they don't know, but they'll learn them for the jam." As musical captain, Gardner is in charge of the preshow set list, such as it gets to be.

For Gardner, "the way we built the show in rehearsals, the music and the acting really grew into each other. And we've been encouraged all the way not to separate the two, to let them mix."

That heady mixture is what makes this Once different from other Onces. "In first national tours of Broadway shows," Gardner says, "it can feel like the job was to re-create what happened in New York City. But the first thing we were told was, 'We're going to stage this as if Once has never happened before.' "



Through Nov. 10 at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets

Tickets: $20-$115.50

Information: 215-731-3333 or

215-854-4406 @jtimpane


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