Being an understudy for multiple roles in a touring Broadway musical can be difficult, even under normal circumstances. But for former Deerfield resident Zander Meisner, being cast as an understudy "swing" to four principal characters in the tour of "Once" also means he's required to master 10 different musical instruments.
"Everyone in the show plays an instrument -- or four," said Meisner during a telephone interview from Providence, R.I., where the tour of "Once" launched before it debuts this week in Chicago at the Oriental Theatre. "The acting company comprises the entirety of the orchestra, so we play throughout the show."
This actors-as-band approach is just one of the staging touches by director John Tiffany that helped propel "Once" to rave reviews and eight Tony Awards including Best Musical in 2012. "Once" is adapted by playwright Enda Walsh from the acclaimed 2006 independent Irish film of the same name that won an Academy Award for actors/ songwriters Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova.
"Once" is a music-making love story involving a Dublin busker guitarist (just known as "Guy") who falls for a Czech pianist (generically referred to as "Girl"). But in Tiffany's staging, the musical almost entirely takes place in a recreation of an Irish bar by award-winning set designer Bob Crowley.
And like the Broadway production, Meisner says audiences are invited to order drinks from the onstage bar during the cast's half- hour preshow jam session of Irish and Czech folk songs.
For Meisner, who honed his musical and acting training first at Deerfield High School and later at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music, rehearsing "Once" has been a challenge. On top of acting the four characters he may be stepping into, he has to be proficient on all the instruments they play. That's guitar, mandolin, banjo, piano, ukulele, electric bass, a drum set, cajon, melodica and harmonica.
"The last four to five weeks, I've been making sure that I can play it all," said Meisner, not knowing if or when he'll be called to go on. This uncertainty also means that his friends and family in Deerfield might just have a few hours notice (or less) to see him perform if he gets to appear in the three-week Chicago run of "Once."
"I don't have any crazy understudy stories yet," said Meisner, who previously appeared locally in non-Equity tours of "Annie" and "Cats."
Still, Meisner is happy to be back in the Windy City, where he'll be staying with friends in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood and getting as much deep-dish Chicago-style pizza as he can.
"I'm religiously in love with the pizza," Meisner said. "You don't really get that in New York."
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