There are plenty of romantic Broadway musicals. But "Once," the gorgeously crafted and intensely moving new show that opened on Broadway on Sunday night after a seamless transition from downtown to the main stem, is part of a much smaller and more rarefied group: musicals that are actually wise — even when that means being counterintuitive — about the joys and anguish of life and love, and that send the viewer's mind spinning with ideas, feelings and maybe even a few changes in personal priorities. "Once" does all that. Several times over.
Here's how. The musical, which has a masterful, even revelatory, book by the Irish playwright Enda Walsh and earnest, unpretentious music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, offers simultaneous pictures of love in its many stages, even though it's centered on just one couple who meet on the streets of Dublin. (Hansard and Irglova starred as that couple in the 2006 independent movie, written and directed by John Carney, from which "Once" is drawn.)
In the stage version, Guy (Steve Kazee, whose performance has roughened and deepened greatly from the New York Theatre Workshop production) is the same street guitar player, emotionally blocked by his own lack of success and the disappearance to New York of the girl he loves. Girl (the exquisite Cristin Milioti, who just seems to float through the theater like some weird but essential Czech angel) is an optimistic immigrant and young mother who works through her own emotional pain by taking on a project external to her own heart and helping someone else realize his potential. We should all have such a person in our lives.
In other words, the central love story is one that floats always on the edge of Eros (there are subtle shades here of a reversed "Cyrano de Bergerac" centered on the heart rather than mere verbosity), which not only infuses the proceedings with both a startling intensity and a profound sadness, but also allows for a rush of understanding of what must happen to love when one of the lovers has, well, responsibilities that must be taken seriously.
In such circumstances, the show suggests, life on the edge of full love is the only life that can ever be beautiful. Furthermore, "Once" offers a rush of new understanding of how those who succeed in life and love often do so because an unselfish someone either talked them into getting out of bed in the morning or removed some great boulder lying in the way. Kazee and Milioti — not to mention David Patrick Kelly, who plays Guy's loving father, and Elizabeth A. Davis, who plays one of the many supportive Czechs who surround this Girl — are so precise and specific to a particular time and place that they become potent representatives of every moment of the heart in every stubborn locale.
Not bad for a little musical populated by 14 actor-musicians — all set in the middle of an onstage Dublin bar that serves pre-show drinks — and featuring a simple, folk-influenced score that's a long way from the usual pop-Broadway hybrid that dominates most musical adaptations.
But this is no traditional screen-to-stage adaptation. Rather, it's a textbook example of how to do it right: Chapter 1 being, forget most of the movie and build a show. Along with director John Tiffany and movement artist Steven Hoggett (whose unusual work is this show's most potent emotional weapon; you should see the moment when a mother wraps around a distressed soul with her body, as if she were a piece of clothing), Walsh understands that you don't need all the clutter of short scenes, merely the essence of the story that will allow human actors to forge a direct, live connection. Everything you see, hear and feel is inherently theatrical — literality drops away like Dublin street noise as you head to an undiscovered country, and you start to feel things that the movie simply could not make you feel. The characters deepen, and their dilemmas seem to pulse directly to you.
For all that, though, "Once" is not even remotely pretentious; it has lost none of its intimacy in the move to Broadway, and the performances have only become more truthful. The show is funny, and none of its deeper themes feel pushed. It's just so present and direct, qualities that few musicals manage, especially when adapted from other sources.
Here, Walsh works in all the great existential questions into little scenes with vacuum cleaners or pianos, or in recording studios: "Are you enjoying your life?" Girl asks Guy, implicitly noting, correctly, that one might as well enjoy one's life, for want of another viable option. At another moment, Girl says she wants to listen to Guy — that's all — and yet in Kazee's delighted face you can read the truth: that this is what we all want, to have someone who will listen to us.
Whether a broad Broadway public will take to "Once" is an open question, even if the brilliance of its constituent artistry will surely slay those who most appreciate this form of expression. The music, although beautiful, does not come with the usual tricks. There is neither digital scenery nor spectacle — although I swear I saw the streets of Dublin and the possibilities of the world beyond. This is a show that demands that its audience listen. But then, how can you love if you're not willing to allow someone, something, to be heard?
"Once" plays on Broadway at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St., New York. Call 212-239-6200 or visit oncemusical.com.
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