‘Once’ will open SCR's season with an unconventional musical love story

A girl walks down a Dublin street and meets a guy singing with a guitar, busking for perhaps the last time.

That’s how both the 2007 movie “Once” and the current musical version, which made its Broadway premiere in 2012, start.

But that could be where the similarities end, according to the director of the South Coast Repertory rendition of the award-winning musical, which runs Sept. 2 to 30 in Costa Mesa.

“The musical is very different from the movie,” said Kent Nicholson, director of “Once” at SCR, as well as a slew of other productions from Berkeley to Seattle to New York. “The movie is cinematic — it takes place in several locations. The play is set inside a pub. There are legions of characters who didn’t really exist in the movie. There are entirely new characters.”

Andy Taylor, the production’s music director who also plays the bank manager, a new character, agrees.

“On Broadway, the actors and audience members come on stage for what we call the pre-show. [Audience members] were invited to have a drink at a real bar, after clearing everything with the fire code, so drunk people didn’t fall off the stage. They were able to purchase alcohol; then the performers enter by 7:40, so the stage was pretty well peopled. There was a period when that was the first time that ever happened on Broadway.”

“Once,” winner of eight Tony Awards, including best musical, is a love story in the traditional sense, but it’s also an unconventional celebration — of music, of community, and of hard work producing a harmonious result.

All the actors onstage are also musicians.

As they did in the original American Repertory Theatre version in Cambridge, Mass., as well as the Broadway production, the performers for the touring show had to rehearse for months before appearing together on stage for the first time.

They practiced through Skype and Facetime sessions and swapped recordings online, Taylor said.

“It was like everybody was doing another play,” Taylor said. “That is atypical, obviously.”

To whet folks’ appetite for “Once” at SCR, the cast members performed a free concert of Irish-inspired tunes Aug. 23 on SCR’s outdoor terrace.

“The preparation for this show was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before,” said Amanda Leigh Jerry, who plays lead character “Girl” and is making her SCR debut. “You have to be on your game with the music. At first, we just start playing together as a band.”

Jerry, a guitarist by trade and training, had to learn to play the piano comfortably for her role — a Czech girl who was played by then-newcomer Markéta Irglová in the film. Jerry also had to learn a Czech accent with the help of a dialect coach.

“I have probably done more prep work for this role than any other project I’ve worked on,” said Jerry, a 2016 graduate of Carnegie Mellon University. “When it all comes together, it is incredibly moving, without any reason to muscle it into context. It’s so beautiful.”

The music and lyrics for the musical were written by Irish singer-songwriter Glen Hansard and Irglová, the duo who also wrote the music for the movie. Their ballad “Falling Slowly” won a 2008 Oscar for Best Original Song.

Irish playwright Enda Walsh wrote the book for the musical, also nabbing a Tony Award for his work.

“As far as film adaptation to screen goes, it’s very clearly not meant to be a one-to-one adaptation,” Nicholson said. “I’m my own director, playing around with different elements of it. How the music is portrayed is different — the musicians will be a little more front and center. By the same token, we’re not re-inventing the wheel. People still have an expectation of what they’re going to see.”

Though the “Guy” and the “Girl” never consummate their romance, all the players involved see “Once” as a touching and uplifting experience.

“It’s a musical romance, with two lead characters who never kiss, or never get together, and never end up together in any kind of traditional way, yet you still feel the impact of small actions that reverberate throughout the world,” Nicholson said. “These little acts of kindness show you the impact they can have. Watching the process unfold — characters come together and form a small community — leaves everybody feeling connected and moved.”

Jerry, who has her own following on YouTube, says she and her fellow actors and musicians discovered “many layers of interaction” through the rehearsal process.

“We are performers on stage, we are musicians in a band, we are characters playing in a lot of different contexts,” she said. “So there’s all of these layers piled up on top of each other — a beautiful conglomeration. I think that really comes across to audiences, but it isn’t necessarily something they expect to see.”

Music director Taylor will reprise his role as bank manager on the SCR stage. He’s arguably been in more performances of “Once” than anyone else — about 1,300 shows total.

“I saw every generation of it,” he said, including the original Cambridge workshop run. “It’s a wonderfully constructed story. Because of the music, we feel this magnanimous relationship with the music, and we become our better selves.”

A few special events are planned during the SCR run of “Once,” including post-show discussions with cast members on Sept. 13 and 19, and “Inside the Season,” a two-hour session of interviews with cast members and the production staff from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Sept. 23. Tickets for that event are $12.

If You Go

What: “Once”

When: Sept. 2-30; previews run Sept. 2-7, regular performances run Sept. 9-30

Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

Cost: Tickets start at $26

Information: (714) 706-5555 or visit scr.org.

RICHARD CHANG is a contributor to Times Community News

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