Once at the New York Theatre Workshop: Theatre Magic

Last week, my husband and I saw two musicals:  one on Broadway, and one off. One had a miniscule budget, one set, and no household names above the Marquis.  The other had a big star, a big budget, wonderful, witty costumes, and inventive sets that hydraulically moved on and off the stage.

Guess which one I left at intermission?

The Big Broadway Musical (BBM), while it wastes the considerable charm, sex appeal, and talent of its Big Name Star, will be a star-maker for its female lead. In her Broadway debut she shows talent, charm, and serious star power.  And still, I left at intermission. Why?  Because this show was a perfect example of “when bad shows happen to good performers.” They can throw money at it, flash at it, even talent at it, but in the end, it all comes down to the show itself.  And even re-tooling the book couldn’t help this one.  It’s just plain bad.(and I’m not going to say which one because it’s still in previews, and maybe – though I can’t imagine how, they’ll make it better.)

The other was Once, the new musical theatre adaptation of the movie by the same name at the New York Theatre Workshop.

Now, if you’re the type of person who thinks that it ain’t a musical unless a super hero flies by in a red suit, then don’t bother reading this review.

If, however, you are someone who appreciates that Musical Theatre is still Theatre (with a capital T), that beautiful songs and acting are all you really need, then read on. Once is for you.

The second you walk into NYTW’s Once, you know you’re in for something special.  You’re ushered in and invited to get a drink at the bar — which also happens to be the set.  The cast, also at the bar, is enjoying a good old-fashioned Irish “session” of singing and playing .

You know right away there isn’t going to be singing teapot in sight.

If you never saw the movie, Once is about a busker in Dublin, who is about to give up singing and playing guitar when he meets a girl.  She re-introduces him to love…but not in the ordinary boy meets girl way, and they make, quite literally, beautiful music together. And not just singing -the cast also makes up the entire orchestra.  They dance, sing, act and play multiple instruments. Amazing talent, all. (Full disclosure, one of the performers, Anne Nathan, was my friend at summer camp more years ago than I’d like to admit.)

The first song of the show is sung by the Guy, Steve Kazee – a bit buff for the part, but otherwise terrific. It is a raw, emotional solo and Kazee sings it with passion and palpable sadness. Yet when it ended – no one clapped.  Why?  It was so beautiful that clapping would have felt like an intrusion.  It was such a personal, deeply felt performance so as not to feel like a performance at all. Applause, the audience felt, perhaps without knowing why, would only cheapen it.

The show is filled with moments like that.  But don’t worry – there’s humor and fun, too.  Plenty of it.  The talent on stage is staggering. The girl, played by Cristin Milioti has a pure, clean voice that she infuses with depth and emotion.  My only criticism of the cast overall was that their accents varied in believability and consistency – sometimes to the point of distraction.

The movie upon which this show is based is said to have been largely improvised, and during filming Glen Hansgard and Marketa Iglova – who played Guy and Girl – fell in love in real life.  I was worried the show would be a glossy Broadway affair, that it would lose its spontaneous charm.

But director JohnTiffany has somehow managed to make what must be a very rehearsed show (actors as musicians/ accents/ interesting choreography by Steven Hogget) feel relaxed and unrehearsed. You feel almost like you’re eavesdropping – that you’ve gotten access into real lives.  (Albeit a life lived partly in song.)

Once reminds us that musical theatre is still theatre.  That acting trumps pyrotechnics, that a good book and a strong score performed by trained actors beats mass market familiarity. Being at the show makes you feel special. Like you’ve been chosen to experience pure talent, to feel true love. Go see it.  It’s the kind of thing that might only happen to you Once.

Once is playing now (officially opens tomorrow) through Jan 15th at the New York Theatre Workshop in the East Village. Tickets available at www.nytw.org


  1. says

    Love this review…but! If you’re going to review theatre, you can’t talk in code…esp for your non-NYC-based friends! And the name of the Big Budget Musical is???

    • says

      Well…I can’t say b/c it hasn’t opened yet. And b/c I feel bad. They’re all trying SOOOOO hard. Once it officially opens, I’ll fill in the blanks!

  2. says

    I LOVED this review. I’m not against Broadway musicals (almost laughed up a lung at The Book of Mormon) but I’m so sick of the big glossy ones, the ones that think we’re morons. And I hate the audiences even more: they’re so eager to get the most out of their $120 tickets that they leap to their feet at the end as if they’ve just seen a triumphant performance, instead of something designed start to finish to make as much cash as possible and then make more on the road.

    I didn’t even know they were taking Once to the stage – I have to see it. Thank you!

  3. says

    So now that it’s opened…and been universally, almost heroically panned, I can say the name of the BBM: On a Clear Day. Bad. Bad. Bad.
    And I LOVE cousin Harry. Yes, it’s true, Harry Connick Jr. is my grandmother’s cousin’s grandson. Which makes us totally NOT related…but still.
    Bad book, awful score, complete miscasting of a supremely talented Cousin Harry,who barely gets to flex his considerable musical chops and formidable voice. And who is stuck playing a sad sack almost stalker-ish loner. Charming it ain’t..

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