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Once: Just in Time for St. Patrick's Day

Once: Just in Time for St. Patrick’s Day

By Peter Filichia –

When the members of the Oscar committee first met in 2008 to discuss possible Best Song nominations for the 2007 film year, many felt that “Falling Slowly” from Once should not be nominated. After all, hadn’t it been heard in coffee houses and appeared on two albums long before the film was made?

Well, yes. “Falling Slowly” was written in 2002 – five years before the film debuted (and won many moviegoers’ hearts).

But the Oscar powers-that-be eventually took a more salient fact into consideration: “Falling Slowly” was indeed written for the film. Was it songwriters Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s fault that the Irish Film Board was strapped by some red tape and that the movie’s producers took years to raise the money? (And we’re only talking about $160,000!) Because Hansard and Irglová had performed the song here and there long before the financial backing was in place, should their lovely song be deemed ineligible?

Eventually, the Oscar committee decided that what had happened was beyond the songwriters’ control and should not be held against them. Besides, the song hadn’t been heard to any real degree in America; mostly it was done in Hansard’s native Ireland as well as in the Czech Republic that Irglová called home. “Falling Slowly” would be eligible for the 2007 Academy Award.

And it won it.

There was no controversy on whether “Falling Slowly” should be part of the new Broadway musical version of Once. It has happily been included along with seven other songs from the film. Hansard and Irglová, along with some other writers, have added five more, including the type of song we rarely hear in a musical: a sea chanty (“Abandoned in Bandon”).

For good measure, there’s a Slovak folk song that begins, “Ej padá, padá, rosicka,” which translates to “Oh, falls, falls the dew.” Other lyrics in the song mean “My eyes are sleepy … Yours are sleepy, too … let’s both sleep.”

All right, so it loses something in the translation. But the stirring melody doesn’t. Once has hauntingly beautiful music, and sounds unlike any Broadway musical you’ve ever heard. How could it not, given its Irish and Czech roots?

For the story involves an Irish guy and a Czech Republic woman.
Granted, their story is on the generic side. Original screenplay author John Carney as well as Enda Walsh, the musical’s bookwriter, as much as admit it from the names they’ve given their main characters: Guy and Girl. As for the plot: Guy meets Girl; Girl inspires Guy to cOncentrate more on his music and less on his job as a vacuum cleaner repairman; Guy loves Girl, but she’s keeping it platonic. There’s a good reason for it, as we later discover. And yet, we’re rooting for these two to romantically unite, because they have the ingredients necessary for a relationship to turn great: they improve each other.

Yes, Finian’s Rainbow offers its Irish characters the ample chance to sing Irish-tinged music. But it’s set in the mythical American state of Missitucky, and often sounds it. Once is set in Dublin – and sounds it, too – aside from “If You Want Me.” That’s sung by Girl early in the show – so it sounds Slavic. Ah, but by the end of the show, after she’s come to know Guy, the song she sings – “The Hill” – has a decided Irish-folk bent.

Another reason that Once doesn’t have that Broadway sound: not every number has a “button” that decisively and definitively says that the song is over. Some just stop. However, at the performance I attended off-Broadway at the New York Theatre Workshop, that didn’t prevent people from applauding – wildly, in fact.

Both “Leave,” Guy’s song about a former girlfriend, and “When Your Mind’s Made Up,” which concerns Girl’s inability to romantically commit to him, share the same feeling: Guy starts off being controlled and rational, but by the middle of each song, his true emotions fiercely emerge. And while Girl does sing “If You Want Me,” Guy must decide if she’s just singing him a song or if she’s also sending him a message.

A few words about the musical accompaniment: this is one of those productions where supporting characters also pick up instruments and play while the characters sing. It’s a style that director John Doyle has made famous, and one that rankles the hearts of many traditional musical theater enthusiasts. Characters in realistic musicals, they argue, shouldn’t be playing instruments.

But Once is again different in that the people here are in a pub, and it seems as the musicians in attendance are telling a story they Once heard. As is the case with Doyle, we do get the chance to learn that some people we’ve admired as actors have a talent we had no idea they had. We’ve seen Anne L. Nathan in Chicago, Ragtime, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Assassins and Sunday in the Park with George, but here’s our first chance to learn that she plays a mean accordion. Elizabeth A. Davis and Erikka Walsh add some nice violin riffs when Guy sings “Sleeping” that very much stress the lullaby-like melody.

So what we have here is a most arresting original cast album. Listen, and you’ll soon realize that when it comes to playing and listening to Once, once is not enough.

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.kritzerland.com;. His books on musicals are available at Amazon.com.