One doesn’t often think of Broadway musicals as having humble beginnings, and to call Once a rags-to-riches story would certainly be a stretch. However, while so many Broadway shows are based on blockbuster movies, Once stands out as being based on an independent Irish film made for $150,000 – a sum that some movies would spend for 10 seconds of special effects. Despite the meager funding, the film certainly made a mark, earning over $20 million worldwide and winning an Oscar for Best Original Song along the way. From these beginnings on film, Once was adapted into a stage musical opening in 2012, winning 8 Tony Awards, and handfuls of other awards.
As a stage musical, Once stands out for, above all else, its simple charms. Set in present-day Dublin, Ireland, the story follows a heartbroken, tortured artist referred to simply as “Guy,” who begins the show by giving up on the music he writes and plays, seemingly finding it too painful to relive the memories that inspired the songs. By a chance encounter, he meets a Czech immigrant known as “Girl,” who persuades him to keep pressing on with his music, all while the two of them grow closer to one another. Of course, this is far from an original concept – tortured artist’s heart soothed by true love – and the show does occasionally struggle to avoid going over the top. However, the emotions at the root of this struggle of heartbreak and opening up to new love ring true through the honesty and simplicity of the show.
Perhaps the most noteworthy feature of Once is that instead of a traditional pit orchestra, the instrumentation is supplied by the talent on-stage, performing double duties as singer/actor and musician. Blending elements of traditional Irish folk music, along with pop and the new trend of pseudo-traditional folk rock (a la Mumford and Sons), the musical numbers of Once offer a fresh sound and energy that stands out from the average Broadway musical – trading tap-shoes and sequins for exciting, stripped-down songs accompanied by spare yet striking choreography.
Once combines the strength of Oscar and Tony-winning work with the simplicity of sets made up of little more than rearranging a few chairs and tables to create a truly unique and powerful show. While it may avoid being “Broadway” in size, the performance never feels limited or small, but is instead strengthened by its minimalism. And though it’s themes may be modest, Once takes a unique approach to life, music, and love that stands out as a breath of fresh air against the average stage musical.
Once will be playing at the Durham Performing Arts Center through January 26th. For tickets and showtimes, visit dpacnc.com.