I know I’m not the only one writing about “Once,” but my wonderful experience last weekend left me needing to write about it. It is, without a doubt, the most powerful show I’ve ever seen.
I went into “Once” only knowing that it’s won a few Tony Awards, but I wasn’t sure if I’d like it because I knew it wasn’t my usual kind of musical. The entire show takes places on one set, with props and lighting as the only way to differentiate between scenes.
The music is mainly folk songs and there is minimal dancing. There’s no giant, energetic, show-stopping number; no fancy costumes or complex set changes; no orchestra besides the instruments played by the cast on stage. There’s not even a happy ending. But this simplicity, in contrast to traditional musicals, is part of what makes it so wonderful. I’ve been to many, many professional musicals over the years, and I have never seen something so moving, so well-written and so sincere as “Once.”
On the surface, the story is very simple. Heartbroken Irish guy meets Czech girl who shares his love of music, and what do you know? They fall in love. Yet the script is written so that we get to know the characters incredibly well, right from their first interactions with each other.
Girl is confident, spontaneous and speaks her mind, while Guy is shy at the start, visibly broken inside and has lost all hope for his future. (Yes, these are the only nameless characters, written in the program as Girl and Guy.)
Each of the 13 characters is so unique and well-defined because each actor speaks and sings and even walks with so much purpose, truly being their character and understanding the character’s thoughts and desires. This can be very difficult to do, and takes lots of talent and character development.
Little intricacies in the plot show snippets of the characters’ pasts and presents, their families and their dreams. Girl helps Guy gain confidence, bring his music alive again and they go as far as record an album together, all supposedly so he can win back the girl who left him for America.
We eventually learn that Girl has pain on the inside too, underneath her solid outer shell. In the end, nothing really happens between them, besides the mutual guidance, friendship and masked hints of love. They part ways, their lives only having crossed for a few days.
Never a moment passed where I wasn’t completely absorbed in the story, craving to know what happens next. Girl has such spunk and sincerity about her that I kept thinking “Don’t make it easy for him. You can’t kiss him yet!” and she didn’t let me down. At the same time, she is kind without a second thought, going out of her way to help him, at the same time giving herself a bit of the help she needs. We knew from his first song that the Guy is heartbroken, but even though his emotions are more visible, he’s somehow less predictable than the girl.
With the complexities of their individual family situations and past relationships, they both keep their feelings for each other hidden for quite a while. Watching it unfold, and not knowing when one of them will (or won’t) say something, or what paths they will choose for their separate futures, held me captivated in suspense.
The story alone could have kept my fullest attention, but the music added so much more. Instead of having each song fit specifically with the scene it took place in, which is what most traditional musicals do, the songs in “Once” are so honest, relatable and just beautiful. Every one of them could be heard out of context and still be liked by someone who’s never seen the show.
Additionally, there’s so much emotion in these songs, both in the lyrics, the music itself and in the way they were performed. During one of Girl’s more emotional songs I got chills; her voice and the piano accompaniment were so resonant and moving. And I’ll admit that I cried throughout the entirety of the final song, because the play had led me to care immensely about these characters and the music perfectly portrayed their emotions.
“Once” is an amazing show, unique in a way that makes it appeal to almost everyone, even for those who don’t usually like musicals. See it live if you can, or at least watch the movie—and you won’t regret it.