Dallas — Tonight Theatre Three opens the locally produced regional premiere of the Tony-winning musical Once, which is based on the 2007 movie that starred singer-songwriters Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová in the lead roles of Guy and Girl. The story, written by John Carney, used music by Hansard and Irglová, who previously had the band The Swell Season. The movie won an Oscar for the original song "Falling Slowly." For the musical, Irish playwright Enda Walsh wrote the book and John Tiffany directed. It premiered on Broadway in 2012 and won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
If you’ve seen the show on Broadway or on tour (it came to both AT&T Performing Arts Center and Bass Performance Hall), you know that it uses the actors as the band, playing various instruments. In the original version, Tiffany put the action in an Irish pub. That staging is intellectual property, and so for the Theatre Three production, director Marianne Galloway uses the original movie’s idea of buskers, or street musicians.
“The streets of Dublin and its robust community of street performers … became important [in] that the experience begins the moment a patron opens their car door at the Quadrangle, where they may hear strains of a fiddle, feel the vibrations of a traditional Irish Bodhrán, or see a guitarist jamming outside the theatre,” Galloway says in the news release about the show. “When they walk through the doors of Theatre Three, they have entered The Pub: ‘O’Schmidtty and Brewer’s’ before moving on to the streets of Dublin on the Norma Young Arena Stage.”
This production features Ian Ferguson as Guy and Cora Grace Winstead as Girl; plus Matthew Cook (Billy), Willy Welch (Da), Katrina Kratzer (Ex-Girlfriend), Cory Kosel (Švec), Russell McCook (Andrej), Jo-Jo Steine (Réza), Kelly Winstead Miyake (Baruška), Dotty Rico (Ivonka), Alex Branton (Bank Manager), Jake Nice (Eamon), and Scott A. Eckert as Emcee.
Because of the use of singing actors as the band, TheaterJones talked to Music Director Scott A. Eckert about the audition process and balancing the sound in T3’s in-the-round space.
TheaterJones: Tell me about the audition process, which was different because actors came with an instrument they play. Did they sing a few bars, play a few bars, and speak dialogue? Does the score allow for adjustments depending on who is cast and the instruments they play?
Scott A. Eckert: Everyone was asked to bring an instrument or three and accompany themselves in addition to reading from the script. We did not specify what roles should prepare what instruments, we left it up to the actors to put their best foot forward. Multi-instrumentalists were encouraged. I didn’t get to pop my head out, but I’m told the lobby was something akin to an American Idol holding room. Thankfully, we were allowed and even encouraged by the creators to tailor the instrumentation to fit the talents of our cast. Our final instrument tracks are quite different from the original. We’re using more banjo, and we have added octave mandolin and classical guitar to add color.
What are the challenges of music directing a show that calls for the actors to play instruments?
Having done shows like Hedwig [and the Angry Inch] and [The Best Little] Whorehouse [in Texas] where the band is onstage and part of the vocal mix, it was not completely new to me. I approached this much the same way I would any musical. Vocals first, but unlike a typical musical where I would turn the cast over to the chorographer for dance, I had a second round of rehearsals for the instruments. Then, just as we would integrate the vocals with the dance, we integrated the vocals with the instruments. As with singing and dance, we made adjustments when it was not possible to do both.
The real challenge here is integrating the music with the staging. Most of the cast are old hands at playing and singing. But playing and singing while making a cross, then handing off the guitar so you can play a scene, then getting the guitar back so you can be the backup for the next song—that’s new. Add to that the fact that there is no “conductor” per se. I will be in the show, and I will be providing the odd cue as needed, but since there is no pit or monitor the rehearsal process has to be very focused on establishing collective tempi and pacing.
Marianne Galloway is using the movie as inspiration for the busker/street scene concept in this staging. Did you factor into that decision? Tell me about the process of picking the concept for this show.
I left that to Marianne and the visual design team.
Is there anything about the movie, aside from the busking concept, that provided ideas for this production and how it looks or sounds?
The concept of busker is, to me, a little more, say, unrefined than the inside of a club. I’ve given the musicians a bit more leeway than I would in a club setting, and freedom to “give me something not on the page” at times. Also, we’ve spaced the musicians out more, almost like various street corners.
How will it be different in this in-the-round space, as opposed to the proscenium version known to the people who have seen it.
In-the-round, there is, of course, no fixed “upstage,” just up of the action. By placing players around the set, and even up in the audience, we’ve made it more ”environmental.” You may have a violin next to you, or a guitar behind. Staging was tricky in that blocking had to consider who played what on which song. We have 12 actors playing some eight guitars, three mandolins, banjo, accordion, concertina, piano, bass, ukulele, violin, viola, cello, and drums of various sizes. Our job has been to integrate this huge musical presence into an intimate space without distracting from the story.
What are the challenges of maintaining proper volume levels and balance in this space when the instruments are all over the stage and in the audience.
We will be amplifying the voices, but not the instruments, except where absolutely necessary (like the electric bass). Because the ensemble placement is quite fluid, part of tech was to check the blend of each song from each section in the house. We adjusted as needed to create a stage picture that served the blend. Also, since we won’t be amplifying the acoustic instruments, I decided to double many of the exposed guitar sections from across the stage to make sure we aren’t favoring half the house. It gives an added texture and makes for a sort of “live stereo” effect. This goes back to the challenge of 2 people playing together from 20 feet apart without a conductor. Not everyone will hear the exact same show, but everyone will get a great mix.
There's a love story at the center of Once, but is this show more about the transformative power of music?
I think it’s the other way around. There’s a recording session at the center, but it’s about the restorative power of love, or maybe just faith. Guy could be a painter, or reverse it and Girl could be a poet—any artist who forgets why they do what they do. It’s about validation. (Lucky for me he’s a musician, ‘cause I can’t draw for shite).
Anything else to add?
To me, this is the play:
Guy: You want to play your songs to people who want to listen!
Girl: I am people! I want to listen!