‘Once’ is the ideal 21st century musical

The transition between theatre and film can be arduous, and at worst, painful (sorry, Rent). Once, based on John Carney’s acclaimed 2007 film of the same name, successfully manages the transition in reverse.  The story tracks five days in the lives of two Dublin residents, one, a struggling vacuum-fixer who moonlights as a busker and the other, a young Czech immigrant. Both remain nameless, referred to only as ‘Guy’ and ‘Girl’ throughout the play. As Guy and Girl fall in and out of love, the emotions onstage fill the room, manifesting in a series of songs that are, at once, uplifting and heartbreaking, and, with each note, pull the audience further into the story.

Guy (Greg Halpin) is a self-proclaimed ‘sucker.’ He’s all but ready to give up music after a breakup with an unfaithful girlfriend shakes his confidence in both himself and the rest of the world. Enter: Girl (Eva Foote). Their epic begins when she convinces him to fix her vacuum, and after the two play a song together, they record an album for him to play for his ex-girlfriend to win her back. The two spend time together writing and recording, and, before long, they fall in love. But Girl has a husband in the Czech Republic and a young daughter to care for, and Guy, while falling for Girl, is still pining for his ex-girlfriend.

Once feels as much like a live concert as it does a musical. The orchestra is made up of members of the cast, creating a folksy atmosphere—performances feel spontaneous and genuine. The preshow cements the bond between actor and audience, as the cast plays a short set of traditional Irish songs in the lobby before moving inside the theatre, inviting the audience to take their seats and enjoy what feels like a spontaneous jam session that one might stumble across in a lively Dublin pub. The original music was composed by folk-rock duo Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, known as The Swell Season. Their songs carry this conceit, relying on the ensemble band to create a full sound that heightens the vast breadth of emotion portrayed through dialogue.

Once is a tale of missed connections, only the connection isn’t missed, it’s just not right, which makes it all the more heartbreaking to watch. Hearing the subject of Guy’s emotionally-wrought songs turn from an off-stage lover to Girl, who stands before him, evokes both hopefulness and heartbreak. Every song seems to tap into the root of those emotions. Though the reprise of the track that played when Guy first recognized his feelings for Girl strikes an emotional chord, the moment when  Girl whispers ‘go,’ urging him to leave her as the ensemble swells around them truly cuts the deepest.

Once is the kind of show to see for a profound emotional experience. The feelings spill off the stage, out of the theatre, and stay with the audience long after they leave. The story harnesses the power of music to unite and quickly overwhelms the audience with its bittersweet sentiment. Once is exactly what a 21st century musical should be: A story told through song without the frills or cloudiness of complicated choreography that so often muddles musicals.


Once is playing until Oct. 28th at the Segal Centre.


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