An intimate musical on a grand stage, Once cleverly entwines its songs and story by telling a tale of people with music in the blood.

By Peter Craven.

Stage version of Once hits the right notes

The Once leads, Tom Parsons and Madeleine Jones.
The Once leads, Tom Parsons and Madeleine Jones.

In this story

Once is that fuzzy, improvised Oirsh musical, set in a Dublin that seems ambiguously like a transit lounge to a larger world, and it’s full of attractive, folk-rockish songs and a great clamour of dramatic orchestration that make it a very attractive show. Very “now”, too, in its relative lack of histrionics. It’s a boy meets girl affair – his bright, brilliant future as a rock star; her misgiving love, her child and Eastern European background. Once was originally an offbeat movie but it was transformed for the stage with a script by Enda Walsh of Disco Pigs fame, and it comes to Australia with the benefit of John Frost’s enthusiasm for the musical and his millions. It also has the benefit of the way the British director John Tiffany (who did the famous show about the Black Watch) actually packed up his bags and came and lived in Melbourne for the weeks of rehearsal rather than just flying in at the last minute to put some finishing touches on someone else’s duplication of his work. 

It shows because every so often there are moments when Once looks like the work of a director of genius. And where it sometimes looks a bit slack and mousy, a bit laid-back and tossed together, it is all part of the trick with what is effectively a sort of anti-musical that everyone (including the sort of young person who associates musicals with parental poison and pap) is going to find pretty endearing. I didn’t think either of the leads – Tom Parsons as the Guy, the dominant genius whom the woman pushes into life by making him realise the value of his art, or Madeleine Jones as the Girl so-called, the Czech mover and shaker – were brilliant. But they can sing a bit like angels and they can act well, without hamminess or falseness. What more do you want? We’re not talking Porgy and Bess or My Fair Lady

The musical is routinely dubbed the one original theatrical form America has invented, largely on the basis that, from the time of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! in 1943, it came to be a crypto-operatic form in which the book (that is, the script) and the music formed a continuous dramatic whole. That’s why, theatre directors will tell you, the Moss Harts and the Hal Princes are the highest and mightiest lords of the theatre, because they found the magical key to how you make that transition between speech and song. Maybe it was implicit in Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera or, before him, in Gilbert and Sullivan, but the Americans found it for themselves. Before Rodgers and Hammerstein, the book of a musical had been a thing of air – the plot of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes (1934), say, despite the contribution of P. G. Wodehouse, is just a flimsy platform for “You’re the Top” and all the rest. But if you look at Porter’s work after World War II, you can see the difference. Think of Kiss Me, Kate, his The Taming of the Shrew musical, or High Society, with its script from The Philadelphia Story (a movie crying out for the stage even though it was a vehicle for Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Grace Kelly).  

Putting the drama back into the musical – and therefore a heightened theatricality back into the song – might be symbolised by “The Rain in Spain” and the moment where Eliza’s triumph of elocution issues into a wild and rollicking tango, sung with the unmusical Higgins. 

After this the musical goes in different directions. There’s Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, with its Ingmar Bergman-derived book and its great hit “Send in the Clowns”, as his tribute to the older, classic style. There’s Cabaret, which has a much more dramatically viable script – dipping its lid to Isherwood’s gayness – in the film version rather than the original stage show, as well as more good songs, a lot of which have the advantage of being literally performed by Sally Bowles, the singer, as part of the action of the show. After its 20-year heyday the musical goes every which way: Sondheim’s postmodern melodic minimalism, Andrew Lloyd Webber sung-through operatics (with Les Mis as a Gallic cousin), the jukebox musical – Jersey Boys, Mamma Mia!, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

All of which is pertinent to Once because it’s a jukebox musical that isn’t. It carries its own jukebox with it via the simple enough ploy of being a show about a bloke who has a great musical future ahead of him – and here are the songs to prove it. 

It was a big sumptuous Melbourne opening at the Princess, the refurbished Victorian monstrosity of gilt and plush where the ghost Federici stalks, though all of that was in sharp contrast to the show we were seeing. Once was hailed by Ben Brantley, the New York Times theatre critic, as a new kind of musical, and you can see why. It opens in a pub, or one of those styleless Irish approximations, and part of the brilliance of the staging is that public bars and stores that sell vacuum cleaners or pianos or the Lord knows what all blend into each other as part of the endless casual blarney of a workaday world. 

The Guy fixes vacuum cleaners. He’s all muffled understatement until he meets the Girl, who rapidly discovers, because music is the shared idiom of their souls, that writing and singing songs is what he must do. 

It’s certainly the case that the songs he’s provided with as the signature of both his feelings and his worldly destiny are very attractive and viable. In animating a kind of soft but sophisticated style that stretches back to the smoother singer-songwriter contemporaries of Dylan, Once provides its quiet, lived-in Irish world – the kind of world where Van Morrison is as heroic a name as James Joyce – with a very flexible music theatre rhetoric. It helps tremendously – and it’s very clever – that the Girl should come from a family that’s musical to its back teeth, in the manner immemorially reverenced by the lilting rollicking Irish, though her relatives are classical and bohemian. And some of the most magical moments in Once come when these fun-loving belters take centre stage. 

The endearing Keegan Joyce – Arnold, Josh Thomas’s love interest in Please Like Me – is one bashful, angel-faced member of the company. But Amy Lehpamer as a goer in a tight skirt armed with a fiddle is a lioness of musical theatre mastery, such a goddess of sexiness and theatrical elan that you want to cheer whenever she appears.

Once warms the heart most of the time. It’s a show that has a satirical relation to the audience’s expectations. Tiffany deconstructs the audience’s preconception of a glitter musical by providing a more or less flawless simulacrum of a cheap threadbare world, just getting by with the fierce pride of working people who know they are all “princes” and the deeply complementary fire of the Czech immigrants with their own pride and shadow and sorrow. 

It all adds up to a peculiar magic naturalism. Its flexible box of theatre tricks – rather brilliantly effected by Bob Crowley’s very nifty design – allows the big old theatre to accommodate the kind of fold-up macramé set that you’d expect to substitute for a world in a good director’s hands in a pocket handkerchief theatre such as Fairfax Studio in Melbourne’s Arts Centre. In any case, it is a feat of magic that Tiffany can achieve this little-theatre effect in the Princess and still make us feel that we are in the presence of that old foot-tapping heart-warmer, the musical.

Well, he does. The music, though not staggering, is pretty good and both Parsons and Jones sing it with a soaring authenticity and style that makes it seem as natural to its moment as “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” or “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” must have seemed to theirs. Parsons shuffles about, a shy bloke just shaking himself into life, and because there’s a credible contrast between the naturalistic ordinariness of his manner and the believable but very satisfying quality of his music, the performance works. And Jones is good and gutsy as the Girl. She captures the right degree of Slavic intensity and mature power of restraint. 

Once is not the West Side Story or the Oliver! of the 2010s. But it is something, a sidelong, half-subtle, half-obvious take on music-making as the most workable and in some ways deeply felt metaphor for the artist (and maybe for the soul striving for immortality) that we have. He’s a real rock star, we say. A real one? One who’s apprehended through a realistic theatre? Well, why not make a musical out of that.


Arts diary

• FASHION Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion

Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, November 1-February 15, 2015

• MUSIC Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival 2014 

Various venues, Sydney, November 5-12

• FESTIVAL Hepburn Springs Swiss and Italian Fiesta

Hepburn Springs, Victoria, November 12-16

• THEATRE Othello

Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide, November 14-30

1 . Last chance

• MUSIC Daniel de Borah and the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra: Appalachian Spring 

Melbourne Recital Centre, Southbank, November 9

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 8, 2014 as "Born to strum".

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Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.

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