I’ve been puzzling all day over how it came to be that Once won the Tony award for Best Musical in 2012. To be sure, the show features a lot of really excellent music; but music alone does not a great musical make. Or maybe it does? After seeing Rock of Ages and Once two weeks back to back I’m starting to wonder whether I actually understand the genre: both of these shows seem to use plot merely as an excuse to string a bunch of songs together, and while I enjoyed the music of Once far more than that of Rock of Ages, it too left me wondering whether what I was really watching was a concert pretending to be a musical.
Where the plot of Rock of Ages is deliberately and self-consciously silly, the plot of Once is both earnest and flaccid. The setting is Dublin, city of music. A “guy” (no name – played with moody anguish by Stuart Ward) is ready to quit his dream of becoming a musician and settle into a life of quiet desperation as a vacuum cleaner repairman because the girl he loves has moved to New York and now life no longer has meaning. He’s accosted on the street by a “girl” from the Czech republic (Esther Stilwell), who hears him busking and thinks his music is amazing; she is also a musician, and she convinces him not to quit and helps him get a bank loan so that he can record his music and go to New York and be reunited with the ex-girlfriend. Along the way the guy and the girl fall in love with each other, but in that “I can’t admit it” way because besides the New York girlfriend, the girl is also married, to some Czech guy who abandoned her and her daughter in Ireland but whom she expects to return. It’s a plot, in other words, largely without conflict or obstacles or suspense: they seek money from the bank and they get it; they go to the recording studio and make a successful album; the guy calls his girlfriend in New York and she is thrilled he’s coming; the girl resists falling in love with the guy and is rewarded with the gift of a piano and the return of her husband.
The plot is not only lacking drama; it’s also somewhat incoherent. At the play’s begin, the girl comes off as decisive and strong – she’s all positive energy and take-no-prisoners carpe diem – whereas the guy is hampered by fear, “wasting his life because he’s scared of it.” By play’s end, they seem to have switched characters – he’s boldly heading to New York to supercharge his music career while she’s timidly resigned to remain behind in Dublin. I believed his journey more than hers, primarily because we can see him gaining in self-esteem as the tiles of his life fall into place, whereas we are given no explanation as to why she loses her moxie in the course of the action.
But much as I found Once dissatisfying on the level of plot and character, I also found it, for the most part, deeply engaging. That’s because what it does most successfully is to explore yearning and need in many dimensions, mainly through beautifully written songs. Ward, as the guy, croons his character’s brooding love ballads with an edgy intensity, and Stilwell has a silky alto voice that flows like liquid, particularly in the haunting and ethereal “If You Want Me.” Every member of the ensemble is a musician as well as a character, and most of the songs are beautifully arranged to swell almost imperceptibly from a solo voice or instrument into a full orchestration and then to settle back again into solo or duet, a pattern that makes the longing for connection that is the show’s overriding theme palpable in the music itself. A particularly breathtaking number is the a capella reprise of the love song “Gold,” which feels less like a celebration of love than a wistful remembrance of something long gone. That song does what the show does at its best: it invites you to sit with the feeling of wanting something just out of reach and to ache with the music, for a moment, for what has been or what cannot be.
I could have wished for a lot of things from Once –more drama, more coherence, better dialogue, less cliché – but I could not have wished for better music, or for a better musical expression of longing. So: musical, or concert? – I guess, if you’re moved by it, does it matter? Something tells me this question is going to come up again this week, as the next production on my calendar is the opening of Looking for Violeta at Quantum Theatre. Stay tuned.