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Once: An Impressionist Musical

By Adam Corrigan Holowitz, Oct. 8, 2017

The word “once” is a brief measure of time.

The musical “Once” is the examination of what, from the outside, seems like a very miniscule incident in time. That incident (i.e. the plot) can be summed up as follows “ONCE a guy met a girl, the girl got him to record his music and the guy moved to New York”.

This plot is a blurring of reality and fiction.

The musical’s two composers are an Irish born singer/songwriter Glen Hansard and the Czech born Markéta Irglová. They played the leads in 2006 indie-film, which won an Academy Award for the song “Falling Slowly” before it became the hit 2011 stage musical.

Prior to the film Hansard had worked as a busker and musician. During the filming of the love story Hansard and Marketa fell in love and were in a relationship in the years following the film’s wrap.

“Once” came from a place of semi reality. It is composed by two folk musicians, not musical theatre composers. As a result the score of “Once” is unlike many other musicals.

Not the Standard Lyrical Structure

The songs of “Once” do not have the standard lyrical structure found in many musicals.

The characters are musicians, they make music in their daily lives. The musical score of “Once” is made up of the songs that these characters write and perform in the pub, on the street and in the studio.

In a standard modern musical, the songs obviously propel a plot forward. However the music in “Once” illuminate the characters’ emotional position at a moment. The lyrics go into abstract depths in examining the minutia of these moments.

The musical elongates a very simple trajectory and reveals all of its rich complexity.

An example of this is the opening song of the musical “Leave” which is sung by Guy. The song stays with one musical idea for its entirety, but it gets increasingly more intense and lonely as Guy expresses the pain of his girlfriend leaving him.

Here’s “Leave” from the Original Broadway Cast Recording of “Once.”

In this way I compare “Once” to an opera which I consider to be its structural great grandfather. That work is the impressionist opera “Pelléas et Mélisande” by Debussy.

Here’s an excerpt from Robert Wilson’s exceptional production of “Pelléas et Mélisande.”

The opera’s plot is, like “Once”, incredibly simple.

The opera is the story of a mythical love triangle.

The story of Pelléas and Mélisande is the archetype of the love triangle.

Like “Once” the music by Debussy is distinctly anti-plot. It does not propel the story, such as it is, forward. Instead it delves with painstaking intricacy into the complicated emotions that the characters are experiencing.

“Once” is an Impressionist Musical

Like the impressionist painters of the time, Debussy is depicting the greater emotional resonance of the world, and not the literal world.

The same can be said for “Once.” “Once” is an impressionist musical. The songs are masterful explorations of the glimmering moments that make up the complex sensation that is living.

Rain, Steam, and Speed by English impressionist W.M.J Turner

“Once” is also a musical of archetypes.

Two lovers, a bank manager, a father, a mother/grandmother and young daughter among others make up the cast of characters. We know the names to the supporting characters but not the two leads. The musical’s brilliance is that it can look at the nature of love in a detailed way through two archetypes; a Guy and a Girl.

In the same way that the musical explores seemingly simple moments with great detail it also explores these seemingly simple character archetypes with great compassion and intricacy. The result is an entirely engrossing and compelling theatrical experience, which is never cliché.

I believe it is a testament to the tastes of commercial theatre audiences that “Once” became the Broadway hit that it was and is. While many musicals are now based on movies, the low budget independent film “Once” was at first glance not an obvious choice. It should be signal to producers that a commercial audience will embrace something that is strange, poetic and enigmatic.

Details Details
The Grand Theatre
Oct. 14 – Nov. 4
Purchase tickets online
Box office – (519) 672-8800


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Once: An Impressionist Musical

Keith Tomasek
8 October 2017
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