Quiet Revolution: 5 Reflections on the Impact of ONCE

There are milestone shows in musical theater that we all mark as definitive. Give or take a show or two, most will tell you that certain shows land on that list. Show Boat, Oklahoma!, Fiddler On The Roof, Gypsy, West Side Story, A Chorus Line, Company, Rent and In The Heights are pretty safe bets. From the perspective of a musical theatre writer as well as a producer/director, I would add Once to that litany of material that changed how we viewed the art form. I’m aware of how bold this statement is and am prepared to defend it. In light of recent news that the Broadway production will shutter January 4 and with the new gorgeous first national tour on the road, I thought it was a good time to take stock of what Once leaves behind and what its legacy may mean for the future of the new musical. And trust me – It’s all good news!

  1. THE EXCEPTION TO THE ‘MOVIE-TURNED-MUSICAL’ RULE – As we have seen too often, film as a source material for musicals is a major movement and a risky one. For every Kinky Boots, there’s a Cry-Baby and I am still not certain we have figured out why one strikes a chord and another doesn’t. One thing for sure is that whenever musical theatre honors its own medium, the likelihood of success is incredibly high. Once did not attempt simply to transplant the film verbatim onto a stage. Instead, the essence of the film, the love story, and the music served as a springboard from which director John Tiffany created a whole new experience.
  2. AUDIENCE INVOLVEMENT – Many Off-Broadway shows and regional productions have experimented with a less passive theatre experience to varying degrees of success. But when Once invited audiences on stage at each performance to partake in both the onstage fully operational bar and live pre-show music from the cast, a new standard was set for Broadway audiences. Even now on the road (as of this writing, the show is sitting in Cincinnati), the tradition remains. There is no mistaking that the simple act of having REAL audience members enjoy a REAL Guinness in a FAKE European pub immediately set the tone the show needed. This won’t work with every show – but the idea of using the theater as a gathering space instead of merely a viewing space is one important lesson we should walk away with. And for those wondering, this worked perfectly – even on tour.
  3. HONEST EDITED DIALOGUE – For all the painstaking work that any musical requires, bookwriting may top the list. Writing a libretto is really hard work. And writing dialogue that is thorough without being wordy is even harder. So when a musical’s dialogue feels as if we have been invited into an intimate conversation, that’s a special thing. Enda Walsh’s dialogue – particularly between Girl and Guy – has such an honesty about it that you cannot help but immediately ‘know’ these people.
  4. TRIPLE THREAT WRITING – There really is nothing better than seeing a performer excel beyond words as a singer, actor, and dancer. Once has plenty of that. What is even more impressive is that the writing, the music, and the staging/choreography are so incredibly seamless. The show never stops telling its story. In those moments of brilliant choreographed staging, the ‘dialogue’ is as clear as it is when the characters speak. No movement – no matter how subtle – is ever wasted. Because of that, pace is near perfect and audience engagement is at its peak.
  5. SUBTLE SPECTACLE – Don’t get me wrong. I love a falling chandelier, descending helicopter, spinning barricade, and flying green witch as much as the next guy, but at the closing curtain of Once, I feel as if I have just watched a visually mind-blowing event. The musicianship alone is mesmerizing. Watching a group of performers paired with masterful writing (book AND score) and flawless staging is a spectacle to behold. And yet, the set never changes, the lights are awash in moody pub-inspired dimness, and the prop list is as ordinary as a simple vacuum. That, my friends, is no easy feat.

I will miss Once, as I am sure many will. (I haven’t seen The Last Ship yet, but I would imagine it owes as much to Once as it does to Rodgers and Hammerstein.) But without much reservation, I think it’s safe to say that its legacy will be regarded in years to come (as the New York Post pointed out) as “downright revolutionary.”

Watch this video on YouTube.

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