Once: At the heart of musicals

We as human beings have an insatiable need to know. The world is filled with mysteries that we must attempt to unravel in an effort to understand; to know. Even as children, we love to ask ‘Why?’ – this is partly just to irritate our parents to the point of nervous breakdown though. Sometimes the questions we ask are huge, delving into the mysteries of the universe and the reason why we are here. Sometimes the questions are smaller. It makes them no less important though.

As a theatre-based writer, I have often been asked, ‘What makes a good musical?’. As with most things in life, there is no simple answer to this question. In any show, there are many different aspects to take into consideration, such as the score, the book, the design, the actors and so forth. These aren’t always the be-all-and-end-all of a show though. Two different shows may both have a weak story for example, but while one may sink under the weight of failure, the other may progress regardless. So is there a definitive answer here? Probably not, but pushed to answer, I would say a musical only really needs one thing: heart.

I’ve seen a lot of good theatre, but there are only a few productions which made a lasting impact on me in a very real sense. If there isn’t enough heart there, it can lessen the effect of the theatre experience on an audience. This is what can make or break a show.

A jukebox musical is built around the music it uses, the music is the heart of the show. There were high hopes for the Spice Girls musical Viva Forever when it opened, but it appears to have unimpressed and it’s doubtful that a long run is in store for this one. Meanwhile, across town the Queen musical We Will Rock You has been running for ten years and shows no signs of going anywhere. The difference between the two is the music. The Spice Girls were the biggest girl band of the ‘90’s, bringing with them the message of Girl Power! They changed a generation, but it was what they represented that made them so iconic, not their music. On the other hand, Queen are widely regarded as one of the most greatest and most influential bands in history and their songs have lived on long past the death of lead singer Freddie Mercury. The music of Queen has enough heart to make a musical with a weak story a runaway success, with public demand keeping it alive at the Dominion Theatre and setting a record for the longest running production ever at the venue. The music of The Spice Girls is never going to move people in the way that Queen could and therefore, Viva Forever is unlikely to ever match the success of We Will Rock You.

One of the best instances of the power that a musical’s heart can hold is when I went to the Phoenix Theatre last Thursday to see the latest newcomer: Once The Musical. The Broadway transfer is not your atypical musical. There are no special FX or giant VT screens here and there isn’t a sequin or jazz hand in sight. Once is about as simple as you can get. The entire show is played out on one set, with scene changes carried out through the fluid re-arrangement of props and tuneful accompaniment by the show’s musicians which, by the way, are also the show’s actors. Yes, an orchestra is another thing you won’t find here as the cast are actors, singers, dancers and musicians all in one, playing their various instruments on the stage as they perform. The audience are even treated to a pre-show hootenanny by the thirteen-strong cast.

This is enough to make Once a special piece of musical theatre, but there is so much more to it too. Instead of intricate choreography routines and big ensemble numbers, the cast simply dance around in Irish joviality and most of the songs are as folksy solos or duets, performed with a raw intensity and passion that is truly captivating. Once, above everything else, is a musical about love: unexpected love, unfinished love and of course, a love of music. In Once, two strangers are drawn together through their love of music and that reflects exactly what musical theatre aims to do. It tells this beautiful love story through the medium of song, but in a completely unique way.  Most musicals are an escape to another world, but this musical is as real life as can be.

Another film-to-stage adaption, Ghost The Musical, was so filled with spectacle that it overshadowed the story, and while I still enjoyed it, I can’t say that it affected me on the same deep level that Once did. Stripped back to the bare essentials, Once was an exquisite theatre experience that couldn’t have more heart if it tried.

The world of musical theatre has just as many mysteries as the real world does. Musicals which should be runaway hits somehow fail to hit the mark, while something you would never have thought to work ends up becoming this mind-blowing success. There are no simple answers, but there is a piece of advice that should always be remembered: Follow your heart. It always steers you in the right direction.

By Julie Robinson @missjulie25

Tuesday 26th March 2013


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