"Falling slowly, snoring loudly"
It is difficult to discuss ONCE without launching into a dissertation on the crisis in contemporary musical theater, a crisis that has been coming on since pop music parted ways with what we call The Great American Songbook. For a dwindling number of us, the greatest American music is the popular music written between the end of World War I and the rise of rock and roll. This is not to say that everything that followed is bad. It's just not as good. The Broadway musical was once the major medium for introducing great songs. Those songs were often strung together by a flimsy and nonsensical, if amusing, story, and performed by stars who were great singers and forceful stage presences. Some of us had a taste of how wonderful all that could be in the recent City Center Encores revival of GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES. Jule Styne wrote better scores than this (think BELLS ARE RINGING or GYPSY) and worked with better lyricists than Leo Robin (think Comden and Green or Sondheim) but this is a delightful, tuneful score and Robin's lyrics, particularly in Lorelei's two big numbers, are witty and great at defining character. More important, the score and the silly, but often witty book (Anita Loos and Joseph Stein) are "big" enough to delight packed audiences in the mammoth New York City Center which is twice the size of most Broadway houses. With excellent performances by Megan Hilty, Rachel York, Deborah Rush, Aaron Lazar et al, the revival was a delight. Yes, it was larger than life and, perhaps other than real life, but it was exciting as musical theater should be. Or take BOOK OF MORMON, a show that is in some ways a valentine to the Broadway musical. Silly, irreverent, often outrageous as classic musical comedies were at their best, self-reflexive, and celebrating the traditions of the Broadway musical from the opening chorus to the dream ballet to the silly denouement. I'm not saying that this is what all musicals have to be, but there has to be an innate theatricality to the work a larger than life quality that works in a theater. RENT had it, as does SPRING AWAKENING. One thing the musical does need is a good, theatrical score. Not necessarily great -- I liked NEWSIES, which has a pleasant, serviceable score but not a great one. The show doesn't have to be "big" -- NEXT TO NORMAL was a small show that worked because its ideas were big and it was well written and composed.
Why all this as a preamble to ONCE? In part, because the best moments musically came in the pre-show which had more energy than anything that followed despite the silly gimmick of bringing the audience onstage as if the pub set were a real pub. Everything that followed was too small for a Broadway theater. The score is too small, the story is too small, and the performances are too small (indeed, from the fourth row of the mezzanine, the terminally bland leading lady, Cristin Milioti, was unintelligible). I felt the cast was sleepwalking their way through the performance. One couldn't forget that a little art house film was being put on stage for no particular reason. What did the show offer that the film didn't?
Why didn't the leading characters have names? Usually in drama that suggests a universality, but these characters have quite specific backgrounds. So why no names? On one hand, we are to see the musical as realistic, but on the other hand the stylized production in which the musicians play all the supporting roles screamed "we're in a theater" (and isn't the business of actors playing instruments, or musicians also doing the acting, getting to be a tired cliche). Are we really to believe that "the guy" is a particular brilliant songwriter? The lyrics are Hallmark and the tunes are generic (listen to the Acoustic Cafe channel on Sirius XM). Steve Kazee is a good singer, but who could care about the dirges he is given to sing?
Everyone involved in the production, particularly director John Tiffany, who gave us the brilliant BLACK WATCH, seems to be working for something both theatrical and anti-theatrical, something not "Broadway musical." Why do a Broadway musical if you don't care for the art form and are working with relatively weak material?
A lot of the critics have raved about ONCE and it has already won a bunch of awards and will probably win the Tony. It is not doing the kind of business that NEWSIES and THE BOOK OF MORMON are doing, so audiences are voting for Broadway musicals that aren't ashamed to be Broadway musicals. I found ONCE dreary and a bit depressing. And, though it got the obligatory standing ovation (what doesn't these days?) I didn't feel that the audience with me was particularly enthusiastic about the show. Perhaps it would work in a small venue at lower prices, but at these prices this isn't a Broadway musical.
And a post script -- the Shuberts should do something about the shabby state of some of their theaters. When I went to THE BEST MAN at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, some of the upholstery was being held together by tape. The Bernard Jacobs, that now houses ONCE, looks positively dingy. There's a theatre restoration fee added on to our ticket price. Does anybody ask where it is going? The dreariness of the theater only added to the dreariness of the experience of seeing ONCE.
Another post script -- we now have a new category of shows that are neither just plays or musicals. I am thinking of END OF THE RAINBOW, which has a band and a number of musical numbers, and the wonderful ONE MAN, TWO GUV'NORS that has a score that is up for a Tony -- delightful original numbers in the sixties "skiffle" mode. The score to ONE MAN, TWO GUV'NERS is far stronger than the score to ONCE -- and I believe contains as many songs.
ONCE. Bernard Jacobs Theatre. May 15, 2012.