Thursday, June 27, 2013
About two years ago, I resolved to refuse, on principle, to see any stage musical that was originally a movie. I've decided to back down from this noble (read: foolhardy) boycott in recent months, not only because there are so many musicalized films at this point that it's hard to keep track of what was once a movie and what wasn't (case in point: I saw Kinky Boots having not realized it was a film first, thereby breaking my own rule without even knowing it), but also because many people--colleagues, friends, students--have gently, politely, patiently pointed out that I'm being a real moron about the whole thing. In the first place, the argument went, just because something was once a movie doesn't automatically mean that it is not worth seeing on a stage. And in the second place, I am a scholar who ostensibly specializes in contemporary stage musicals, so refusing to see an increasingly wide swatch of them simply because I am a pill is idiotic. Finally, to be perfectly honest, I can see that I am wasting a lot of energy in swimming against the tide: why rage against poor, suffering, innocent little shows like The Lion King or Newsies when there are so many legitimate causes in the world?
So I relented. I'm in talks with my ten-year-old daughter to see Newsies at some point soon. I will probably suck it up and see Rocky when it lands in New York (though, still, the thought of Bull Durham as a stage musical makes me want to cut somebody). And yesterday, I finally caught a matinee of Once.
I saw, and very much enjoyed the movie version of Once, which was yet one more reason I was so resistant to seeing it on stage. For the other reasons, I can refer you back to paragraph one: I am unbelievably stubborn, I continue to fret a great deal about how derivative stage musicals can be and what that means for the form, and I thus couldn't justify coughing up over a hundred bucks to see something I knew I'd be judging and bitching about the whole time. But then I got this special offer for cheap(er) tickets right after being told by my musical theater history students that I was a dope, and I took it as a sign and made the purchase. Lo and behold, the show wasn't torture. It was quite pleasant, in fact, and even surprising and revelatory in some ways, Which doesn't mean I found the screen-to-stage transfer flawless, but which also doesn't mean I feel like I wasted my money, either.
The stage version does a nice job of creating a sense of intimacy for the (rather huge) audience, which is one of its great strengths. As spectators find their seats, the cast members, all of whom play their own instruments, are up on the stage jamming away; songs range from strophic Irish ballads and rowdy reels to Eastern European folk tunes with characteristically close, dissonant harmonies and thrillingly steep vocal slides. The set is warm and inviting: the musicians, and by extension, the audience, are in a cozy Irish pub, where rich brown walls are hung with weathered, smoky mirrors, and the barstools look comfortably broken in. The fact that audience members are encouraged to wander around on the stage before the show and buy drinks on it during intermission adds to the sense of pervasive warmth that somehow makes the enormous Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre feel like a friendly, pleasantly divy corner bar where...um....everybody knows your name. The show begins quietly, gently: the audience gradually settles in and focuses on the stage as the jam session segues into the story about a Guy who has lost his woman, his music, and his sense of self, and a Girl who sets him on track again.
One of the things I most appreciated about Once when it was a tiny, quiet film was that it had a great sense of humor. Girl was flip and sarcastic; Da was a man of comically few words; the musicians Girl and Guy end up recording with make a big deal about how they really don't like to play anything but Thin Lizzy covers. The marketing for the musical version of Once worried me a lot, because it makes it seem like the show takes itself way too damned seriously. There's reliance, in ads and tv spots, on the music, of course, which in both versions is all sort of humorless (with the exception of "Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy"); there's also a lot of emphasis on the connection between Guy and Girl, which is all too often expressed through Deep, Meaningful Moments Involving Girl Wandering Slowly Toward Guy as if Under a Deep, Meaningful Spell, While Guy Plays Deep, Meaningful Love Songs on his Deep, Meaningful Guitar and Looks at Her Deeply. And Meaningfully.
But the stage version has kept, and even added to, the quirky lightheartedness that was so pleasurable in the film. Self-aware jokes about the transition from screen to stage are cracked regularly; Girl is as snide and sarcastic as ever. And a whole host of new characters, or ones that have been given larger roles than they had in the film, add an offbeat wackiness to the proceedings. I was relieved by how funny the musical version is. I laughed a lot.
I was also fairly blown away by a few of the musical numbers. Individually, some of the actors are reasonably good, if not brilliant musicians: Joanna Christie, as Girl, is a fine pianist, if not a terribly expressive one; Arthur Darvill, as Guy, held his own, even though his guitar slid gradually out of tune by intermission and his fretwork could be sloppy. With the possible exception of "Falling Slowly," which is the most well-known piece from Once for a reason, I have never been terribly taken by the songs Guy performs through the show. This makes it all the harder for me to suspend reality when the other characters make a big deal out of how talented he is. Yet maybe because of my lowered expectations, the ensemble numbers consistently stunned me. The emphasis on the secondary characters allowed for a particularly moving sequence in act II that emphasized, through song and movement, the soaring ups and crushing downs recent immigrants experience as they find their footing in new lands. And there is no way to properly describe the rich, gorgeous sound the entire cast makes when they play together, except to say that it is as warm and inviting as the set looks. If there is anything that captures the essence of live performance as well as the act I closer "Gold" does, I haven't heard it--and I've seen that number performed in commercials, on television, on the Internet. Nothing does the live rendition justice. It alone is worth the price of admission.
But this is precisely why it seems so weird that what gets lost in translation in Once's passage from screen to stage is the depiction, more broadly, of the electricity that people feel when they are making music together. The film captured this particularly well: not only did the growing attraction between Guy and Girl make perfect sense in the context of an intense, whirlwind recording session, but so too did the bonds that were quickly formed between the backing musicians they find to work with (the dudes who loved Lynott). The musical version of Once tries to build the same intensity, but fails, I think for a number of reasons: the new emphasis on secondary characters draws away from the trajectory; stage shows cannot rely on things like closeups and cuts and montages; there is more of an effort in the musical to extend the warmth and electricity the characters feel for each other outward to the audience. It's a tradeoff, I know, but as a result, I found the relationship between Guy and Girl much less intimate, meaningful, and believable than it was in the movie.
Then again, I quite enjoyed their company nonetheless. Once was a good reentry into the world of stage musicals that were once films: it is a quiet, sweet little film that has been lovingly, carefully crafted into a quiet, sweet, somewhat different little musical. Curmudgeon though I am as a spectator, it's only fair to acknowledge that in the end, there's no real harm in that.