… on this trip I have experienced the stage work of the English director John Tiffany. I wrote about his sublime remount of The Glass Menagerie on Broadway a few posts ago. And last night, at the Royal Alex in Toronto, my family and I took in Once, the musical adaptation of the indie film starring and featuring the music of The Swell Season’s Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. Tiffany directed this work to acclaim in 2011--also on Broadway, where it is still playing. Now a North American touring production has just landed in Toronto.
While Once frequently trades in as many clichés as it upends (not least regarding ethnicity and gender), what makes it refreshing as a work of romantic musical theatre is how many of that genre’s apparently unassailable conventions it eschews. For the Guy and Girl leads (played here by Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal), there is no star-crossed happy ending (she gets a piano instead). The performers, who remain on stage throughout the two acts, play all their own instruments--which, befitting an Irish folk-infused score, are mostly string- and bellows-heavy (when's the last time you saw a mandolin and a concertina featured in a big-budget musical?). And the movement, by longtime Tiffany collaborator Steve Hoggett, is deliberately low-key and pedestrian, employing a simple yet richly symbolic gestural vocabulary to texture a song, but also knowing when to use stillness in the same context, and combining brief bits of simple group unison with set and scene changes in a completely fluid and organic way. The mostly unsentimental book by Irish playwright Enda Walsh demonstrates a similar plasticity in terms of its relationship to the songs (all of course well-known from the film), and also manages to get in a clever critique of certain ideologies of linguistic translation in its use of surtitles.
All of the performers are ridiculously talented. Unlike at times in John Doyle’s recent Broadway remounts of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and Company, here the fact that the singer-performers also play their own instruments never feels like a gimmick. Because of course the whole premise of this story is making beautiful music together--for which everyone involved in this production deserves kudos.