Once: A Listening Guide

I don't know when I'm going to see Once, the new Broadway musical adapted from the popular indie film musical of the same name. It opens on 18 March, the last day of performances for the show I'm music directing, and I'm in tech/performance mode until then. I can only hope soon, as this show has a good chance of Book of Mormoning its way into sold out shows for months when the reviews hit. What I do know is that NPR has once again reached an agreement with a new musical to stream the Original Cast Recording on their website. Once is nothing without its music. The songs are the draw even more than the story, which admittedly is a bittersweet twist on a classic love story boilerplate. Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love. Boy can't have girl unless he overcomes an obstacle. Cue the singing.

Once Original Broadway Cast RecordingAs I did with Ghost and Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, I'm going to do a track by track listening guide. I'll be going into orchestration, performance, and how the creative team reinvented the music to work onstage.

Let's get to it.

"The North Stand" is the overture. It opens up with strings doing an upbeat arrangement of "Falling Slowly." One singer does eventually come in, but the drive is to set the tone for the show. It's a party song at an Irish pub and it works.

"Leave" is an interesting choice to really open the show. Steve Kazee, playing Guy, has a beautiful voice. He's giving good indie/folk on the vocal at the start, but you know he can do more. "Leave" is slowed down a bit from its use in the film, but is still just a guitar/vocal track. It appears that the stage musical sets the stakes for Guy right away. He's devastated by the breakup with his girlfriend and suffering.

"Falling Slowly" is the song that won the Academy Award. It's a beautiful ballad and the stage production doesn't play with it too much. All they do is add a bit of rubato--slowing down the song at certain points and balancing it by speeding up a bit immediately afterwards. The piano bass line is emphasized a bit more, giving the song some weight.

The big difference is that Girl, played by Cristin Milioti, actually matches the power of Guy's vocal. It's a welcome change. Milioti has a fascinating tone to her voice. Trey Graham, in the NPR article, says she has "a gorgeously grainy cello of a voice." I like that as a descriptor. It's rich and warm and can make you cry. That'll come into play later.

The addition of strings going into the bridge is beautiful and needed to add interest. I'm trying to remember if they used the full version of "Falling Slowly" in the film. It is a long song that can be a bit repetitive if nothing changes.

"Moon" is one of the new songs used to bring the community aspect into the picture. The whole show has been conceived to take place in a pub. People will come and go and, at intermission, the audience can go onstage to buy a drink.

The harmonies in "Moon" are great. I only wish NPR labeled all the singers so I can give credit to who is singing and playing this arrangement. What I can say is that Martin Lowe, a British music director/arranger (Mamma Mia!, Taboo, War Horse), created really beautiful arrangements for his US debut.

"Ej Pada Pada Rosicka" is an adaptation of a traditional Czech folk song. For people who haven't heard traditional Czech music, this song will be a treat. It sounds like a party. The men and the women trade lines before breaking into a dance. The accordion and madolin are welcome additions to the strings and guitar. The whole thing just sounds like joy.

The song is sung entirely in Czech, which only makes sense since this is the first big moment for a huge group of brand new characters. The casting call for the Boston tryout mentioned the show adding in Girl's family of Czech immigrants as a major force in the show. They are the ensemble and the orchestra, but they also get big moments like "Ej Pada Pada Rosicka."

"If You Want Me" is my favorite scene in Once the film. Cristin Milioti brings a lot more power to the vocal than Marketa Irglova. Their voices are very different, but the song still sounds very good. That's a testament to the composition. Martin Lowe gives the arrangement a really cool mid-tempo groove. I never imagined myself dancing to "If You Want Me," but that's what I'm doing. Milioti does some beautiful vocal embellishment that helps define her character. She's going full-traditional Czech and I love it. Then there's the siren song to end the performance. Milioti Elizabeth Davis (Reza) sings a high soprano line over background vocals of the chorus. It's beautiful.

"Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy" is as cute and funny as it was in the film. There's not much to say. It's a one minute song that's supposed to sound improvised and it serves its purpose.

"Say It To Me Now" puts the focus on Guy's vocal. The guitar is the only other prominent instrument. You can hear the bass in the background, but it's secondary to Guy's moment.

Steve Kazee really sells the chorus. I'd normally be annoyed by that rock growl just being thrown in. However, it's the character. Guy is a would-be rock star who got off track because of a bad breakup. It only makes sense that he would sing like that whenever his true emotions surface.

"Abandoned in Bandon" is another new song for the show. It's a short drinking song. The goal is to give the audience a brief break from the relationship between Guy and Girl. I could see it going over well in the theater. The actor is really hamming up the vocal and that's what this kind of song needs.

"Gold" is another song given new meaning in the show. A lot of the music in Once the film practically happened as a montage near the end. Guy and Girl round up a few musicians to join them in the studio so Guy can record his demo. They go from one song to the next over images of the musicians performing and Guy/Girl getting closer.

I figured that those songs would be interpolated into the show to flesh out the story. I think I was right. "Gold" sounds like a declaration of affection for Girl by Guy and that was its function in the film, as well. Here, it's just placed in the context of the exploratory arc.

The song has always been beautiful. The big change is adding a full chorus of singers and a small orchestra to the arrangement. You can just picture the stage filled with singers playing guitar, bass, and strings tearing the theater down during the extended instrumental break at the bridge. The arrangement turns a neglected song into the showstopper it should have been to begin with.

"Sleeping" is a new song for the show. What starts to worry me is how slow the show is. Most of the songs with any real substance are ballads. That can become very tiring in a live production. Once will live or die based on the staging and power of the cast. We know from the NYTW reviews that the concept is solid. Future casting will determine if the show really has legs. The wrong actor as Guy or Girl will ruin it.

"Sleeping" is a lovely declaration of love, determination, and regret. Guy knows what he wants and he is going to pursue it even if he might fail. The end of the song is perhaps the best part, with Guy losing himself. It's another situation where I'd normally be disappointed by a lack of resolution. It just seems to work for Once.

What "Sleeping" does is give me hope that the stage show didn't externalize the existential crisis of the story too much. For me, the beauty of Once the film was this lack of self-awareness in Guy and Girl. They were writing and singing these beautiful songs that clearly showed how they felt about each other, but they were oblivious to the songs' true meanings. To them, they were just making music. Subconsciously, they were reaching for each other against all odds.

"When Your Mind's Made Up" is taken a bit faster than in the film. It has a bit more of an adventurous edge brought on by the syncopated drum kit and fuller harmonies. I'll give Once big credit for one thing: the show is not afraid to use its ensemble. The full choral moments are beautiful on the recording. I can only imagine how powerful it is to see that many talented musicians wailing away on a song like this. The violin sawing away at a counter melody gave me chills.

"The Hill" is my favorite song in the film. Here, Cristin Milioti underplays the first verse. She brings this beautiful and unexpected freedom to the vocals that serves the character well. Girl is the spirit and joy that Guy is lacking to make his dreams come true. She plays music because she loves music and Milioti is living to sing this song. It doesn't hurt that she has a beautifully expressive voice and has turned "The Hill" into the character-defining moment for Girl. And again with the rubato that's driving me wild.

"It Cannot Be About That" sounds like an entr'acte. It's an orchestral arrangement of "If You Want Me" and, like "The North Stand," it gets the job done.

"Gold (a cappella)" is an adventurous choice to use in this kind of show. It's already a stripped down production, with the actor/musicians doubling as the orchestra. There is a strong sense of trust behind Once's concept. The creators really believe the audience will buy into the conceit of this relationship and this staging. Turning "Gold" into a full cast performance of a deeply personal song from Guy is a huge risk on paper. In practice, the arrangement is so beautiful that it will most likely leave the audience in awe.

"Falling Slowly (reprise)" is how you would expect the show to end. Why wouldn't they go back to the best known song from the show to conclude the story? It's the purest distillation of the story between Guy and Girl and I can see this orchestra-driven arrangement bringing a lot of closure to a story that just ends in the film.

And again, because it's worth pointing out, I love a show that is not afraid to use its ensemble. Too many shows have most of the cast just sitting backstage doing nothing for most of the running time. Once is not one of those. That makes me happy. Why waste talent if the show can handle more people onstage?

You can stream the entire album at NPR. Just a word of warning: one of the tracks is missing in their listen track by track option. "Ej Pada Pada Rosicka" is mislabeled as "If You Want Me." If you want to hear the Czech folk song, you need to jump to about the 10:00 mark in the "Hear 'Once' In Its Entirety" option.

The OCR of Once comes out next Tuesday. Will you be buying it? Sound off below with your thoughts on the show and the music.

The Link Rally: 7 March 2012

The Link Rally: 5 March 2012