May 1, 2012

My friends and many of my fellow critics/reviewers tell me that Once is a great show. Obviously, the Tony Award nominators agree, having included it in no less than eleven of the categories including Musical, Book for a Musical, Direction, Orchestrations, Choreography, Leading Actor in a Musical and Leading Actress in a Musical.

Not having seen it, I turned to the new Original Broadway Cast album on Masterworks Broadway for the evidence. I still don’t know if they are right about the show, but I do know that the music is affecting, often lovely and occasionally haunting.

However, if you expect an Original Broadway Cast album to give you a glimpse into a theatrical experience you might have missed, you will find this album frustrating at first. As likely as it is that you will come to love the score, you can’t get much of an idea of the show itself just from these 16 or 17 or 18 tracks. (More about that later.)

If there ever was a show score that cried out for a detailed synopsis in its original Broadway cast recording, this is it. Ideally, that synopsis should be more than a brief recitation of the plot. It should be a thorough telling of the role of each of the songs in the presentation of the story. Unfortunately, the handsome booklet which includes nice photographs, notes on the development of the musical and reprints the lyrics in full doesn’t include any synopsis. Its a big oversight that prevents listeners who haven’t seen the show from a full understanding of the strengths and/or weaknesses of the lovely score.

There is an Irish folk-music flavor to the mostly minor-key melancholy melodies that draw you in slowly and even subtly. Nearly every song starts off softly and then builds to an intensity of angst that is engrossing.

If you know the song “Falling Slowly” which won the Oscar for Best Song from a Movie in 2007, you know the kind of song I mean. It is built on an insistent four-note chord played one note at a time and repeated with slight variations as a melody until it burrows into your mind. It may well surface again and again in the hours and days after you hear it.

There are a number of songs with that same addictive loveliness in this score and the recording may find its way into your affection and hold on to it. The a cappella rendition of the song “Gold” is truly beautiful and both “If You Want Me” and “Say It To Me Now” match “Falling Slowly” in the mesmerizing quality of their simple melodies.

However, with the exception of a short glib piece of nonsense with the title “Broken-Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy,” none of the songs carry the story, describe plot points or paint portraits of characters. Exactly what their function may be in the theatrical settings of the show is not apparent.

Most of the ballads are fine examples of the kind of hyper poetic song lyrics that twenty-something guys and gals assemble with a guitar in times of emotional stress – usually at the end of an emotional flare up that seems at the time to be a true love that should have been unending but came apart in a painful crash.

These are lyrics with obscure similes and allusions that mean much to the newly broken heart, but don’t communicate much to an uninvolved listener except that the author/singer/player is clearly in that peculiar kind of pain that feels sweet and warm at the same time that it hurts.

These are songs that will resonate with those who have experienced that “pain that hurts so good,” especially those who can sit around a dorm room and share the  anguish while analyzing the allusions.

But they don’t tell a story. You can’t sit down and listen to the score and know that the musical is about a young troubadour who plays his guitar on the streets in Dublin when not working in his father’s vacuum repair shop. You won’t know that he meets a young Czech emigrant to Ireland who earns very little money cleaning houses so she can’t afford a piano of her own, she has to rely on the generosity of the proprietor of a music store that lets her play on her lunch hour.

You won’t know from the evidence of these songs that the guy (that’s how he is billed in the credits) doesn’t consider himself eligible for a new romantic relationship because he only recently broke up with a lover, or that the gal (that is also how she is billed in the credits) is similarly reserved because she has a daughter with her in Dublin while her husband is back in the Czech Republic.

Of course, you might already know this much, as you may have seen the movie on which the musical is based, and from which that Oscar winning song “Falling Slowly” came. But that film – a small independent production reportedly budgeted at something less than $200,000 which took off and earned millions – was a short (just over an hour) documentary-style charmer that refused to indulge itself in a synthetic happy ending.

The Broadway musical is almost twice as long as the movie and my friends and colleagues tell me that playwright Enda Walsh (who came to prominence with the burst of emotion in back-street Irish jargon, Disco Pigs) took most of the minor characters who appeared oh-so-briefly in the movie and fleshed them out with backstories of their own.

The only way you might get a hint of that from this recording, however, is that there are fourteen characters listed in the cast. If you cross reference that cast listing with the list for each of the songs showing who is playing which instrument, you’ll discern that the cast is also the band – that everyone plays one or more instruments in addition to playing a specific character.

The absence of a synopsis is not my only criticism of the release. I also lament the decision of Masterworks Broadway to give in to the current marketing trend of providing different versions of the same album to different outlets.

If I chart this out correctly, there are three different versions of the album available. Amazon is listing the 16 track album for download while Barnes and Noble also offers a “Barnes and Noble Exclusive” version with two more tracks (one with an English title, “Ragland Road,” and one in Czech, “Este Si Ja Pohar Vina Zaplatim”). iTunes lists a downloadable 17 track version that doesn’t have either of those, but has a ‘bonus track” of “Chandler’s Wife.” Collectors shouldn’t have to buy two or three different versions of an album to get all the available tracks.


Original Broadway Cast Recording
Masterworks Broadway 
Running time: 47 minutes over 16 tracks

Once - Original Broadway Cast Recording