Let Me Tell You What I Liked About: ONCE

Welcome to my new series “Let Me Tell You What I Like About…”    The premise is basic.  I am going to write about the things I LIKE about a Broadway show.  My theory is this:  I see a lot of shows, and in this era of snarky armchair critics on Broadway message boards, a moment of “Hey, you know what I thought was cool” might be a welcome change.  My posts so far:

Let Me Tell You What I Liked About EVITA

Let Me Tell You What I Liked About NEWSIES

Like in my SMASH Fact or fiction posts, I want to continue our conversation about the ins and outs of a Broadway show.  The difference?  We’re talking real Broadway shows, not a television show that’s about a Broadway show.

Are you all with me?  Instead of doing fact or fiction, we’re doing:

Let Me Tell You What I Like About….


Let’s start with a quick history of Once to catch up those of you who might not eat, sleep and breathe musical theater history the way some people do–and by “some people” I mean my husband Rob Meffe, who just so happens to be a professor of musical theater history and repertoire for Pace University’s musical theater program.

Rob says I always drag him into my projects, and this series is no exception.

And now, direct from the piano, Professor Rob Meffe.

Once the musical is based on the 2006 film that starred Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova; two singer-songwriters who play the roles in this movie of, well… two singer-songwriters.  The two of them wrote all of the songs for the movie (one of the songs, “Falling Slowly,” won an Academy Award), and these same songs were used in the musical version of the show.  Which, interestingly enough, does not qualify this score for the Tony Award for “Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written For The Theater” because nothing new (except the orchestrations; which did get a Tony nomination) was written for the musical.

Thank you Professor Meffe.  If you were in his class, following his lecture you would have to perform songs from the era he is currently teaching (this lecture would be a part of “2012 and Beyond.”  You should probably  pick your favorite song from a new musical and hum along as you continue reading).

What I liked #1:  The pre-show, which they call a “hootenanny”, be warned that  you should arrive 15 minutes prior to the show starting.  The really fun thing about it is not only the most excellent music (it’s the best way to hear the supporting ensemble sing and play), but you can also get up close and personal because there is a bar onstage.  As in, there are stairs and you walk up onto the stage as the musicians sing and play around you, and you order a drink, and you take it back to your seat.  If you get there at the stroke of 8 (as Rob and I did), you will have a bit of trouble getting to your seat because of the line to get onto the stage.  The good news?  It’s open again at intermission.  It reminded me of my days at CATS at the Winter Garden when they allowed the audience up on stage at intermission and they’d look at an unmoving Old Deuteronomy.  It was always interesting to come back onstage after 1000 people had marched across it, there were occasionally Skittles or bits of things to play with.  The most memorable onstage audience was an unfortunate day when an audience member had a heart attack onstage and was taken out on a stretcher.  According to lore, he later passed away, but I can’t confirm that report.  I asked a friend of mine who is a stage manager at ONCE if they’d had any memorable audience encounters yet, and she said a few spilled drinks, but nothing outrageous.  She also mentioned (and this might be interesting to you stage managers out there) that the stage mangers all started work during the preshow to man the stage (both from the call desk and on deck) so their show really starts at 15 minutes before curtain, and includes all of intermission.  Being a person with a small bladder, I had to ask how they managed to go the whole show without a bathroom break, and she said if nature calls, they just send in a pinch hitter (probably the on deck stage manager) to call the show.

Should I do a quick tutorial about who is who in the stage manager team?  I’ll keep it quick.  GENERALLY SPEAKING, this is how it goes:  PSM (Production Stage Manager) is the boss, in charge of everything that happens on stage.  She or he makes all decisions about rehearsal schedules, organizes all the show reports (a log of what happens during the show including run times, who is out sick or on vacation, and if anything bizarre happens–example “Princeton’s eye popped off during ‘Purpose’ tonight”.)  This is then sent out to everyone on the creative team, the producers…etc, etc (NOT the actors, by the way, show reports are notoriously not-for-actor-eyes.) The PSM also “calls” the show, meaning they are on a headset and tell the light operators when to change the lights, do sound cues, etc.

The ASM (Assistant Stage manager) does a lot of what the PSM does, but in a support role, and along with “calling” the show, also works as the “deck” stage manager.  What’s that mean?  I’ll tell you.  The “deck” stage manager is on a headset and she or he is in charge of all the cues that happen from the deck (like a set change).  They are also the first line of defense if a microphone goes out (they help the sound op) and they make sure the actors are there when places is called.  If someone get hurts during a show?  It’s the deck stage manager that gets the ice pack.  Capisce?  Capisce.

There are also other assistants and interns and I’m not going any further with this or this post will be 50,000 words long.

I forget what we were talking about.

OH.  ONCE.  Such a great show.

Coming out of the pre-show was also fun (and this is the last I’ll say about it and then I’ll move on) because it was one of those things where they get you caught up in watching a guy sing, and slowly the theater gets quiet and before you realize it (and you are still thinking there is time to turn off your phone and get a peppermint) the lights are out and the show has started.  Nice.  I love to be tricked (I really do).  Like Willie Wonka says, “Little surprises around every corner but nothing dangerous.”

What I liked #2: (I’m only on #2.  Yee gawds)  Okay listen up because this is important.  Ready?  This is the most successful musical I’ve ever seen that has actors playing instruments.  It just WORKS on so many levels.  I don’t want to give away major plot points so I will proceed with caution, but the long and short of it is that there are 2 things that make this really successful.

1)  It is organic to the plot line that when they need to express an emotion, it happens in song.

2)  It is organic to the plot line that when they need to sing the song, they would be playing an instrument at the same time.

Now.  Let’s talk for just a minute about actors playing instruments in a show.  There is a pretty famous director who has done this play the instrument thing in several of his shows.  Some people love it, some people don’t.  I have moments in his shows that I’ve loved–example–I thought Raul Esparza playing the piano while singing “Being Alive” in COMPANY was fantastic.  The struggle he had with the instrument perfectly matched the struggle of self exploration in the song (you can watch it here).  The great thing about ONCE is rather than it being a stretch to try to  forget that the actors had an instrument around their neck as they did a scene (they’re at a dinner party!  With a saxophone!) they NEEDED the instrument as part of the plot.

Let’s break down the logistics of this, because (of course) I was fascinated and in fact–had to befriend someone in the cast just to get as much info about all of this to make my blog for-real and not speculation.  Maybe YOU aren’t wondering just how they managed to forgo an orchestra and use actors instead, but I’ll tell you that every musician and actor who sees the show wonders what kind of a contract they are on.

So here it is:

The deal is, the musicians union looks at each actor case by case and figures out how many instruments they are playing.  They then calculate the rate they would pay the musician who would do the job.  As long as the actor is being paid at least as much as that rate, they are okay with it.  Turns out the rate is higher than what the Actors’ Union would pay them on a minimum contract, so that’s what they get (although, according to sources, they are all “very well taken care of” and the minimum pay was never an issue.  Isn’t that good news?).  You might be wondering two things (as I was)

1)  Each Broadway house has a minimum # of musicians that have to be hired if the show is a musical.  Each theater’s number is different based on (I think) the size of the house.  If you don’t hire that many musicians for your show, you  have to apply for a “special situations” agreement, and cite why you don’t need that many musicians.  Sometimes you win, sometimes you don’t. Before this concession was in place, producers had to pay “walkers” who are musicians who do not play the show, but are paid anyway.  Example:  MAMMA MIA got the union to agree to a special situations.  The minimum at The Winter Garden Theater is 18 musicians.  They got a concession to have 9 in the pit.  No paid walkers.  Another example?  A CHORUS LINE only employed 18 musicians, but the minimum was 25 so they paid 7 walkers….for the entirety of the 15 year run.

Is this interesting?  Are you asleep?

2)  Shouldn’t the actors make double pay if they are playing an instrument AND being an actor?   Well, I think so, but I would guess the producers around town really, really disagree with me.

3)  If the actors have a contract with the actors’ union for ONCE (which they do), how is the musicians union taken care of?  Good question and I have most of the answers but not all.  Let’s break it down.

a)  They all had to join the musicians union if they were not already members (several of them were).  The producers of ONCE picked up the tab for that.  I do not know if anyone had to join the Actors’ union.

b)  They have to pay dues to both of the unions (the producers pick up the tab for the musicians union dues).

c)  Do both unions get health and pension contributions from the producers?  I think the answer to this is yes, but I do not have a confirmation on it.  If you know, write in.

What I Liked #3:  The storytelling.  It was wonderful and clear, and especially from the two main characters, I seriously cared about what was happening.  They caught me up in their world hook, line and sinker.  I didn’t even want to clap because it broke the mood.

Go see this show.  It’s special.

(More “Let’s Talk About What I Liked About…” next week.  I’m going to do an “all plays” post that focuses on four of the plays I’ve seen.  Thanks for swinging by!)




About Sharon Wheatley

I'm a mother, an actress and a writer. I'm glad you're here.
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3 Responses to Let Me Tell You What I Liked About: ONCE

  1. Amanda says:

    THANK YOU for finally posting this. I have been waiting with bated breath all week because this show definitely has a special place in my heart and I was hoping you liked it as much as I did!

    What actor did you befriend????? They are all so nice!

  2. Chuck says:

    I just LOVED this show! It has such heart.

  3. Helen says:

    Sharon, I have a question about this show in relation to marketing TONY nominations. "Nice Work If You Can Get It" is marketing itself at the Broadway show with the most nominations. But, in fact, "Once" has the most overall nominations. I know "Once" started off-Broadway, is based on a movie, and has an international creative team, but it's still a show on Broadway. So where is "Nice Work's" fuzzy math coming from? Thanks!

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