“Once” on Broadway

“Once” is a new musical that has just opened on Broadway–I saw the second preview several weeks ago. The show is a theatrical version of the 2006 film of the same name that follows a Dublin songwriter who serendipitously encounters a piano-playing Czech woman who has moved to Ireland with her family. Over a few days the two collaborate on songs, go to the recording studio, astound the recording engineer with their beautiful melodies and harmonies–all while kinda falling in love. The actors in the movie were an Irish lad and a Czech lady who were charmingly acting out a version of their real life, performing and singing their own songs. In the Broadway version a cast of talented multi-instrumentalists playing guitars, banjos, mandolins, ukuleles, accordions, violins, cellos, drums and piano fiddle away as they sing the songs. And sing they do: 30 minutes before the show begins the actors are on the stage (which is set up as an actual bar where the audience can buy drinks) jamming away, singing and dancing. This is the theatrical reincarnation of a fertile milieu that nurtures songwriters and artists and we are supposed to breathe in the air of their improvisation and delirious emotion.

This is a story of making art against all odds, the personal connection that can develop through the process of artistic creation, and the performer’s need for positive reinforcement, an audience and “success”. The actor-musicians are all very talented and there is a wider variety of songs than in the movie, which repeated a certain melody so many times that by the end I was ready to hear some Czech death metal or something less self-consciously pretty. The problem with “Once” is that in narrating a journey in which music is the magical path that saves the depressed from sinking into a death-spiral (while strictly denying Love the privileged place that Music holds and so giving Music all the more latent and throbbing tension of unrequited feeling), theater (or film) is disguised as self-help.  We do not witness clash of opposites and the comedic or tragic friction and maneuvering of characters forcing a remarkable conclusion; we witness not the rage or hilarity of the tragically unaware or deluded hero, questing against a motley collection of helpful friends, tearful lovers, or bitterly realistic adversaries; we witness not the paranoia of the solitary truth-seeker and his horrific quest to unpack the lies behind which stand the base motivations of a selfish power structure; we witness not much of anything that leaves us with a feeling of cosmic emptiness or purifying horror or humor– Instead what we have in this world of theater of self-help is the need to take the audience on a sad journey in which boring average humanity is magically endowed, a la Harry Potter, with a magical inner-light that slowly starts to push through and engulfs the audience with a vision of success, spiritual power and triumph over evil.

To simplify: Why are we living in a time in which the songs that drive the musical are narrated through a story that fetishizes their creation? Not since Wagner’s Die Meistersinger have we had a musical drama that so self-consciously promotes its own score by charting the process of the song’s journey from lovesick inspiration to pubic acclaim and universal wonderment. Do we feel that the music is good because it is good, or because the I’ve-heard-it-all-before recording engineer after hearing the ragtag band of musicians play through their first song strikes a dumbfounded pose and deadpans an understated “wow…” Not to mention the dogged determination of “Girl” to get “Guy” to get his music out there in front of the world in the first place. How many musicals are there in which the main function of a character is to tell a composer of the score of the show we are seeing how good the songs are? The journey is clear: Although “Guy” is reluctant to devote himself 100% to his art we feel that his eventual success seems sure because most everyone tells him how great he is. The musical is filled with set pieces in which a song is deployed like a weapon against an adversary: “listen to THIS!” And the adversary/listener can only lay down his sword and pledge fealty to the new master, the beggar now discovered to be the king in disguise!

Key to this maneuver of inspirational self-help is that the love story must be firmly refused. Girl gets Guy to pursue his music seriously, but in the ensuing inevitable romance that develops between them, Girl will sacrifice her love for Guy for the different reasons we are given: She is married to a Czech husband who lives back in Europe, she has a daughter, Guy desperately tries to sleep with her 2 hours after their first meeting– But most of all she wants to keep his music and their relationship Pure. Her love, their love will be sacrificed on the altar of Artistic Success or Melodic Genius and the show will have a bittersweet finale in which we realize that relationships can have the holy purity that glorious music can have. Girl’s Czech heritage, her exotic family, music, dark humor and quirky personality, i.e., her “otherness” also bring her quite close to the Magical Negro stereotype that mysteriously arrives at a moment of crisis in a White Protagonist’s depression or suicidal malaise. Through the Magical Negro’s exotic wisdom, dogged encouragement, and selfless nurturing the White Protagonist gets his life back on track, finds his voice again and eventually stands tall, ready to Confront Life–and at this final moment, with his or her job completed, the Magical Negro disappears.

As the movies that employ the Magical Negro address the problems of American racism and the struggle for racial equality in a simplistic way that strategically leaves the prejudices and paternalistic bias of the white audience firmly intact, the rich territory of the fluidity of labor in the EU, the flocking of immigrants to the “Celtic Tiger” during the boom in the 1990s, the Eurozone Crisis, and Irish racism and anti-racism are only hinted at. We see several glimpses of economic vulnerability when Girl’s awkward brother fails in his job search, despite the donning of his lucky suit (a shimmering euro-trash disaster). Guy himself is only a vacuum repair man working in his father’s shop, and too short of money to record his album. The scene in which Guy (dressed in the “lucky suit”) amazes a banker with a performance of a particularly intense song ends with the banker giving them a loan, but also with the banker joining the band. A humorous spat between the left-leaning music store owner (whose drums and instruments are necessary to record the album) and the banker nearly prevents the recording session from taking place– But Girl asks her sister Reza to have sex with the music store owner to calm his rage and to this request she obliges in an act that lightly hints at the at the intersection of Eastern Europe and the sex trade.

But the script overwhelmingly focuses on the story of an unrecognized talent who–with the help of a foreign girl who can hear his greatness –eventually receives the recognition, respect and artistic fulfillment he deserves. This is also precisely the problem. In an age when theatrical storytelling should be intersecting with the changing landscape of contemporary history and emotional dislocation as well as our changing relationship to misremembered past, a story that without major questions or hesitation accepts a monolithic vision of “success” which is of course coterminous with a capitalist media conglomerate whose cultural output obeys the law of profit fails to show us a world in which a different sort of art is possible. The musical solipsism of the plot leads our emotions around the reality of the characters’ relationships and towards the music itself and its relationship with potential commercial success. The audience becomes twice a consumer, buying a ticket to the show and also buying in to the music and the artist’s destined success. The sound of the music itself could not be more longing, emotional, repetitive and sad–but with a messianic rage and anger against a Big Other who will not provide recognition: “Talent Scouts, why have you forsaken me?”

Music is probably the most emotionally powerful (some say manipulative) arts– Its deployment in musical theater and opera deepens the drama and opens up the possibility for an understanding of character, emotion and human conflict that pushes the intellect into new realms. A music that through the workings of a plot calls attention to itself, however, is either a signifier of a cultural decline (only by calling attention to its own importance can a beautiful song find an audience), or a signifier of a musical-theater tradition that no longer is as comfortable setting drama to music: the fake and unimaginative problem of “why are they singing?” is finally solved by a plot in which each song “really happens on-stage” with live musicians who for the most part are “in the scene”. And the emotions called forth from the audience are also less focused on specific relationships and dramatic situations, but are pushed towards a narcissistic concentration on the act of music making itself. What is lost in this transition towards on-stage instruments and songs that are staged as if they were happening (and the bar on-stage for audience drinking is also part of this as well) is that the world of the imagination perhaps has morphed into more an experience of fabricated reality. Notwithstanding the imaginative staging and choreography of many numbers in this particular show and the undeniable musical and acting talent of every actor on stage, the immersive environment of “Once” and its narrow focus leads us further away from a challenging and confrontational theatrical world in which rupture, dislocation, and (why not?) alienation become less and less possible.

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