Once upon a time, a Guy met a Girl, music happened, and they fell in love. But every happily ever after looks different, and sometimes people have to make sacrifices for their passions.
The Phoenix Theater is bringing the musical “Once” to its stages now through June 16, led by Director Pasha Yamotahari who traveled extensively, conducting research to bring authenticity to this story of music, passion, and chasing one’s dreams.
The story takes place in Dublin where Guy works in a vacuum repair shop by day with his father and by night sings at a local pub and writes songs. He’s about to give up on his musical dreams when he meets Girl, a muse who inspires him and helps to change his life.
“Many artists know they have some sort of something they can contribute to humanity as a whole,” says Yamotahari. “What connects me to Guy’s story is that he has given up completely. He is giving away the guitar, he doesn’t think he can make it. Then how easily the world and the universe can present some sort of muse, the Girl being that muse. Realizing they connect with each other to bring back his passion is what makes this story so beautiful.”
The musical is based on the 2007 film by John Carney. Music and lyrics were created by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova with a book by Enda Walsh. The musical opened on Broadway in 2012 and would go on to be nominated for 11 Tony awards, winning eight, including Best Musical.
It is best known for the song “Falling Slowly.”
Yamotahari says he always had an affinity for Irish authors and musicians. “Once” was one of the first musicals he saw before starting work in musical theater.
Traveling to Dublin
The Phoenix Theatre grants six-week sabbaticals to staff members who have been with them for seven years or more. Yamotahari joined them in 2009. So, when he took his sabbatical, he went to Canada, Iceland, Scotland, Finland, his home country of France, and Ireland, where he did background research for “Once.”
While in Ireland, he visited regional theaters and examined the busker culture that Guy is a part of in “Once.”
“The busker culture is still very vibrant in Europe,” Yamotahari says. “Unless you’re in the major metropolises in the U.S., it isn’t prominent.”
He immersed himself in the busker culture while in Ireland, interviewing buskers to learn what their day jobs were, how and why they did what they did and the ways in which they formed a community. He said there is a rich culture in which there are deep family ties.
“The support each other,” Yamotahari says.
“One thing I heard from the men performing is that it isn’t just about them performing, but about keeping the streets of Dublin alive with art. This community gives life to the already existing beautiful sounds. They give musicality to the architecture. It was lovely to be immersed in that and to learn quite a bit of something that has been vibrant in Irish culture for centuries.”
Infusing that flavor in the stage production
This in-depth research informed his direction of “Once” in many ways.
The Broadway and touring production set is very iconic—it is a pub in which audience members can come on stage and have a drink preshow or during intermission. However, that set is copyrighted and regional theaters are not allowed to replicate it. So Yamotahari decided to draw upon what he saw in Dublin.
“We are going to celebrate the buskers,” Yamotahari says. “It is as though you are on the cobblestone streets of Ireland. Our stylistic direction will be to have the audience come out to see this beautiful ballet of people of all ages celebrating music and who they are in the streets and making human connections, musical connections. So throughout the piece, we have our Guy and Girl and their story—within that I want people to see how easy it is for humans to connect when they have a passion in common.”
When the audience first walks into the space, there are musicians playing songs the way they might today on the streets of Dublin. The goal is to create a warm and inviting scene with live entertainment right up until Guy’s first entrance.
Keeping it fresh and real
Another thing the show’s director learned while in Dublin is that music is never the same. The structure and words may stay the same, but the song’s energy and motion changes every time it is performed. He said this is especially important in a musical like “Once” where the main characters are creating music as part of the plot. So no matter how many times they perform it, the same song is never done the same way.
Yamotahari said the choreographer, Nicole Olson, focused on how to make the dancing feel naturalistic. Olson studied the artists’ bodies to adapt the choreography to the moves their bodies made so they looked more natural. It was a way, he says, to accentuate not just the beautiful music, but the passion that comes when musicians are playing their instruments and what the body wants to do. In other parts, where they have a couple of strong dancers, they created spectacular movements that provide some surprising and unexpected moments that Yamotahari hopes will be fun and joyful.
Ultimately, though, everything comes back to the story, a story of music, a story of rags to riches, a story of pursuing passions and the sacrifices needed to achieve them.
And it’s a story told through intense talent on the stage of The Phoenix Theatre.
“It’s not your regular show,” Yamotahari says. “These are artists that act, sing, dance, and play instruments. When you are at a professional theater company and you have three weeks, that’s a lot of commitment, passion, courage and a lot of challenge. I hope audiences realize that it takes a village like Dublin; it takes a city like Phoenix to create this and it comes with time and tragedies, but at the end, I hope audiences really enjoy and can feel the amount of energy, love, and electricity that went into telling this story.”
The Phoenix Theatre, 1825 N. Central Avenue, Phoenix,
602.254.2151, phoenixtheatre.com, various times through June 16, $56-$106.