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Take Paul Whitty, who has finally made his Broadway debut, ten years after narrowly missing the opportunity. His first job after college was in The Full Monty, where he was cast as a vacation replacement for an understudy. He was employed for two weeks without ever going on, and though he hoped to come back to the show, it closed a few months later.
“Once happened at this perfect juncture where I really needed this show and I really needed this group of people,” he says. “I was on the fence about whether I even wanted to stay in New York. Whether I even wanted to keep trying my hand at being an actor.”
For Anne L. Nathan, Once was the chance to unleash her inner rock star. She had appeared on Broadway in several high-profile successes, including Thoroughly Modern Millie and Assassins, but her dream was to be in a band. She was never the right age for spiky productions like Rent or Spring Awakening, so when a rock musical came along that she could actually join, it immediately topped her wish list.
And those are just two of the performers who have been with Oncesince the beginning. Based on the 2006 movie about an Irish guy and a Czech girl who channel their complicated feelings for each other into their music, it launched with a 2011 workshop at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge. From there, most of the cast moved to an Off-Broadway run at New York Theatre Workshop before heading to Broadway in March 2012. Even now, almost half of the thirteen-person ensemble is the same as opening night. Along with Whitty and Nathan, current cast members David Patrick Kelly, Andy Taylor, and Erikka Walsh joined the ensemble in Cambridge, while J. Michael Zygo came on board at NYTW.
“I’ve never been in a show where this many people have stayed so long. It just doesn’t happen,” says Nathan, who plays Girl’s mother Baruška. She does sometimes audition for other roles, but so far, nothing has tempted her to leave Once, which won the 2012 Tony Award for Best Musical. The same is true for Whitty, who plays Billy, the owner of a piano shop where Guy and Girl sing the standout ballad “Falling Slowly.”
Whitty says, “It would have to be a really special thing to take me away from Once, because it’s an ideal thing for me. I’m playing a really wonderful, fun character who I got to create, which is the first time I’ve ever done that on this sort of level.”
The company members were very much a part of the development process and have a creative stake in the material. For instance, the production is staged so that the actors are also the musicians, and everyone in the cast was able to experiment in the rehearsal room until they found just the right instrument. (Whitty’s is the guitar and Nathan’s is the accordion, which she had to learn).
Still, after almost 1,000 Broadway performances (not to mention the two prior runs), keeping things fresh requires an extraordinary amount of work. “Sometimes I give myself an assignment,” Nathan says. “Sometimes I’ll go, ‘Do you think you can do your whole monologue without moving your hands at all and communicate that way?’”
Her biggest challenge is the show’s other major conceit: Along with playing instruments, cast members also sit on stage to watch the scenes they don’t perform. “I think it’s like a meditation,” she says. “You have to be present. You have to be focused. You have to give space to those who are talking.”
Performers also stay sane and creatively flexible by tackling short-term, outside projects. Whitty is currently in Bayonets of Angst at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, and Nathan sang in a Jonathan Larson concert before one of the performances of tick, tick… BOOM! at New York City Center.
Ultimately, though, both Whitty and Nathan say they’ve become better actors by sticking with Once. Whitty notes that the long run has taught him to balance life with work and to make sure his body, voice, and mind are always ready. “You have this blessing to get to repeat it,” he adds. “I wish every actor had this opportunity. It’s so rare. If every actor had the chance to do something 1,000 times, I think they would get this new appreciation for all of the things that you can do. There are so many choices you can make. There are so many ways that you can keep making it better and keep refining it.”
Linda Buchwald tweets about theatre as @PataphysicalSci
Production photos by Joan Marcus