December 18, 2018

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All about the music

Tony Award-winning production prepares for its Winnipeg run

Jeremy Walmsely (right) portrays Guy, a vacuum repairman/street musician and Amanda LeBlanc plays Girl, a Czech immigrant. (Dylan Hewlett Photo)</p>

Jeremy Walmsely (right) portrays Guy, a vacuum repairman/street musician and Amanda LeBlanc plays Girl, a Czech immigrant. (Dylan Hewlett Photo)

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/2/2018 (306 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

You could call Once the musician’s musical.

The multiple Tony Award-winning smash Broadway musical by John Carney, based on his 2007 film of the same name, tells the story of an Irish vacuum repairman/street musician (known only as Guy) who is about to give up on music entirely — that is, until he meets an enchanting Czech immigrant (known only as Girl) who has musical aspirations of her own.

Both the film and the musical feature the music and lyrics of Glen Hansard (of the Irish indie rock band The Frames) and singer/songwriter Markéta Irglová, who starred in the film as the original Guy and Girl.

A co-production with The Grand Theatre in London, Ont., Once opens at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre’s John Hirsch Mainstage tonight (Feb. 15) and runs until March 10, featuring Jeremy Walmsley in the role of Guy and Amanda LeBlanc in the role of Girl.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/2/2018 (306 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

You could call Once the musician’s musical.

The multiple Tony Award-winning smash Broadway musical by John Carney, based on his 2007 film of the same name, tells the story of an Irish vacuum repairman/street musician (known only as Guy) who is about to give up on music entirely — that is, until he meets an enchanting Czech immigrant (known only as Girl) who has musical aspirations of her own.

Both the film and the musical feature the music and lyrics of Glen Hansard (of the Irish indie rock band The Frames) and singer/songwriter Markéta Irglová, who starred in the film as the original Guy and Girl.

A co-production with The Grand Theatre in London, Ont., Once opens at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre’s John Hirsch Mainstage tonight (Feb. 15) and runs until March 10, featuring Jeremy Walmsley in the role of Guy and Amanda LeBlanc in the role of Girl.

Since this is a musical by musicians about musicians, it’s only right that the actors onstage should also play all of the instruments live.

"There are a few songs in this show where all of the actors are playing together and it’s one of the coolest things you’ll see onstage," says Ben Ross, the show’s technical director.

Once is unique in that way; the instruments are not hidden away in an orchestra pit. They are an integral part of the show, which creates new challenges for the production staff. Unlike other musicals Ross worked on at Royal MTC, Once is not about spectacle.

"It’s much more intimate than a full-scale musical," he says. "This show is not about making them loud or amplifying them — you could almost call it acoustic. We’re just reinforcing what they’re playing onstage. Whereas with a normal musical, we make it louder, we make everything heard as much as possible, and that’s not really the goal here."

That said, every voice and instrument must still be wirelessly miked, which poses another delicate logistical dance.

"Radio frequencies become a challenge in the building because you can only get so many without disrupting one another, so it’s a huge challenge to get things to work wirelessly together," Ross says. (As well, hiding a wireless mic pack on, say, a tiny soprano ukulele also requires some ingenuity.)

Since this is a musical by musicians about musicians, it's only right that the actors onstage should also play all of the instruments live. (Claus Anderson)</p>

Since this is a musical by musicians about musicians, it's only right that the actors onstage should also play all of the instruments live. (Claus Anderson)

Assistant production manager Zahra Larche was appointed "instrument guru" for Once. She handles travel, storage and care — no small task, considering there are more than 30 instruments involved with the show.

"Every instrument has an exact duplicate, if not more," she explains. "Jeremy’s guitar, for example, has four duplicates: three different tunings for three different songs, plus a spare. We’re always ready for an emergency around here."

Many of the instruments for Once had to be in Winnipeg well before rehearsals started.

"We brought them to RMTC to allow them time to actually acclimatize to the space," Larche says. "These instruments are really sensitive to temperature and I’m sure, being a Manitoban yourself, you know how cold it gets here and how different it is in London. As well, every theatre is very different."

Local luthier Allan Beardsell was brought on as an instrument specialist, and during the performances themselves, instrument technicians Gary Koshinsky and Tim Clark will act as something of a pit crew, making sure every instrument is in tune and stringed. Piano tuner Ivan Svenda will also visit twice a week for the entire run to make sure the spinet piano, which travelled to Winnipeg from London, is in tip-top shape.

There are other considerations for a show such as this, too — such as the matter of chemistry between performer and instrument, especially since the performers in the show are not playing instruments they own. Following Once’s run in London, the musical director notes that the guitar Walmsley played might not be the most precise fit for him.

"The voice of the guitar and Jeremy and the character just never really clicked," Larche says. "It was still a great show, but something wasn’t quite right." And so, for the Winnipeg run, they swapped out the Gibson J-45 for a Taylor guitar. "It seems to be going very well," she says.

For Walmsley, who is both an actor and a musician, playing Guy has been a career highlight.

"It’s special when a role is presented that combines both worlds," he says. "And the challenges of being in the music industry and the problems that Guy’s character goes through, questioning music and where he’s at — I’ve had moments like that, so it’s been interesting for me to play this role at a time in my life when I was ready for it."

The cast of Once. (Dylan Hewlett Photo)</p>

The cast of Once. (Dylan Hewlett Photo)

Walmsley played the role of Emcee in the Mirvish Theatre production of Once in Toronto in 2015, so he’s familiar with the dexterity required of several of his castmates, who are tasked with playing multiple instruments. "It’s a treat to just focus on the guitar and the voice," he says with a laugh.

And if you ask those involved in the production, they’ll tell you there’s something special about the music in this show — which, over the years, has been honoured with a Grammy, an Oscar and an Olivier Award (London’s Tony equivalent).

"It really sneaks up on you — it starts with one person and then suddenly you have 12 amazing actors/musicians/vocalists joining together and making this wonderful sound," Larche says. "A wave of feeling just washes over everyone. It’s very intimate music compared to a regular musical. It’s not your big ol’ song and dance.

"What I also really love about the storyline is a lot of this music is meant to seem like it’s being created on the spot, and it does feel like a natural jam session," she adds.

"You’ll never find an opportunity to see a band like this — mandolin, guitar, banjo, ukulele, cello, violin, accordion, bass," Ross adds. "It’s such a mix of instruments and the harmony is incredible."

"Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, who wrote the music, they touched on something so beautiful and powerful that resonates with many people," Walmsley says. "It’s very rare that you can write music that can touch people even if they don’t necessarily listen to your genre of music. The Oscar Award-winning song Falling Slowly – everyone knows that song. Whether or not they listen to folk, rock, pop, jazz, they can hear that and go, ‘Oh wow.’"

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @JenZoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti
Columnist

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.

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History

Updated on Thursday, February 15, 2018 at 11:57 AM CST: Typo fixed.

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