Top positive review
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Equal to, but different from the soundtrack
on March 25, 2012
Let's cut to the chase--it's hard to have an objective opinion of the new cast album of "Once." As is increasingly the trend for Broadway shows, "Once" is based on a movie, and a very unusual movie at that. The movie was a delicate, wispy story of two musicians meeting, transforming each other's lives and, in a bittersweet ending, moving on to chase their respective destinies. The "love, not-love" story was powerful because it was so restrained; as their time together was so brief it felt like an extended first date, with all the reservations, hopes, and potentialities involved. As it turns out, the story had extra poignancy in that it mirrored the real-life experiences of the principal actors, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, who briefly became a couple and then similarly moved on. "Once" was a tiny movie made for almost nothing, but it has had an outsized impact on everyone I know who saw it.
The obvious question is it appropriate to bring this to *Broadway*? Would a full-blown production ruin the essence of the story, or be a tonic in today's era of over-the-top offerings? Unthinkable or a blessing?
I'll leave off reviewing the show here, and focus on the recording at hand. I'll begin by saying that your enjoyment of the cast album of "Once" will be colored by a whole slew of external factors. The original movie soundtrack was done in indy-rock, pseudo-celtic style. Those drawn to those musical stylings, and the unique vocals of Hansard and Irglová, might very well dismiss the new cast recording as cover album by singers who just don't get it. For those who have not heard the soundtrack, or like more of a pop sound, this won't be an issue and the power of the songs will come shining through. For what it's worth, I love the soundtrack, but Hansard's raw, quasi-angry sound as he belts the power anthems makes them a bit wearying after repeated hearings. Hansard's cast album counterpart Steve Kazee can still belt it, just in a different vocal style.
The songs themselves are, as they were in the movie, fantastic. What's curious is that there are no real "book numbers" in the show, and yet they're all book numbers. That was another paradox in the movie... since the story is about song-writing musicians, there are countless opportunities for them to unselfconsciously insert songs into the story: "Hey could you help me with a lyric here?" "I want to run through a new piece before I perform it, care to listen?" Recording sessions and performances happen onstage. But the songs capture the character's feelings, fears and hopes and move the story forward. "Falling Slowly" is again breathtaking, capturing the tentative, budding feelings between the principals. "If You Want Me" is a powerful ballad of a woman trapped in a complicated relationship that should have universal appeal. "When Your Mind's Made Up" remains a powerful angst-ridden cry against a doomed relationship. Hansard and Irglová wrote two new songs that fit well with the others: "Abandoned in Brandon" and "Ej Pada Pada Rosicka," both given to secondary characters that bulk up the story, and more importantly, strengthen the mood. All in all, I have to say that while the score wasn't written for the stage originally, it *fits* the stage magnificently--far better than many new shows and far better than it should.
The cast performers are great. Cristin Milioti and Steve Kazee obviously don't bring the authenticity of Hansard and Irglová as the original (and real-life) couple, but they succeed brilliantly in this new medium and totally own the songs. Milioti has a velvety sound that can still hit like a hammer when needed. Kazee's voice is less steely than Hansard's but carries through with all the same emotion. The stage musicians follow the trend of recent performances of "Sweeney Todd," "Company," among others in that they stay onstage throughout and play their own instruments. Captured on disc, they sound fantastic, easily mastering the different styles of music and playing with cohesive power. In short, they sound like a real band. I have to say the cast album is more... "polished" than the soundtrack. Some will scream that makes it less authentic, but it also creates a richer listening experience.
I won't say the new cast recording is better than the soundtrack--they're very different as befits two different mediums. But I will say the new recording is fantastic. Give it a listen.