It’s been seven years since the smash hit Once – The Musical received eight Tony Awards, including the award for Best Musical, as well as four Drama Desk Awards and a Grammy Award. Based on the 2007 John Carney film that shares its name, Once is about to make its first appearance in Sydney in a brand-new production by Darlinghurst Theatre Company, directed by Richard Carroll (whose recent credits include the Sydney Theatre Award-winning production of Calamity Jane.)
With a book by Enda Walsh and music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, Once is the story of a Dubliner about to abandon his dream of a music career when he meets a young Czech woman who reignites his passion for his craft.
The lead roles of Guy and Girl in the Sydney premiere will be played by Toby Francis, best known to Australian audiences for playing Charlie Price in Kinky Boots, and Stefanie Caccamo, who made her professional debut in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical as Betty and understudying the role of Carole King.
Francis tells Theatre People about hearing Once’s best-known number, ‘Falling slowly’ (a song that won an Academy Award after its inclusion in Once on film), performed while in class at university.
“I don’t remember the people, but I remember the moment and where I was and just being in that hall and hearing this song,” Francis says. “It was stunning and I fell in love with it and I downloaded the soundtrack to the film, and I thought it was one of the most incredible things I’d ever heard.”
Later on, Francis learned of plans for Once’s Australian premiere production, which opened at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre in September 2014.
“I auditioned for it and I did not get a callback because my guitar playing skills were not up to scratch” Francis says. “There was probably more to it than that, but I can tell you I definitely was fumbling my way around the guitar at the time.”
As to the show itself, Francis says, “It’s a very human story with astonishing music and it never once wallows and says, ‘Aren’t we sad?’ Because it’s not actually about sadness. It’s about happiness in the face of it.”
Caccamo says her appreciation of the musical is continuing to grow in the rehearsal process.
“I’ve really fallen in love with this piece and I fall in love with it more and more every day we rehearse it, every day we’re piecing it together,” she says. “I love the story and the interpersonal relationships and what it really means to love and support someone.”
She also talks about her character, Girl.
“I feel like I’ve learned so much from this character already – her strength, her drive, her passion,” Caccamo says. “She really is this driving force in the show and she has this unwavering ethic that compels her to stop Guy from giving up on his music and his life.”
An aspect of Once that is unusual for stage musicals is that the cast also serves as the orchestra, demanding that all of its performers are quadruple threats.
Francis discusses the experience to date of combining his skills as an actor, a singer, a dancer and a musician.
“After the first day [of rehearsals], I woke up at 3 in the morning and was awake until our second rehearsal because I was so excited and I wanted to come back and play and do all of that stuff,” he says. “It is a challenge but it’s a welcome one and it’s one that is more exciting than it is terrifying.
“The musicians around me in this show are incredibly capable and very good at what they do. I’m surrounded by guitarists who have been playing for longer than I have – and I’ve been playing for 17 years – and they know more than I do … Being surrounded by a cast who are so capable and real, proper musicians who are going to push you further to be a musician is a challenge but it’s so exciting.”
Caccamo is similarly enjoying the experience.
“It’s amazing having our musical director, Vicky [Falconer-Pritchard], be in the cast as well,” she says. “She’s up on the floor with us and everyone’s vibing off of each other and figuring out who should be playing where and what feels right. It’s really such a creative process. It’s so collaborative and everyone has a say. I’d never thought that I would do anything like this in my life!”
Caccamo is a self-taught piano player.
“The reason I really wanted to do this was because it scared me and I’m really challenging myself, because everyone is such a phenomenal musician and I’m really learning a lot. It’s really special.”
The Darlinghurst Theatre Company production of Once is not a replica of the Broadway production.
“It’s a brand-new production,” Francis says. “It’s been beautifully conceptualised by Richard [Carroll] and Amy [Campbell] and Vicky.”
Caccamo shares a further insight as to what audiences can expect.
“I think Enda Walsh has created such a universal, truthful piece of work that when people come and watch it, it will resonate with them in some way, no matter what they’ve been through. I think people will come and they’ll be moved by how real and raw these characters are,” she says.
“The music is gorgeous and, yes, it’s a musical, but it hasn’t got all the glitz and glam. It’s life on stage and I think it’s time for Sydney to see something really raw like that, in terms of a musical.”
The production will be staged in Darlinghurst’s 200-seat Eternity Playhouse.
“I think it’s absolutely perfect for the show,” Caccamo says. “I don’t think there’s a bad seat in the house. I think everyone is going to be so drawn to what’s happening in there.”
Francis is also excited that the Eternity Playhouse is housing Once’s first Sydney outing.
“To do a show in a 200-seat theatre … there’s something about the intensity of that audience and how you can play to a smaller group and you can play more subtlety. It changes the entire energy of the room, and that’s why Once is perfect for this venue … It’s like sharing a story rather than telling one.”
So, why should musical theatre goers head to the Sydney premiere of Once?
“It’s a stunning story. It won eight Tony Awards, an Oscar and a Grammy, and not for nothing,” Francis says. “It uses all of those elements of music theatre that are at its disposal to tell a story in the most perfect way … It’s a beautiful story and a beautiful show, and I think we could all use a bit more of that.”
Caccamo hopes those attending walk away from Once feeling as though they’re not alone.
“I think everyone – and I mean everyone – deals with adversity in their life and it’s so easy to just give up,” she says. “But I think the message in this show is to look to the people around you, look to your friends and bring yourself back to life and go after what you want.”
ONCE – THE MUSICAL – SEASON DETAILS
Season: 26 June – 21 July 2019
Where: Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s Eternity Playhouse (39 Burton Street, Darlinghurst)
Times: Tuesdays – Saturdays 7:30pm, Sundays 5pm
Thursday matinee on 4 July at 2pm, Wednesday matinees on 10 and 17 July at 2pm
Saturday matinees on 13 and 20 July at 2pm
Prices: $58 – $76
Bookings: (02) 8356 9987 or www.darlinghursttheatre.com/whats-on/once