SALT LAKE CITY — All musicals require that its performers act, sing and dance. The Tony Award-winning musical "Once" is no exception, but adds to the requirements the cast doubling as their own orchestra.
Pioneer Theatre Company brings the 2007 Sundance film-turned-Broadway musical to its stage Feb. 15-March 2. The show tells the simple story of an Irish street musician and a Czech woman falling in love through their shared passion for music.
"Music tends to be really important in most cultures, but … music is so much part of these people's lives and so much a part of the community and so much part of how they relate to each other," said Scott Anthony, the L.A.-based actor who plays studio engineer Eamon and serves as the production's assistant musical director. "Having your actors actually play the instruments just helps drive that home in the story."
Because music is so intrinsic to the story, it's important that all the actors also be excellent instrumentalists. Anthony plays seven instruments throughout the course of this production — a daunting prospect for someone with less musical experience.
"I've been playing piano and singing since I was 5 years old," he said. "And picked up guitar, bass, drums, mandolin, all those various other things along the way."
New York-based actor Cody Craven, who plays Andrej, has a similar story. Thanks to his father's work as a folk jazz musician, Craven found music at a young age. He started with the fiddle, then moved on piano and mandolin as he got older, before adding percussion, guitar, bass and an ever-growing list of instruments to his skill set.
But in this production, Craven and Anthony are not the outliers — they're the standard. The entire cast of PTC's "Once" is multitalented, and most play multiple instruments — or picked up a couple of extras for the show. Mary Fanning Driggs, who plays Baruska, learned to play accordion specifically for PTC's "Once." The heightened musical requirements of the show makes it a perfect opportunity for actor/musicians like Anthony, Craven and the rest of the cast because it combines their passions.
"After seeing the way that the show was done, all I wanted was to be in it," Craven said. PTC's production will be his fourth experience onstage in "Once."
And while "Once" is a demanding show for any actor, PTC's production has taken it further by staging it with set changes and placing it on a bigger stage. Most previous productions of the musical have had minimal props, with the entirety of the action taking place in one set. But Utah theatergoers can expect this production to have set changes, transitions and turntables.
These changes don't come without their share of problems, especially as each change impacts the acoustics of the instruments. Craven said the tech team has worked tirelessly to get things just right.
"They actually just brought in-ear monitors for a couple of us. … Every single instrument is already being wirelessly transmitted," Craven said. "To add in three sets of in-ear monitors on top of all of the other wireless frequencies going on, including the other stage within the same building … I'm astounded at the sound guys' resilience and their ability to navigate all of those wireless channels."
Craven credited the creative team with conceiving a vision for the show long before the actors began rehearsals. He met choreographer Lainie Sakakura months ago when he was auditioning and she already had the choreography planned in her head.
Compared to the original Broadway production, the choreography for the PTC show is "much more of a spectacle in this production," Craven said. "… Lanie is insane — she'll tell you she's crazy." He encountered her vision during his callback audition.
"We were practically cartwheeling around this room, like, on our knees, slapping the floor," he recalled. "We were all drenched in sweat at the end of this dance call looking at each other like, 'What have we gotten ourselves into?'"
In addition to dancing, the performers also sing, play their instruments, stay in character and move scenery. Craven said one of the trickiest things to get right is stepping off the moving turntables while playing an instrument — but even with all of the challenges, he and the other cast members wouldn't be anywhere else.
"Being fortunate enough to make a living doing acting or playing music, … I always feel weird talking about it being hard work," Anthony said. "But it kind of is hard work … doing all of those things at once. It is much harder than any job when you're only doing one of those things."
New York-based actor Zander Meisner, who plays Švec in this production, said he hopes everyone who comes to see "Once" realizes the actors are playing the instruments. People are so used to the idea of them acting, he said, that it's fairly common, especially for those sitting farther back, to assume the actors are mime playing their instruments.
"I'm really, really doing things that most humans shouldn't be able to do," Meisner said. "We are absolutely playing these instruments and there is no orchestra — we are the orchestra. We are listening, we are breathing, it's all one thing. It's all very collaborative between the music and the drama."4 comments on this story
But even with the challenges and balancing act these actors face, Craven said their love for what they do is undiminished.
"Everybody just has so much fun because, you know, most of us would do this for free," Craven said. "To be paid for it is literally a dream come true."
If you go …
What: Pioneer Theatre Company presents “Once”
When: Feb. 15-March 2, Monday-Thursday, 7 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday matinées, 2 p.m.
Where: Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East
How much: $44-$66