Anyone that has passion for music, whether you are a musician yourself or you are just an avid listener, knows the power that it has to transform, connect and help people overcome anything. Once the Musical tells the story of a Dublin street musician that was almost about to give up all of his hopes and dreams of being a musician, until the love from a beautiful young woman for both him and his music made those dreams possible again.
The cast of Once is an emsemble of those who are both actors and musicians, so the depth of the music appreciation in this musical is as deep and real as the complex subjects of love and relationships. Recently, I was able to chat with one of the cast members John Steven Gardner, who has been with the Once production since August 2013 and also acts at the tour's Music Captain, about his experiences and his role with Once the Musical before their upcoming February run at the Fisher Theatre in Detroit.
What's life been like with Once the Musical?
It's been like a once in a lifetime opportunity. For a lot of us on the show, we've been actors and we've been musicians for most of our lives, but it's a pretty rare opportunity to do both of those in one show, especially in a show that is as special as Once.
Speak more about being both a musician and an actor in Once.
In a way, it makes total logical sense for it to be an actor/musician show because of the storyline; two musicians who fall in love and they make this gorgeous music together. I think one of the things that having a cast full of actor/musicians who play the score as well as play the characters in the story; it elevates that element of the story and makes it more of a visceral for the audience. It makes audience members tap into the story and makes them feel closer to it.
You are the Music Captain for Once. What exactly is that?
The Music Captain position is basically the person who is most responsible for keeping what we put together in rehearsals with our music director and the rest of our music team. One of the really brilliant things about this show that is unique is that it gives all the actors a lot of freedom to shift things slightly musically or change things around a little bit to keep it fresh and to keep it vibrant. My job is to facilitate when people can do that and when to rein people back and when to give people new ideas. Also, one of the things we do with this show we have a working pub on stage and 15 minutes before the show we actually play some Irish folk songs while the audience can enjoy a drink or just hang out with us if they want. That's a rotating pre-show. We do six songs and we've got a list of probably 25 songs at this point that can go into those slots.
When you talk about that freedom the musicians have, what sort of ideas do you put out there to keep things fresh?
Honestly, the cast is so self regulatory. They make my job really easy because they are all so brilliant. Usually, what will happen is they'll just try something one night on stage and maybe its slightly different, maybe it's a little bit more different, and I talk to them afterwards about that choice and see how they felt and see how we feel about keeping it or shifting it around. They are a cast of go-getters. They really like to experiment, within reason. Nobody does anything crazy on stage. It's real fun to see how we surprise each other. At this point, we're about 520 performances in or something along those lines; it's really fun for us to surprise each other with those things.
What is it about Once that sets it apart from the others?
For me, the thing that sets it apart from almost every other musical is how real the story is, how real its love story is. One of the things that sometimes turns me off to musicals, and I know a lot of people around the country feel similarly to some of this, is that it doesn't feel realistic sometimes when a story is told through this rose-tinted lenses of boy meets girl, boy gets girl and they all live happily ever after. I think this show really takes into account that human relationships are very complicated and there are all sorts of outside forces that can influence whether a relationship succeeds or not. One of the things this show does really well kind of say to the audience "hey that's okay."
What do you think the overall message is of Once?
I'm going to quote the show on this one. It's taken a little bit out of context but I think it works. I think "to live, you have to love." It's a quote that's said at the end of first Act and I think that applies itself to a lot of the characters storylines that go on throughout the show. That's one of the things that this show is urges the audience to do, or at least I see it urging the audience to do is that things are complicated and sometimes things don't work out, but never stop giving yourself to other people.
How did you originally get into music and theater?
I grew up in a bit of music household. My mom was an opera singer for a long time so I grew up around a lot of classical music. My dad is also a huge bluegrass and folk fan so I grew up listening to Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, The Eagles, Bill Monroe and all those kinds of guys. There were always instruments lying around because he's much more of a musician than he will admit. For me, it was a fun way to pass the time. I would just pick something up and start to try to teach myself how to play the instrument. I would say on and off I've been playing music for most of my life. I d the guitar was the first thing I picked up seriously and that was when I was 10-11 years old. I didn't do my first play until I was like 15 years old, not until high school that I started doing theater.
(Photo Credit: Joan Marcus)