Nothing is conventional in “Once,” a kick-up-your heels musical built on the sparks rising from two people who have been kicked around one too many times in their lives.
It’s a musical with no orchestra, where all the actors not only sing, dance and act, but also play an instrument. And forget the traditional fourth wall separating action and audience. About 20 or 30 minutes before the show, the audience is invited onto the stage to swig a drink from the bar and revel in the Irish bar band’s reels and jigs.
It’s also the only musical to win Academy-, Grammy-, Olivier- and Tony awards. It swept the 2012 Tonys, nabbing honors for best musical, book, actor, direction, orchestration, scenic-, lighting- and sound design. The 2007 film, on which the play is based, won a best original song Oscar for the dreamy ballad, “Falling Slowly.”
And now the national tour is coming to Cedar Rapids on Tuesday night (11/5) to give a rousing Emerald Isle launch to the 2019-20 Broadway season at the Paramount Theatre.
At its core, “Once” is a romance wrapped in drama on the streets of Dublin, where a recent Czech immigrant, Girl, meets a street busker, Guy. Both are giving up on music, but their chance meeting reignites the songwriting passion in their souls.
Guy is “really stuck, because he’s letting fear and past hurts and trauma get in the way of moving forward,” Mariah Lotz, who plays Girl, said by phone from a recent tour stop in Lowell, Mass.
“They ignite each other in various ways. She gives him that push that he wasn’t able to take, but in doing that, she gets to ignite something in herself, because she’s very much a helper, a saver type of character, very much a caregiver. Their music gets set free because of each other.”
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They come together on many levels, bonding through a musical collaboration that also sets their spirits free.
“It’s a story about love, but it’s a story about all types of love,” Lotz said. “It’s a story about friendship love, romantic love and familial love. I think it’s very universal in that way. If you’ve ever been in love, you’re going to be moved and impacted by the show.”
Girl is a dream role for Lotz, 22, who was 16 when she saw the first national tour land in her native Seattle.
The biggest draw for her is the fact that Girl “plays piano, and I’ve been playing since I was 5,” Lotz said. “I never really thought that I would get to use that skill in an acting role — the two worlds have always been separate for me, so it’s really exciting for me to combine those two artistic passions into one.
“And also just the character herself. She is such a classic, juicy, complex female character that every actress wants to play. She has all of her strength — she’s a super-strong and super-funny character, but she’s also deeply flawed. She lies and she makes mistakes.
“Her journey is really exciting to go on, because she’s very much a heroine and I look up to her in a lot of ways, but she also has her troubles and flaws that make her a very well-rounded human,” she said.
“It’s very much a play with music. I love the musical aspects of the show. I love singing and playing the music, but the text, itself, is so rich and it’s really fun to explore it.”
Lotz moved to New York City in the summer of 2018, after earning a BFA from Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J. She has auditioned for “Once” a couple times, and went to an open call in New York this summer “on a whim.” That led to one long day of callbacks, where she went in three times that day, and that was it. She landed the role.
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“They really knew what they wanted, and were very quick with it,” she said, adding that she’s used to months of auditioning for a part. “I could hardly believe it when I got the call.”
Rehearsals started in Fort Myers, Fla., in early August, and the first performances ran through mid-September, before the tour started at the end of that month.
Lotz fell in love with theater at an early age. As the daughter of classical violinists who taught and performed in orchestras and regional theaters in Oregon, she grew up watching the beginning of shows from the orchestra pit.
By nature and nurture, she and her younger brother are musical. She sings and plays piano and a little ukulele, and her brother plays piano and guitar.
She was hooked on theater with her first stage turn at age 8 — a bit part in a professional production of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” at Seattle’s Fifth Avenue Theatre. Unlike so many of the adult characters, she did not get cooked into a meat pie.
“They kept me out of the room when they were doing some of the scarier scenes,” she said. “It was a beautiful show to be in, because that (musical) score is so gorgeous. It think that really ignited something in me from a young age.”
A mezzo soprano, Lotz also took a songwriting class in college, and has started exploring that side of her musical path in earnest for the past year. Her style leans toward an indie folk pop sound, influenced by Sara Bareilles, with a musical theater flavor. She also writes poetry, and said putting thoughts and feelings into words, then turning them into melodies, is especially “satisfying and therapeutic.”
The many facets of her artistry meld seamlessly into the role of Girl.
“Music is something that caters to our emotions,” she said. “Especially in ‘Once,’ because it’s a musical about songwriters, it serves as a window into the emotional life of the characters.”
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The music in “Once” also steps outside the norm for musical theater, she said, not only because the actors also serve as the orchestra.
“Outside of that, usually in most musicals, the music exists outside the reality of the text,” she said, with the actors breaking into song in a kind of “suspended reality.”
“But in ‘Once,’ they’re actually singing the songs, because we are songwriters. The songs take place in a recording studio or it’s a little aside where I get some alone time, so I play a song for myself on the piano, or there’s one where I’m listening to a recording and I’m singing along to it. It’s sort of grounded — I’m acting that I’m singing the song, I’m not using the song as a suspended reality.”
“This is a really good musical for people that are a little bit wary of musical theater and are more into plays,” she said, “because this is very much more of a play with music than it is a musical. So for anyone who is hesitant about musicals, this is good show for them to attend.”
Those strengths are what has garnered the show so much industry and audience love.
“It touches on a lot of very visceral and human truths,” Lotz said. “It’s a combination of that. The story is so human and so relatable to people, and I think also just the way that they utilize the music in the show is really unusual to any other musical, and it’s just very powerful. It really serves the story and creates a deeper emotional impact.”
• What: Broadway at the Paramount: “Once”
• Where: Paramount Theatre, 123 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids
• When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday (11/5)
• Tickets: $53 to $78, Paramount Ticket Office, (319) 366-8203 or Paramounttheatrecr.com
• Show’s website: Oncethemusicaltour.com
• Broadway at the Paramount continues: “Jersey Boys,” Nov. 22; Cirque Dreams “Holidaze,” Dec. 10; “An American in Paris,” Feb. 18; “Million Dollar Quartet,” Feb. 29; Riverdance: New 25th Anniversary Show, April 30; www.paramounttheatrecr.com/Content/Events/Broadway-at-the-Paramount.aspx
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