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[Herald Interview] Behind magic moments of ‘Once’

Music supervisors share the Broadway show’s true charm

Kim Mun-jeong can’t forget the day when the set, props and lights all came together onstage for the Korean production of the musical “Once.”

The set was a rustic Irish pub, with walls covered with tiny lamps and mirrors of varying size and shape.

“Other than the mirrors and lamps, there was really nothing. It was just one simple set,” she said, sitting on a couch at Seoul Arts Center on Thursday, two hours before the night’s show started.

“I thought to myself ‘What is this show? What made it so successful?’”

As one of the most sought-after musical orchestrators in Korea, Kim has worked on numerous shows ― some of them original Korean works and others popular Broadway shows, but the set of “Once” was the simplest of all. 
The Korean cast of the musical “Once” (Seensee Company)
The Korean cast of the musical “Once” (Seensee Company)

Yet, this was the show that took Broadway by a storm and snatched eight Tony Awards in 2012, including the one for best musical.

“‘Once’ isn’t like ‘Wicked’ or ‘Mama Mia!’” said Martin Lowe, the Broadway arranger who won the Tony for best orchestration for the original 2012 work.

“It doesn’t shout at you. It doesn’t shout ‘Love me, love me.’ It has a very gentle charm.”

In fact, “Once” is a show that doesn’t fit into the Broadway stereotype.

Adapted from a 2006 indie-flick of the same title, the musical follows an eventful week of two unnamed characters ― Guy, a singer-songwriter who repairs vacuum cleaners for a living, and Girl, a Czech immigrant who plays piano whenever she can. They meet by chance, make music and inevitably fall in love.

Unlike traditional Broadway shows, it lacks glittery costumes, flashy dance moves and lavish sets. Instead, it focuses on the two characters’ love story and poignant music played with striking sincerity. Its 12-member cast not only acts, sings and dances, but they all play instruments, doubling as an ensemble on stage.

Lowe couldn’t remember whose idea it was to make it an actor-musician show, minus an orchestra and a conductor.

“It was an inevitable decision,” he said, “because the story is about musicians and their music-making.

“The show would just look strange if the two lead roles play their instruments, while other actors don’t and there’s an orchestra in the pit.”

For Kim, when she was offered the job for the show’s Korean production, “Once” seemed like an impossible show to put on in Korea.

“Frankly speaking, I had my doubts up until after we finished the first audition. We couldn’t find actors who could play the instruments as required by the roles,” she said. 
Kim Mun-jeong, Martin Lowe
Kim Mun-jeong, Martin Lowe

Some members of the cast learned from scratch how to play their instruments. The two ladies playing Girl ― Jeon Mi-do and Park Ji-yeon ― had very little piano ability when they auditioned.

“For me, this project was very hard, because I couldn’t help them (the actors). There’s nothing I can do for them if they make mistakes onstage,” she said.

Lowe praised the Korean cast for all the devotion they showed during rehearsals, adding that they were now really good onstage.

“The audience just love it when the actors all start playing their instruments,” he said. That’s one of the reasons why “Once” became a hit in Broadway and other places, he added.

“People just love to see music being made in front of them.”

Kim said the show could be a disappointment to those who expect a visual feast or a jaw-dropping spectacle. What “Once” is all about is, after all, a refreshing break from all the glitz and glam.

“Personally, I am glad that there is a place for a show like this in Korea’s musical theater landscape,” she said.

The Korean rendition of “Once” stars Yoon Do-hyun and Lee Chang-hee as Guy and Jeon and Park as Girl. It runs through March 29 at CJ Towol Theater of Seoul Arts Center in Seocho-dong, Seoul. For more information, visit www.iseensee.com or call (02) 577-1987.

By Lee Sun-young (milaya@heraldcorp.com)
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