The new Broadway musical “Once,” directed by John Tiffany and opening Sunday at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, is one of those shows in which the cast is also the band.
Based on the Oscar-winning 2006 film of the same name — about an Irish busker (simply “Guy”) and his whirlwind weeklong encounter with a Czech woman (“Girl”) he meets in Dublin — “Once” fills the stage with a dozen actors who play everything from ukulele to banjo to accordion to a beat box called a cajon.
It stars Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti, as two lonely people who share their loneliness and a love of music.
When not playing a scene, the ensemble stays on stage for nearly the entire show, occupying chairs on the perimeter of the wood-and-mirrored bar-room set, instruments ever at the ready.
Two of those actors — Broadway veterans Anne L. Nathan and Lucas Papaelias — have deep ties to the Lower Hudson Valley, and key roles in the story.
Nathan (“Sunday in the Park with George,” “Assassins”) grew up in Monsey and graduated from Ramapo High School, where she recalls playing choice character roles for director Steve Zawel.
“Pretty much all the roles I’m starting to play now I did before I was 14,” she says with a laugh, at a corner table in the Broadway haunt Angus McIndoe after a recent preview performance.
“In high school, I was Fraulein Schneider in ‘Cabaret,’ I was Mame in ‘Mame,’ I played Bloody Mary in ‘South Pacific’ at Temple Beth El,” she says. “I played Mama Rose when I was 15. I’m just repeating my career from an earlier life.”
In “Once,” she plays another meaty character role, the girl’s mother, Barushka, and accompanies the action on piano, accordion, tambourine and melodica, a breath-powered hand-held keyboard instrument.
Papaelias — a Somers native who grew up a stone’s throw from the Schoolhouse Theater in Croton Falls, and played John Procter in “The Crucible” while at Somers High School — plays Svec (pronounced SHVETS), a Czech with long hair and a passion for Irish soap operas.
A guitarist who wrote and played the incidental on-stage music for the 2007 Broadway revival of “Cyrano de Bergerac” that starred Kevin Kline and Jennifer Garner, Papelias plays much more than the guitar in “Once.”
That’s him on banjo, mandolin and in a side-splitting encounter with a drum set.
Before being cast in the musical’s initial workshop, Papaelias had never played any of those instruments.
“I kind of picked them up as we went along,” he says modestly, prompting Nathan to chime in: “Lucas is a brilliant musician and a brilliant songwriter.”
Early on in the process, when producers asked Papaelias if he played the drums, he fudged the truth a bit.
“I told them I did because it has always been my fantasy to be a drummer,” he says. “I said, ‘I can play the drums,’ because anyone can hit a drum. And I knew that if they were asking about the drums, they were thinking of me for that part, in ‘When Your Mind’s Made Up,’ which is my favorite moment of the movie.’”
Nathan considers the film — which starred songwriters Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, whose songs fill the Broadway musical — “the best musical I ever saw.” She knew she had to have a part in the Broadway adaptation.
Nathan auditioned on the piano and, when she showed up for rehearsals, discovered that she’d also be playing the accordion, an instrument she’d never picked up.
“I’m pretty comfortable with it now,” she says, “but I’m not playing anything fancy.”
Fans of the movie will find all of the songs that made it an Oscar-winner: from the aching “Falling Slowly” to an almost tribal “Gold” to the raw “When Your Mind’s Made Up,” songs arranged to start simply and layer on more and more instruments.
The actors are the band and also the set crew, changing scenes by moving a table in, a piano out, or rolling a vacuum cleaner into position. The moves, choreographed by Steven Hoggett, are all stylized.
“Once” won raves after a one-week workshop in Cambridge, Mass., and the plan was to move it to Broadway directly, but director Tiffany and the producers decided to give it three months at New York Theater Workshop downtown, a decision both Nathan and Papaelias endorse fully.
“It gave us confidence and calm,” Nathan says. “For me, it was invaluable to be able to relax. Now I feel so calm onstage, most of the time.”
“And musically, it was really helpful,” she adds. “I’ve never played an instrument on stage and had to memorize: ever, ever, ever. I don’t do that. And these guys invited me into what they do and supported me. That made the learning curve easier.”
Papaelias says NYTW is where the show became the show.
“Cambridge was about the style and can this work,” he says. “But New York Theater Workshop was where we really figured out how to do the show.”
After tomorrow’s opening, they’ll settle in for what they hope is a long run, playing “Once” eight shows a week, including Wednesdays and Saturdays, when they’ll play “Once” twice.
“Once,” Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th St., Manhattan. Opens March 18. $59.50 to $124. Day-of-show rush tickets $26.50. 212-239-6200. www.oncemusical.com.
Photo by Carucha L. Meuse/The Journal News: Anne L. Nathan and Lucas Papaelias outside the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on Broadway, home to the new musical, “Once,” which opens Sunday. Nathan was raised in Monsey; Papaelias in Somers.