NOV / DEC 2013: BY LAURA F.
Once, an Irish musical released in 2006, tells a delicate story of what happens when some of life’s possibilities are left unexplored.
No one can do everything, and everyone must make choices that shape their lives. As in many musicals, Once’s protagonists fall in love—but, ultimately, not with each other. They complement each other very well in personality and talent, but rather than indulging their developing attraction, they find that they work best as friends who use their common love of music to help each other find the love they thought they’d lost.
The story spans just over a week in the lives of two musicians—an unnamed Guy and Girl—whose interaction begins and ends abruptly but gives them both the push they need to find fulfillment in their lives.
Because music is such an integral part of their characters, it’s one of the first things Guy and Girl share when they’re getting to know each other. They begin collaborating immediately and the first song they perform together contains a line that defines their relationship: “Games that never amount to more than they’re meant will play themselves out.” Even though they’re not meant to be together romantically—or even as friends—forever, they help each other through a crucial period in their lives before going their separate ways.
When they meet, Guy works in his father’s Hoover repair shop, playing his guitar and singing on the streets in his spare time, pining over his lost love and not making any real progress toward becoming the musician he wants to be. Girl, a pianist and songwriter, is a recent immigrant to Ireland and spends her time working odd jobs to support her mother and daughter, who live with her. She has befriended the owner of a music shop who lets her play the pianos during the shop’s lunch closure, but she has no aspirations for fame with her music.
By the end of the musical, Guy has gone from fixing Girl’s Hoover to fixing her marriage and the Girl has helped him go from singing on the streets to pursuing a serious career in music.
While Once differs from traditional musicals in that the songs are sung by musicians in realistic contexts, the songs are no less useful in telling Guy and Girl’s stories. Guy’s songs speak of love and longing (sometimes humorously, such as in the impromptu “Broken-Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy,” sung for Girl on a public bus when she asks about his ex-girlfriend) and Girl’s songs speak of dissatisfaction with her current life and the hope for something better.
As they play music together, Guy and Girl learn about each other’s histories—Guy’s ex-girlfriend cheated on him and so they ended the relationship; Girl married her daughter’s father when she found out she was pregnant, but has since separated from him, leaving him behind in the Czech Republic when their differences seemed irreconcilable. Guy still loves his ex-girlfriend and Girl doesn’t want her daughter to grow up without a father.
Following this revelatory period, Guy and Girl work together to create a demo album for Guy to use when he moves to London to pursue his music career. During this time, the plot plays with the greatest possibility for Guy and Girl to become involved romantically—Guy propositions Girl multiple times, they’re working together on a subject they’re passionate about, and they’re learning about each other in a close and intense fashion. Each time the subject arises, though, Girl refuses with some version of the line, “I have responsibilities.”
Throughout, Girl honors her responsibilities to her daughter and to her marriage but it is her interactions with Guy that make that responsibility something more than drudgery. His support for her music (where her husband has been unsupportive in the past) gives her the courage to accept the artistic side of her life and attempt to have it coexist with her practical side. By the time she invites her husband to come live with her in Ireland, she accepts herself more than she ever has before.
Guy, on the other hand, has no questions about who he is—he’s a musician, albeit one who can’t seem to get past working in his dad’s Hoover shop. Girl challenges his heartsick lethargy and joins forces with him to help him make his demo. Once she moves him past his inaction, he’s able to take charge of his own life and move to London with his father’s blessing, where he intends to pursue his music career and to reconcile with the ex-girlfriend he still loves.
In a way that is very true to life, Once captures the idiosyncratic tendency of relationships. Guy and Girl meet by chance—she hears him singing in the street and stops to listen. They work toward a common goal, but once they achieve that goal, their lives take separate paths. The story repeatedly underscores their compatibility and how much they could enjoy life together; however, their hearts lie elsewhere in the end.
Because of her time spent with Guy, Girl gets a second chance at a relationship with her husband, her daughter gets a father, and she is able to make music an everyday part of her life because Guy buys her a piano before he leaves for London. Guy, also, gets a second chance at his relationship with his ex-girlfriend as well as the chance to become a professional musician. The script chose not to make Guy and Girl’s relationship “more than [it’s] meant,” so it “played itself out” with a peaceful resolution for all parties involved.
The story leaves a lingering sense of longing precisely because of its unexplored possibilities, but seeing Guy and Girl go their separate ways is refreshing, too. They were perfect for each other, but they were perfect as friends. ♥