Musical Theatre Review catches up with Declan Bennett and Zrinka Cvitesic who play the lead roles of Guy and Girl respectively in John Tiffany’s West End production of the eight-time Tony Award-winning hit musical Once, currently running at London’s Phoenix Theatre.
Actor/singer/songwriter Declan Bennett has appeared on Broadway (Rent, American Idiot) and in the West End. He has also enjoyed success in the band Point Break and as a solo artist.
Glen Hansard played your role in the movie version of Once, fell for his leading actress in the process, and also wrote the music and lyrics you are singing. Was it difficult to re-create the character of the romantic lead?
I wouldn’t say it was ‘difficult’. It’s always a challenge to create your version of a character, particularly when there’s already been a movie/Broadway show. But the nice thing about the role of ‘Guy’ is his work as a singer/songwriter. I’ve been writing and making my own music for years now, so I wanted to draw from my own work as a singer/songwriter and let that come through in my version. His whole approach to music and his desire to find his audience are things I strongly identify with.
Playing an instrument would naturally give you the edge over other actors auditioning for this show. Do you see yourself as a musician or an actor?
I see myself as a creative artist.
In certain circles in musical theatre there are people proclaiming ‘these are the rules’. Was there any attempt to break the traditional approach to presenting this new musical?
In a lot of ways Once has broken many traditional rules as far as making musical theatre goes. And not by doing anything completely out of the ordinary, but actually stripping away all the fancy stuff and bringing theatre back to basics on every creative level. The entire creative team encouraged us to try things and were adamant that we were not making a carbon copy of the movie/show but our own version. I want to work and be surrounded by people who are trying to play the game differently in whatever creative capacity.
Do you identify at all with the character you play, having been a member of a band in addition to your career as a successful actor?
I do. I identify with many of Guy’s characteristics. I know what it’s like to be broke and busk on the street and play shows to one man and his dog. I know what it’s like to struggle to get your music heard. I know what it’s like to feel despair with the whole thing and feel like maybe it’s time to put it on a shelf and forget it. And then something steps in and saves you.
Croatian-born Zrinka Cvitesic is a theatre, film and television actor and has been a member of the Croatian National Theatre since 2005. She has won numerous awards for her work across these genres.
You are a leading lady in theatre and film in Croatia. What are the circumstances that led you to playing the lead in a West End musical? Had you always hoped for an international career?
In 2010 I was playing a leading role in a Bosnian-Austrian-German-French movie On The Path, directed by a Golden Bear winning director Jasmila Zbanic. The movie was in competition at the Berlin Film Festival and with that movie it all happened. I was selected as a Shooting Star, one of the ten best young actors in Europe, then I was nominated for a European Film Award for Best Actress in 2011 and I was signed by an agent in London. That’s how I ended up here.
So my international career started three years ago, and no, I didn’t plan it. I never make big plans, I dream a lot and just try to stay open to life and to whatever life will bring.
But yes, I did have directors and actors in my head with whom I would like to work and some roles. Evita and a remake of Breakfast at Tiffany’s are two of them.
You have played quite a few serious theatre and film roles. How different is the discipline of being in a musical?
Very different, which was exactly what I needed at this point in my career! I did big roles both on film and in the theatre and I just wanted to try myself in a different field and develop new skills.
And then the offer came in for Once. It was a whole new world for me, a world of creating everything through music. I feel lucky and blessed to be able to explore it for a whole year.
What was your first job on the stage? Was it a big moment in your life?
Oh, it was! I was still studying (in my second year) and I got the lead role in a big musical for children. It was about love between a cricket and an ant. I played an ant. It was pretty similar to Once actually in that the band were actors too. We travelled around the country and it was hilarious.
DECLAN BENNETT and ZRINKA CVITESIC
Steven Hoggett is from Frantic Assembly, the well-known theatre company that has its own brand of physical theatre. Was his work on movement necessary to get the musicians animated?
DB: Firstly I adore Steven Hoggett and feel damn lucky to work with him again. I’m a huge fan. What I love about Steven’s work is that it never feels like it’s there ‘to get the musicians animated’ or to help make it look more musical-like or to fill in the physical space to give the show a bigger, more staged look. If you look very closely at his creation, it can go from a group of musicians doing incredible choreography whilst holding their instruments to the slightest flick of a wrist/slight of the head, turn of the shoulder, that is timed so beautifully that it is an extension of the action in the piece at that precise moment. It’s delicate. And real. He’s like a physical playwright.
ZC: Steven Hoggett is a person who comes to this world only once. And that’s why Once needed him. The story between the two of us working together was pure excitement for me because I loved his work on American Idiot and thought that meant I would be dancing and flying and all that. Then he said that we wouldn’t dance at all, that we would just feel the music, and I was disappointed thinking it would be too easy. It ended up being the hardest thing I have ever been asked to do on stage and the most beautiful process I’ve ever experienced as a performer.
Once needed a movement storyteller, Steven was exactly that. He is not from this world, I can tell you that. I would like to have him on every play and every movie I do in the future. And John Tiffany. And Martin Lowe (musical supervisor). And Enda Walsh.
Have the audiences in the Phoenix Theatre London received the show in the same way as in Dublin (where the show played prior to the West End), the book writer’s home-town?
DB: They have! I think we all felt a little spoilt in Dublin because the audiences went nuts for it there and were on their feet every night at the end. Luckily, the London audiences have been exactly the same. They laugh in different places and connect to different things but they all feel the heart of it by the end.
ZC: Well, there’s a big yes and a little no. Yes, we have a standing ovation every night as we did in Dublin. And yes, people are crying at the end and saying thank you. Literally, when I make eye contact with somebody in the audience at the end people are whispering ‘thank you’ to us. I’ve never experienced that reaction before. In Dublin people were more reserved at the beginning because it was their story, so it felt like we had to prove ourselves. However as the show went on they were embracing us like we were one of them. They felt proud… and so did we.
But that is the genius that lives in Enda Walsh, this story will work in any theatre on the planet.
Do the audience get something extra by having the musicians on the stage?
DB: I believe so. But people still ask me: ‘So was the music recorded before hand?”!? It’s lovely to see musicians creating music right before your eyes and not being stuck down in a pit. My favourite shows all have the band on stage where you can see them create…
ZC: I think that’s probably a question for them as it makes a big difference when something is being performed to you. When you create music your whole body is working and changing and it makes the music more powerful to the audience when they see who is actually creating it and how it is affecting them. It’s like going to a live concert instead of listening to a CD.
The many movie awards given to the director and the writers must have had a considerable impact on their careers. Has this job changed your lives too? Did you feel an additional pressure because the show had done so well previously?
DB: It’s certainly changed my life in that I have returned to London after seven years in New York. Which feels lovely. And it’s nice to have Once so welcomed into the West End. I don’t think we feel too much pressure to emulate the success of Broadway. We’re just trying to create our version of the show and tell this lovely story. And fingers crossed it translates here.
ZC: Did it change my life? This project means I’ll be living in London for a year. So that was a big change to start with. I wasn’t allowed to see the movie which was the director John Tiffany’s choice, so I didn’t have that added pressure at all. There was something that John said at the beginning which really stuck with me; he said : “Don’t repeat anything! Create your own.” That was all I needed to hear, as well as the rest of the cast, to feel free creatively.
We hear that musicals are mostly about love stories. Is this show also about love of music as well as the relationship between the two leads?
DB: Definitely. This show is all about music. Music has an incredible impact on the human soul. We would be dead without it. And what’s amazing about Once is that the leads find each other’s soul through the music. It’s a very necessary component that triggers their personal emotional attachment. But it starts with music. It always starts with music. I would be lost without it.
ZC: Yes and it’s about much more. It’s about loneliness, being scared of life; it’s about friends and family values, about caring for another human being and being there for each other. And it’s about the power of music, it fills us with joy and happiness and brings us to tears. This show reminds us all that we shouldn’t live without family and friends, without love and without music… we shouldn’t live without a chance to love somebody and be loved back.
* Once has a book by award-winning Irish playwright and screenwriter Enda Walsh and is based on the 2007 movie with music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova.