BWW Interviews: ONCE's Matt DeAngelis Discusses the Show's Unique Sound and Heart
Once, the 2012 Tony-winning Best Musical, is headed to the Durham Performing Arts Center this month. The musical is based on a 2006 film with the same name which earned an Academy Award for Best Original Song. Once, taking place largely in a Dublin pub, tells the story of the fortuitous meeting of a down-and-out Irish musician-slash-vacuum-repairman and a persuasive Czech woman who encourages him to continue making music. Including the prize of Best Musical, Once took home eight Tony Awards.
Looking ahead to the tour's quickly approaching arrival in Durham, I chatted with actor Matt DeAngelis about the show. DeAngelis's acting career has brought him to the Triangle twice before - most recently in the Green Day rock musical American Idiot, and prior to that as Woof in the national tour of Hair. The contemporary folk music and mellow vibe of Once appear to be in stark contrast to the no-holds-barred punk rock of American Idiot and the celebratory rebellion of Hair. However, DeAngelis insightfully finds a common link between the shows. "From an acting perspective," he says they're not actually all that different, adding, "I think those shows want actors who can be themselves on stage, who can be authentic and interesting without having to put on a big character." Indeed, like American Idiot and Hair, Once has a more complex relationship with the fourth wall than your standard musical theater fare.
DeAngelis plays Švec (pronounced "Svetch"), who is Czech. I asked DeAngelis whether it was difficult to pick up the Czech accent - he contrasted it with other skills required to play the part, saying "it was pretty easy to pick up on the dialect. It was picking up the instruments that was really challenging."
Once has no orchestra - all the instruments are played on stage by the actors. The music in the show plays a different role than in traditional musical theater - the characters themselves are creating the music. Matt plays mandolin, banjo, guitar, drums, and percussion during the course of each performance. Though he already knew how to play guitar and drums, he says "I had to learn the banjo and mandolin. I'd never touched them before." I had heard a number of times that the banjo is a tough instrument to play, so I asked Matt about the challenge of learning to play it for the show. He answered that the banjo "is a very hard instrument, but what I play on it isn't very hard in the show, but the mandolin is very challenging. It took me a long time. It's very different from the kind of guitar that I normally play, so it was a big jump for me."
The time spent learning the music has paid off, and the chance to play their own instruments has some perks for the actors. When asking Matt about his favorite moments as a performer in Once, he replied, "there's one song in the second act where I get to sit at the drum set and just wail on this one song, and it reminds me of when I was a lot younger, and it's really fun. I don't ever get to do that anymore - there's no way you can have a drum set in a New York City apartment."
Featuring songs accompanied by piano, guitar, and some instruments which pop up with less regularity in the musical theater canon such as accordion and the aforementioned banjo, the Once actor/musicians get an on-stage experience which is unique. DeAngelis summed it up eloquently, saying, "there's something really visceral and amazing about people playing instruments in front of you. We have no orchestra, so it's just us, we're creating all the music together. Obviously, the sound of the music is very different than a [traditional] musical theater song, but I think that the energy of it is what makes it so different because we're all listening to each other and we're all making this music together every night, and it's never the same."
A byproduct of populating a show with actor/musicians is that the cast members spend most of the show on stage, since they're playing double-duty. They get the chance to watch their fellow cast members perform, which is a unique situation for an actor to be in. I was curious which moments Matt particularly enjoyed getting to watch eight times every week. DeAngelis bolstered his earlier remarks about Once featuring actors who can be themselves onstage when he responded, "Anything that Ray does," referring to Raymond Bokhour, who plays Da. "Anything [he] does is amazing to watch. He's like the heartbeat of our show - he's so warm and honest, he's just one of the nicest, most genuine, down-to-earth people I've ever met in real life, and he brings that onto the stage, and it's heartbreaking, it's amazing."