Art imitates life

Real-life ‘Guy’ stars in musical about music

Every once in a while, a performance comes along that changes the way audiences look at theater—and, perhaps, themselves.
Once is one such piece. It’s a stage adaptation of a 2007 film by the same name, written by John Carney and featuring music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, also known as the Irish indie folk duo The Swell Season, who play the film’s two main roles.

The story is simple enough: a street musician busking in Dublin, Ireland is on the precipice of giving up on his dream of becoming a professional musician. His name is Guy. He is approached by a young Czech woman who has become intrigued by his haunting love songs. Her name is Girl. Through her quirkiness and genuine interest, Girl becomes Guy’s reason to try again, to hang on to his dream just a little bit longer and to make beautiful music. Her delicate voice and graceful piano soften his frantic strumming, breathing new life into his old love songs.

In fact, Girl is so confident in Guy’s musical ability, she persuades a bank manager to approve a loan that enables Guy to record a demo and take his music to New York.

The musical’s set is minimal, featuring little more than a bar in the center of the stage. The small cast also serves as the orchestra, each actor also a talented musician. The focus is on the music, which acts as both character and scenery—the vehicle through which the plot advances, the unsaid is communicated, and Guy, Girl and audience begin to understand their role in it all.

Once premiered in 2011, and by 2012 had earned eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Actor and Best Book. The musical also took home the 2012 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical and the 2013 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album. It features a number of remarkable musical numbers, all of them featuring Hansard’s signature indie sparseness, a haunting duet of acoustic guitar (Guy) and piano (Girl), and wailing, heartfelt lyrics. The song “Falling Slowly,” which is also featured in the film, won the Academy Award for Best Original Song.

Meet Guy

Guy is an Irish busker. Desperate and alone, he has all but given up hope on his music, which is made up mostly of songs of unrequited love, loss and regret. A guitarist, he plays frantically, freely, as if he is no longer performing for the woman who broke his heart and left for New York, and now plays only for himself.

“When we open the show,” explains Sam Cieri, who plays Guy, “Guy plays ‘Leave.’ And the story behind that is that ‘Leave’ for him, it’s his last song. He’s done.”

Guy is undoubtedly an everyman, one Cieri describes as “stopped”—a position we all find ourselves in from time to time.

“Even if you’re not a musician, everyone has been at the part in their life where they are stopped, you know?” Ciri says. “And I think everyone comes to that part in their life where they’re not where they thought they would be 10 years ago. And you just have the world kind of beat you up over and over again.”

But Guy’s story is about transformation. It’s about reclaiming a sense of self and drive—about keeping the music alive.

“This show is about the moment where you are given the option to restart and to look at things again with those same ambitious eyes,” Cieri says. “I think that Guy is a great vehicle for everyone to go through that.”

The guy behind Guy

Cieri was born in Boca Raton, Florida.

Though he’s now headlining a major Broadway tour, he describes himself as a singer, songwriter, troubadour and traveller. After high school, he went from performing as a dueling piano player at The Mirage in Las Vegas to playing music in the subways of New York City in order to pay the bills.

Cieri spent years as a busker in New York City subways, until a combination of failure and misfortune made the music stop.

“I tried to make it in music,” Cieri says, “and had a first attempt and nothing happened. And about a year ago I got into motorcycle wreck and kind of put music on a hold. And I was OK with letting it slip away.”

But then, Guy—I mean Cieri—found something else.

“I found myself getting into acting, and while I was getting into acting music came back in. So the parallel between me and Guy, instead of a girl, for me it was acting. The girl is what gets Guy to believe in himself again and believe in the music again. And for me acting is what did that. This show in particular kind of lights a fire under your bum. It has me playing again.”
Sound familiar?

“It’s creepy how close [the story of Once] is to who I am,” Cieri says. “But it’s funny because a lot of who I am was based off of watching the movie and kind of becoming a busker. And that became a huge part of my life.”

It’s safe to say Cieri easily fit into the role of Guy, but like many devotees to the original film, Cieri worried a musical adaptation of Once would be too much of a, well, musical.

“I was a big fan of Glen Hansard and [Hansard’s early band] The Frames before the movie came out,” Cieri says. “When I was told that there was a movie with all the music that I loved, that’s when I became obsessed with it, the movie. And it was the movie—I busked for years—it was because of that movie that I got into it. So, when they said that they were doing a show, because I was such a big fan of the movie, I think a lot of people were nervous about it, because its such a simple, beautiful, fantastic film. You didn’t want it to be turned into a [sings] musical.”

Luckily, the sparse set design, minimal cast and appreciation of the original music quickly bucked that fear, and Once has been a musical sensation ever since.

But going into rehearsal, Cieri still didn’t know that. In fact, he’s still only seen the show from the perspective of the stage.

“Unfortunately,” Cieri laughs, “I’ve only seen what’s available online because I never had enough money, while I was busking in New York, I never had enough money to actually go see the show. I’ve only seen the show from doing the show, and from looking up videos of the show.

“When we got to do the first read through,” he remembers, “I was in tears by the end of it, because it was the first time I had read the show and kinda knew what they did with it. I think it’s beautiful and amazing. And it’s so respectful to what Glen and Markéta did.”

And though the musical remains faithful to the film’s story of hope and reinvigoration, it’s a difficult journey Guy must take night after night.

“Emotionally, the show can be very draining for me and Mackenzie [Lesser-Roy, who plays Girl] and what we go through in the show,” Cieri says. “These songs, when they are played right, the way that Glen intended them to be played, which is raw and exposed, you can’t help but just give every type of emotion and energy and passion into every note.”

Guy meets Girl

Thankfully, it’s not a journey Guy traverses alone. His partner Mackenzie Lesser-Roy has been the Girl to Cieri’s Guy since they read together in auditions for the show. Since then, it’s been nothing but on-stage magic.

“Every day I am so thankful that she’s the girl,” Cieri says. “Girl is kind of described as this magical, Mary Poppins-esque [woman], coming in and changing people’s lives. Throwing up pixie dust. McKenzie has that ability.”
But how does a bottled-up busker like Guy express his true feelings for Girl, or anything else for that matter?
Enter Glen Hansard and and Markéta Irglová’s music.

“I think that with these characters, a lot of what happens in the show is people not saying what they want to say,” Cieri muses. “

“There is so much going on behind every line. And the songs are the one time where the characters say what they want to. And you know, Guy to me is someone that just can’t turn around and tell someone hey, ‘I’m crazy about you.’ So he plays the songs. To me, the music is the subtext to the entire show. And whatever the blank spaces are with the actual lines the music fills it in.”
And with an intimate cast also functioning as a performing band, you better believe the Once ensemble is a cohesive bunch.

“The great thing is that everyone here loves music and has a deep appreciation for music,” Cieri says, “and I think it’s more than just something you can listen to and just feel good. I think we all understand that music is very, very important and it’s something that should be respected and something that should be loved and nurtured.

“And it’s fantastic because when we go on breaks, everyone picks up their instruments again and we start jamming out. It’s pretty incredible. And then when you jump back into the show its like, ‘oh and now we get to go play all this other great music.’”

The preshow jam sesh

As if the true-to-life Guy and actors-as-orchestra weren’t enough to put audiences in the middle of the story, Once also provides a chance for the willing to belly up to the bar, order a drink, and experience the jam session first-hand.
A pre-show jam session begins 15 minutes before each advertised performance time, and consists of a variety of musical numbers performed on stage by the cast. Members of the audience are invited to come up on stage and purchase drinks from the bar.
“Everyone is so obnoxiously talented,” says Cieri, who is not involved in the pre-show festivities. “Everyone will blow your mind away when you let them play because they are such fantastic musicians and actors and storytellers. There are three set songs in the preshow and then there are three songs that are picked randomly every night. And the cast learns about 50 to 60 songs. So every day they are learning a new song. Which is incredible. That’s insane. And these are not just simple, strum along songs. These are intense drinking songs!”

The music after the musical

Cieri quips that he started learning to play music at 13 so that he could kiss a girl. Now, he’s headlining a major Broadway tour of one of the most innovative and moving pieces of music theatre imaginable. And every night, he transforms from a humble busker, on the brink of failure, to a heart strong man with a new direction and a song in his heart.
“Every time we do the show we find something new about ourselves,” Cieri says. “But in the start of every show I’m always nervous. I don’t know how it’s going to turn out; I don’t know how Guy’s going to navigate through the show. But by the end of it I want to go out and, you know, tackle the world or something. The show carries that immense power. I hope that some little kid decides to pick up a guitar, like I did. I hope someone goes after a girl they let go because they were too scared to follow through with it.”

Once will be performed Tuesday-Sunday, Jan. 19-24 at The Schuster Center, 1 W. Second St. in Dayton. Showtimes are Tuesday-Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. For tickets and more information, please visit oncemusical.com or ticketcenterstage.com.

Reach DCP freelance writer Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Sarah Sidlow
Reach DCP editor Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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