Once again thrilling audiences

Jay Laga’aia (front, centre) in rehearsal for "Once". Photo: Jansson J Antmann/supplied.

It’s a tale as old as time: guy meets girl, they write songs together, he fixes her vacuum cleaner. The 2007 Irish film Once became a slow-burn classic and is proving to be equally loved as a stage musical. Rita Bratovich spoke with new cast member Jay Laga’aia about being part of this unique show.

Musical stage adaptations of popular films seem to be de rigueur these days. Some work, others not so much. Once is definitely the former. Not only is it a unique story with volumes of endorphin inducing charm, but as a production it provides a rare opportunity for all the performers to use multiple talents and shine equally. That’s a real treat for super-skilled all-rounder, Jay Laga’aia.

“With the children’s shows and all that stuff, you know, you get up and you play and you sing. But to be able to get up and do that in a creative narrative and also surrounded by multi-instrumentalists … quadruple-threats who can sing, dance, act, and play their instruments – for me is always a Godsend.”

Laga’aia replaces Andrew Daddo in the role of Da in this production. He is one of a handful of new cast members who join returning members from the 2019 show, bringing with them a different swag of skills. As a result, musical director Victoria Falconer is re-imagining the soundscape. 

“They didn’t have a uke – I’m bringing my Tahitian ukulele into this show,” explains Laga’aia. 

“The idea of being able to use what the newbies are bringing to the table and being able to enhance the show even more, I think that’s the wonderful thing about it. This show, in general, it’s a work in progress and the new ones come in to add variety.”

The cast of Once, 2019 Darlinghurst Theatre Company production. Photo: Robert Catto/supplied.

Laga’aia in fact plays five different instruments in the show, as well as singing and acting. He admits it’s a little unnerving but it’s also the kind of challenge he enjoys – something that extends him, broadens his experience. 

“The biggest reason why I said yes to this is because I’ve never done a show like this. Yes, I’ve done Jesus Christ Superstar, Lion King, I’ve worked in film and television, but I’ve never done a show that is structured like this … Not only is it a tactile show and a sonic show but it’s also a visual show. It’s not recorded, the orchestra is not hidden, everything is played in front of you … We could go outside and we could produce the same show because we don’t need the orchestra to be there. All of our instruments are acoustic instruments.”

The two lead characters are simply known as guy and girl. They are both songwriters seeking success. Laga’aia’s character, Da, is the father of guy and it’s a role that resonates with him, having two talented sons of his own in the industry. Laga’aia says the main message in Once is that it’s important to have likeminded people around that encourage you and nudge you out of your comfort zone. 

Stefanie Caccamo and Toby Francis in the 2019 Darlinghurst Theatre Company production of Once. Photo: Robert Catto/supplied.

“If you’re not surrounded by a supportive network, it doesn’t matter how good you are, you know, you will be part of the ‘shoulda, woulda, could haves’.”

And that includes being given the chance to take on projects that might otherwise have seemed unlikely. 

“Let’s be honest, I’m Polynesian, when would I get an opportunity to play a role like this?” laughs Laga’aia, who adds earnestly: “I’m very grateful to the Darlinghurst Theatre Company for casting me in this, because at the end of the day it’s that thing of ‘We’re casting you because you’re an actor, it’s not because you’re Polynesian, we’re casting you because of the skills you bring to the table.’ And I can only thank them for that. And I can only thank them by doing the best work I can.”

Laga’aia doing his best work is reason alone to see this musical, but he gives another incentive.

“If you haven’t seen a play that makes you smile and cry, if you haven’t seen a play that the music just gives you hope for these Covid times, then you’ve gotta come see this play.”

The Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s production of Once plays the Eternity Playhouse, 39 Burton Street, Darlinghurst, from Friday, 4 June to Friday, 6 August, 2021. Tickets ($65 to $110 plus booking fee) and further info available at www.darlinghursttheatre.com/once.