Once: Another First for Melbourne Musical Theatre

It was a cold winter’s day but inside the Irish Times pub in the heart of Melbourne things were cosy and warm. The local media were gathered, Guinness in hand, to hear John Frost announce the cast for the Australian premiere performance of Once a new musical.

John Frost Image: Jim Lee
John Frost
Image: Jim Lee

Before introducing the two leads, Tom Parsons and Madeleine Jones, Frost treated the audience to the amusing story of how, against all his better judgement, he came under the spell of of what the New York Daily News describes as “the most romantic show on Broadway”.

From the beginning Frost was sure that Once was not his type of show. Bernadette Hayes (executive producer Wicked) saw the show in New York and raved to him about how fantastic it was. His response was “there’s no tap dancing … it’s not us … it’s not commercial enough.”

Then New York producer Barry Weissler invited him to see the show when he was next in New York, saying that they were planning to tour the show and he thought that Frost was the producer for Australia. Replying that he’d be in New York in a couple of months, Frost quietly hoped that he’d hear no more. But, even before he left Australia, there was an email saying that there were tickets for him and asking when he’d like to see the show. As Frost told us, he suggested a Tuesday, the night when he knew New York shows start at 7pm. This meant he would only have to sit through the first half to honour his relationship with Wiseman and then he could go to dinner.

On the night there was the expected Broadway crowd, but it was a mixed one, lots of jeans and sneakers, as well as older people of 65 and upwards; interesting. Entering the auditorium he noted that the set, fully exposed, was an Irish pub with a working bar and audience members on stage drink in hand. Thinking “that’s pretty cool”, Frost joined them on stage. Slowly the actors, carrying their instruments, mingled with the drinkers, until the stage manager announced that the audience members should take their drinks and their seats so the show could begin.

Still determined to escape to the Italian restaurant around the corner for a bottle of red and a spaghetti as soon as possible, Frost took his seat. “I’m sitting there and all of a sudden I go ‘shit this is good … it’s better than good'”. It wasn’t too long before he was hooked and decided he had to do the show.

From then on everything happened very quickly and easily. Weissler was surprised (he hadn’t been sure Frost would be interested) but thrilled, and Frost was insistent. The Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) became a partner and The Princess Theatre was chosen as the appropriate venue, given that the show demands a more intimate auditorium the usual MTC theatres.

Casting proved difficult as the majority of the performers have to play one or more instruments. However the chosen team are in Frost’s words “the ultimate quadruple threats. Not only do they sing, dance and act their hearts out but they are also fabulous musicians. Talk about impressive.”  He is also excited that there will be many new faces in the cast (only three or four have previously worked with him). “We want to create stars out of these people”.

Not only is it a coup for Melbourne to have the Australian premiere but the Melbourne production will have the privilege of the active involvement of the Broadway creative team. Usually new overseas productions are looked after by  the assistant creatives, but not this time. Director John Tiffany came over to do the auditions and was so impressed by the cast that he told his counterparts that they simply had to come and do it. The Melbourne production will be the last one to be put together by the original creative team.

Tom Parsons and Madeleine Jones Photo:  Jim Lee
Tom Parsons and Madeleine Jones
Photo: Jim Lee

Then we were introduced to the two leads, rising British star Tom Parsons, who plays Guy and graduate of Sydney’s Actors Centre Madeleine Jones, who plays Girl. With Parsons on guitar and vocals and Jones on piano and vocals we were treated to a moving rendition of Falling Slowly.

If all goes well in Melbourne the show will be touring to other states but for now it’s ours alone, and in Frost’s inimitable words “they’ve got the shits big time in Sydney!”

Rehearsals begin in mid August with opening night on 4 October.

For more information go to the ONCE website or MTC

Jan Chandler

Jan has been working freelance in the arts industry for some 15+ years in a variety of roles including: arts management; journalism (print, radio and online); publicity; and media relations. Passionate about the arts in all their variety, Jan has worked in film (production assistant; reviewer); dance (publicity; producer and presenter of 'Dance Dialogues - 3CR) and Board Member of Ausdance (Victoria)); performing arts (company manager, performer, reviewer, online editor). Jan had the honour of being the General Manager of Ilbijerri Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Theatre for some 18 months.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *