In the days after taking in an engaging performance of “Once” at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre, I found myself coming back to the same question … why had it managed to stay with me well past the usual span that a standard slice of cultural consumerism would circulate through my system?
To be sure, as a showpiece “Once” is a work of simple elegance. Even the larger moments aren’t that large. The show-stopping song — the Oscar-winning “Falling Slowly” — springs not from a production number, but a tender dance of stillness between the unnamed leads. And when it does stop the show, it’s not for raucous applause, but for the sound of a communal heartbeat.
Ah, there’s the word … “communal.” (I figured if I’d circled the idea long enough, I might find my way to it.) By the point “Falling Slowly” fully invests the audience in the potential restoration of two broken hearts, a sense of community already has been established.
How “Once” establishes that collective experience — whether on a movie screen, Broadway stage or the intimacy of OCT — is with a cagey bit of stagecraft. Much like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s coin-flipping entrance, the musical establishes a bond before the primary action takes place.
“Once” opens with the cast holding a jam session, as we shuffle to our seats to one familiar tune after another. They’re simultaneously in character and beyond the fourth wall, playing instruments and alternating lead vocals on songs ranging from Beyonce’s “Halo” to Old Crow Medicine Show’s open mic night anthem “Wagon Wheel.”
The cast sings for an hour before “Once” technically “opens” with the “guy” of our “guy-girl” taking the stage and singing of his ill-fated romance. He enters the community established between actors and audience … and “Once” has us sitting not in our seats, but in the pub, and the show can take us anywhere it wants to go.
It doesn’t always take an hour — or “Wagon Wheel” earworming through our brains — to establish such a bond. It can take as little as a single sound.
Consider the opening of “A Hard Day’s Night” … the defiant (and much-dissected) chord from George Harrison’s 12-string Rickenbacker that jump-starts the first album by The Beatles to feature an entire track list of original songs.
It’s a signature moment — it’s impossible to hear it without knowing what song is to follow — and it’s a statement from the Fab Four (sandwiched between capturing the hearts of young America on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and the opening of the movie of “A Hard Day’s Night”) that they’d planted their flag atop the artistic and cultural landscape.
And we gladly bought tickets for their ride.
Four years to the day that The Beatles had the Top 5 songs on the Billboard charts, another touchstone was released … and again it was its opening that resonates 50 years later.
Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” opens with wordless establishing shots of discovery, as a community of apes discover a monolith that is in alignment with the planets — and then Strauss’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” roars in our ears and a tossed bone becomes a satellite.
In mere moments, Kubrick introduces the audience to an entirely new language for understanding science fiction, not to mention what it means to orchestrate a film epic.
“Once” won eight Tony Awards, “A Hard Day’s Night” earned The Beatles their first Grammy Award, and “2001” received the Oscar for special effects. A novel that received nearly universal acclaim when it was published in 1951 also creates its sense of atmosphere right from the start:
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
You can argue “Call me Ishmael,” “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …” or even “A screaming comes across the sky,” but for me the most effective opening sentence in fiction is Holden Caulfield summing up his life in J.D. Salinger’s “A Catcher in the Rye.”
Like Harrison’s chord, Salinger is planting his flag and establishing his perimeters. You’re confident in and drawn to the person in charge of the trip on which you’re about to embark, even if it remains unclear where you’ll be going.
That approach of confident uncertainty in perhaps the most famous opening in the history of television — the introductory announcement to “The Outer Limits,” during which we willingly cede control of our TV sets to an omnipresence that promises a “great adventure” that will unleash the “awe and mystery that reaches from the inner mind.”
Science fiction — whether epic in scale like “2001” or internal like “The Outer Limits” — needs to establish its “community” from the get-go, so that it can spend the rest of its time unraveling the mysteries within.
It’s a far different challenge than we find in “Once,” although the goal is the same. The immediate cultural connection to the audience becomes deeply rooted … and remains long after the last words of the song are sung.
Mail Tribune senior designer Robert Galvin will have “Wagon Wheel” stuck in his ears for the rest of the week. Send condolences to email@example.com.