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Brief Encounter with ... Once's Declan Bennett

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Declan Bennett is currently appearing as Guy in John Tiffany's production of multi Tony Award- winning screen-to-stage musical Once, which receives its West End premiere at the Phoenix Theatre next week (9 April 2013, following previews from 16 March).

Based on the 2006 Oscar-winning film, set in Dublin, Once tells the story of an Irish busker and a young Czech mother (Zrinka Cvitešiæ as Girl) who meet through a shared love of music. Bennett's other stage credits include Rent, American Idiot (Broadway) and Taboo (London). He is also a successful singer/songwriter and has released several solo albums.

Can you give us an overview of the show?

Once is a story based very heavily in music and about a relationship between two people who meet through their shared love of music, who are kind of from opposite ends of the track: me being this Irish busker and songwriter, who has come to the end of his tether and is about to give up on his music because he has lost his passion for it. He gets somewhat rescued by this young Czech, a single mother who jumps in and helps him find his way again. They end up sharing their love of music and then realise ‘oh I quite fancy you at the same time’. 

Do you think the stage musical stays true to the film?

It has all the elements and the story; there are some things that have been embellished slightly, that have been transferred to the stage, and there are parts of the story that were not necessarily touched upon so much in the film that have been expanded upon to create more of a theatrical experience. The spirit and the heart and the rawness that you felt when you watched the film, you’re going to experience that exact same thing in the theatre tenfold. 

Do you have any favourite songs from the show?

Not to sound like a complete geek, but I absolutely love every single one of them. Which is just a total blessing really because, normally, when you’re playing any part in any show, you get maybe one song where you can say ‘Oh, I have this great song to sing in it’. But with Once, I have this added bonus that every single song is ace, so it’s amazing. 

What attracted you to the show and the role?

I have a long history of being a musician and a singer/songwriter, it’s where I started out after I left school. I went straight to music and have been doing it for a long time. So obviously this role felt very close to my heart and to the things that I love. Also, I’ve worked with Steven Hoggett, the choreographer, before on American Idiot. I’ve never worked with the director John Tiffany before but I’ve known him for a couple of years. I have so much respect for what John does and, when he and Steven work together, I think they do an incredible job of taking, not just the genre of musical theatre, but the genre of theatre and performance in general and pushing it forward. It is such an important, incredible thing that they’re doing. And so when this chance came up for me in Once, I thought ‘Yes! I would do anything to work with these people!’

When did you first get involved with the production?

I started auditioning for it in October of last year. I’d been living in New York for seven years, and I originally went in when they were looking for Guys on Broadway. At first I was thinking, if anything, I might have the chance to do it over there. Then December came and somebody said 'Hang on a minute, you’re British aren’t you? You can go back to the UK', and I was like, 'Yep, I can do that.' After that, it became this whole other experience, with the possibility of me being able to come home. That’s something that I’ve been wanting to do for a while. I’ve loved living in New York, but I was looking for something that would bring me back home for a period of time – something that was right and that I loved and I felt I could pull off. This came along and it couldn’t have been more perfect.

Were you worried about the big shoes to fill following the film and the Broadway production?

No, not really. The vibes I get from the film and the vibes I get from the music, it feels like anybody could play Guy or Girl; anybody involved really gets a chance to bring themselves to it and not feel like they’re having to copy someone else. That’s the nature of music – when you’re a musician, it’s very hard to make a carbon copy of anybody else’s music. John Tiffany was very adamant that we bring our own spirit to it, that we don’t do a carbon copy. Given all of that, I feel like I was given the freedom to bring my own thing to it rather than feeling like I was under any pressure to imitate Glen Hansard (who starred in the film) or imitate Steve Zakee (who originated the role on Broadway), which has been very nice.  

Declan Bennett & Zrinka Cvitešiæ

Do you think being a singer/songwriter has helped you in the role?

Absolutely. There’s just a certain sensibility about being a musician. Everyone on stage is an actor/musician as well; we are the band, there’s no MD, no band in the pit. We're relying on each other and we’re all gelling as any band would. It feels like we're on tour, and every single night it gets better and better and better. Somebody will mess up and we’re getting to the point where, if that does happen, we know exactly what to do because we know each other so well musically and personally. 

Do you see a lot of yourself in Guy?

Yeah, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t similar to him on quite a lot of levels - musically, personally and emotionally. I think my life continues to resonate in very similar ways.

Do you prefer being a singer/songwriter or working in theatre?

They are quite different disciplines. There has to be a certain amount of discipline for either and one can help and inform the other, but they are very different. Being able to go out onstage and play your own stuff being a singer/songwriter, you have the freedom to muck about, and you can change the set and keep it fresh. When you’re in a show, the rules are much more rigid. There are more people relying on you and you have to stay in a certain framework for two-and-a-half hours. And, you’re doing it eight times a week, so you can’t go out and live the rock’n’roll lifestyle, you have to go home and get your head down and be ready for the next day. 

I’ve always loved writing my own music and playing gigs, and I’ve always loved theatre as well. A lot of times, the line blurs for me. I don’t differentiate between playing a character onstage and singing songs, to being on stage with a guitar and playing in front of 400 people in a club. It’s all performance and it’s all art and it’s all an expression of creativity. That’s what’s important to me. 

On Broadway, Once had critical acclaim and won lots of awards. Was that daunting or exciting?

Who knows! It’s incredible how it’s grown - it started off as a small little piece in Boston and it turned into this incredibly massive commercial success, which I don’t think anyone expected.  There’s obviously in the back of everyone’s heads, 'Is this going to work in London? Are people going to love it the same?', and you can drive yourself mad thinking about that. You just have to get rid of it and go back to the basics and say, 'You know what, we are bringing this story to the people of London, regardless of where it’s been and what it’s done, and who’s been involved with it; we’re bringing this to a theatre to tell this story about these two people' You have to live in that world or you’ll go mad. And if people love it, great - that’s all we can hope for.

What thing would you most like to be remembered for?

That’s a hard question! I think I’d like to be remembered as someone who took risks, and didn’t follow the format. 

What’s next?

I have a live album coming out in the spring, which I recorded in New York City in December.  I’m also continuing to create a solo piece of performance art called An Innocent Evening of Drinking, which is based on my second album. I'm working with this guy called Phil Griffin, who is an incredible creative director. The two of us are going to keep working and workshopping that. We did it in New York last summer, but we want to do it in London. So with the live album, the show and Once, I’m going to have a bit of a jam-packed year! 

- Declan Bennett was talking to Rosie Bannister

** Come on our hosted Whatsonstage.com Outing to ONCE on 15 April 2013 and get your top-price ticket, a FREE programme and access to our EXCLUSIVE post-show Q&A- all for £36.50! CLICK HERE TO BOOK THIS WEEK! **


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