The 'Once' and Future Musical

NPR's Bob Mondello explains how the makers of the new Irish musical Once have updated the classic musical form to make sense to modern audiences.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

Back in the 1950s, it was no big deal to have Gene Kelly or Debbie Reynolds sing on screen. But these days, audiences seem to think it's weird for a character to walk down the street, belting lyrics. So to making a movie musical, you need a strategy.

Irish director John Carney came up with several for his new film, "Once." We'll talk to him and the film's stars in just a moment. But first, we've asked critic, Bob Mondello to take us through a couple of the film's musical moments and explain how they work.

BOB MONDELLO: The guy is a street musician, singing songs for pennies. The girl walks up to him and makes small talk, revealing that in her spare time she plays the piano. Not having one of her own, she plays in the back of a music store so they go there and he teaches her a song he's just written, first playing the chords for her, then singing as she reads along with the lyrics that he's placed on the piano.

(Soundbite of musical "Once")

Mr. GLEN HANSARD (Lead singer, The Flames): (As character) (Singing) I don't know you, but I want you all the more for that.

MONDELLO: Then she surprises him by singing along in harmony.

Mr. HANSARD and Ms. MARKETA IRGLOVA (Musicians): (As characters) (Singing) Words fall through me and always fool me. And I can't react.

MONDELLO: His face lights up and you know they've made a connection. Now, she's a musician, so, of course, she can harmonize and she can play along on the piano. But now, what? He can still sing on the street different songs that will tell us what he's thinking. But how do you get her singing? Have her lug around the piano? And more important, how can she sing her own thoughts as opposed to lyrics that he's written? Well, how about this? He's recorded some background chords for a song, but he's having trouble with the lyrics.

(Soundbite of musical "Once")

MONDELLO: He gives her a Walkman with the background chords on a disc and she writes rhymes to go with them…

(Soundbite of musical "Once")

Ms. IRGLOVA: (As character) (Singing) Are you really sure that you believe me…

MONDELLO: And then when the Walkman's batteries run down and she has to go buy some more, she can entirely realistically walk down the street with his music playing in her earphones while singing her lyrics. It makes perfect sense even if you're a stickler for realism.

I'm Bob Mondello.

(Soundbite of musical "Once")

Ms. IRGLOVA: (As character) (Singing) …to see you better all I want. To satisfy you.

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