"Once really is a whole other kind of thing," says actor/instrumentalist Zander Meisner, winding up for an extraordinary pitch. "There's never been anything quite like it before, there hasn't been anything like it since, and there's probably not going to be anything like it again." It's the sort of over-the-top claim normally associated with over-the-top musical extravaganzas like Phantom of the Opera or Cats. But the acoustic folk rock musical Once, which won eight Tony Awards in 2012 and opens at the Orpheum this week, is based on a small, lovely 2005 film starring musician Glen Hansard and is far more understated than the usual Broadway tour. It's a simple mopey-musician-guy-meets-rocking-girl show originally created to be performed in a tavern. And even though it's been scaled up for larger theaters, Once maintains an uncommon level of surprise and real intimacy.
Meisner is a swing player, understudying several supporting roles. What makes his job different than most swing players in other shows is the fact that the actors in Once all play their own instruments.
"All of my characters play guitar," says Meisner, who started playing clarinet and piano as a teenager and honed his picking skills after college gigging in an Irish pub in Queens. The various characters he covers also play electric bass, piano, mandolin-banjo, ukulele, and a couple of percussion instruments.
"It's a pretty interesting job," he says, noting that some level of neurosis may be a professional requirement. "This show is quite an undertaking for anybody because you can't just cast actors who are singers."