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Once - Broadway

The stage adaptation of the Oscar-winning film comes to Broadway.

Elizabeth A. Davis on Her Heaven-Sent Journey as Actress & Violinist in Once

Elizabeth A. Davis on Her Heaven-Sent Journey as Actress & Violinist in Once
Elizabeth A. Davis & Cristin Milioti in 'Once'
There’s something special that happens to a company when you play music together, a higher level of trust.

About the author:
Elizabeth A. Davis charms Broadway audiences nightly as part of the triple-threat—make that quadruple threat—ensemble cast of the musical Once. In addition to an alluring performance as Cristin Milioti’s Czech roommate Reza, Davis dances full-out while playing a violin. It’s a big break for the actress, who previously understudied in The 39 Steps, gave an award-winning off-Broadway performance as Emily Dickinson and starred in regional productions of The Misanthrope, Doubt, Opus and many others. In this thoughtful essay for, Davis describes the many pinch-me moments she has experienced since joining the Once company last year.

At the Landmark Sunshine movie theater, circa summer 2007, I saw Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová in Once with my future husband, Jordan, on our first movie date. Afterward we debated what happened to the guy and girl “post-piano,” and promptly became obsessed with the album. I couldn’t imagine that the movie and music that underscored the great romance of my life would also sway its way into my career and sweep me off my feet. But that’s exactly what has happened.

My heaven-sent Once journey began a little over a year ago at Harvard at the American Repertory Theatre. I’ve never been stretched like that as a performer. We learned the whole show in about 3 1/2 weeks. My back went out, I started singing and playing the violin simultaneously, I belted in front of an audience for the first time, and we all just about lost our ever-loving minds trying to learn the “Gold” choreography. I’m fairly certain none of us knew we would be full-on dancing while making the music we were dancing to. Thankfully, Steven Hoggett, our movement director, is a genius and wasn’t just inventing ways to improve our hand/eye coordination.

More than that, we became a family: obsessed with one another, our creatives, producers, the music and the gut-wrenching humanity of this piece. Some of my favorite memories are of looking around the room and discovering half the cast also fighting back tears while Steve Kazee sang “Sleeping,” or walking from rehearsal with Anne Nathan, wheeling her newly acquired accordion in a cart down the cobblestone. I’ll remember making music on our breaks with our amazing men and Erikka Walsh. (We just couldn’t stop playing.) And the gradual realization that Cristin Milioti is as heartbreaking as she is hilarious. It’s these small familial memories that make it possible to look around the stage night after night and think, “Oh my stars and garters, I love these people. I can’t believe I get to make music and art with them.”

And then New York Theatre Workshop: what an equally vital step. East 4th Street became home, and the preparation and comfort that our off-Broadway run afforded us made the show muscle memory for me. It got in my bones on 4th Street. By show #40, I finally could play the finale without terror. The transfer to Broadway was literally seamless. We moved into the Jacobs and joked that the only difference was “a few more chairs in the house.” NYTW and the Jacobs should work in tandem all the time!

Then there’s the pre-show: I’m a part of a theatrical company, yes, but I’m also a part of a raucous band that gets to jam out together eight times a week. There’s something special that happens to a company when you play music together, a higher level of trust.

And all sorts of wacky wonderfulness happens as we mingle with the on-stage, pre-show bar audience. People try to pick up tambourines and join in, or sometimes people know the lyrics and sing along. I love when they begin clapping, stomping. It’s as if we aren’t in a theater; we are truly in the Dublin pub Bob Crowley has designed for us. It’s beautiful to see 18- and 75-year-old faces alike joining in the fun. I’ve also never been in a show where I don’t get stage fright. The “big reveal” doesn’t happen for us, as we’re rubbing shoulders, quite literally, with our audience 20 minutes before the show begins.

Personally, I can’t believe I’ve found myself in a show where I get to do most all of the things I love in a span of three hours. It’s truly a blessing for my Broadway debut to include singing, playing, dancing and acting. You won’t find musical theater credits on my resume because I’ve never done any. Landing a job like this seemed far from reach, with my violin and closeted voice just on the side. But over the past year, our musical director, Martin Lowe, has made me into the musician I could have only hoped to become on my own. He’s given me the confidence I need to get up on a Broadway stage and belt, or play those notes that terrify me on a cast album. Between director John Tiffany, writer Enda Walsh, Steven and Martin, I’m a changed artist.

Five years ago, I was sitting in a movie theater watching Once. Last month, I was in a Broadway theater hugging Glen and Markéta as we opened the musical based on their story. I literally tremble, and can only be immensely thankful—and keep showing up to work for as long as the dream lasts.

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