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A Wonderful Guy! Declan Bennett on the Instant West End Success of Once

A Wonderful Guy! Declan Bennett on the Instant West End Success of Once
Declan Bennett in 'Once'
'I’d been waiting for something to bring me home, and this show couldn’t have been more perfect.'

Declan Bennett was born and brought up in England, spent seven years living and working in New York, and is now playing a lovesick Irish musician in the newly acclaimed London production of Once. Bennett comes to the role of Guy (created by Tony winner Steve Kazee) after Broadway appearances in American Idiot and Rent, as well as a recording career fostered by Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong. caught up with the multi-talented 32-year-old just after Once’s triumphant West End opening to talk music-making, theatrical simplicity and the importance of a balanced life.

Congratulations on Once's rave reviews. Should we be surprised that you are opening the show on the West End rather than taking over on Broadway?
That was kind of what I was assuming was on the cards—that when Steve [Kazee] left, I would do the role over there. I’d been living in New York for seven years. Then, somewhere during the audition process, the question arose within the creative team, “Hang on a minute, isn’t Declan from England?” A little light bulb went off in [director] John Tiffany’s head, and that was it. If it came down to it, I would have chosen London any day. I love New York, and I loved living there, but I’d been waiting for something to bring me home, and this show couldn’t have been more perfect.

Your first name sounds Irish, so presumably you feel a connection to the people and the place.
Oh my word, to all of it! I grew up in Coventry [north of London] in a very Irish Catholic family around the kinds of people you see in the show. My great-uncle was a fiddle player, and I listened to a lot of the traditional Irish music that features heavily in Once. I was born in England, as was my dad, who is from London, but my mum is Irish and so are my dad’s parents. I definitely have strong Irish blood running through my veins.

The Broadway company had distinctly American leads, whereas you are Irish and Zrinka [Cvitesic, as Girl] is Croatian, which isn’t a million miles from Czech.
It’s as if when John set out to find his cast, he really did get as close geographically as he could, and Zrinka and I were aware of that. And that’s true not just in terms of our nationalities. Zrinka comes from a traditional acting background in the whole Shakespeare/Chekhov vein, and I come from a musical background, both of which play to the strengths of Guy and Girl. All these things help us when we are on stage to really connect, since we can rely on those parts of our own selves.

You were so sweet with Zrinka at the opening night curtain call, when she looked totally overwhelmed.
Well, I think all of us had a bit of a moment that night! [Laughs.] It was an incredible audience, and it felt like the moment we’d all been working toward after all the to’ing and fro’ing, with her moving here from Croatia and me coming back from New York. That night felt like this massive, massive reward. It was as if everyone was saying, “Here you go, it’s all worth it.” I had this massive grin and then I caught Zrinka's eye and she just lost it.

It’s nice that you two get along.
It would be awful if we hated each other! [Laughs.]

You’re cornering the market in playing singer-songwriters, with Roger in Rent on Broadway and now Guy here.
And even, in a way, Taboo, which I did in London 11 years ago with Boy George at The Venue in Leicester Square. That, again, was a show very heavily connected to music and to the world of Boy George. Even last year I played Gideon, the lead in the workshop of Sting’s new musical, so it does feel as if so much of what I’ve done has been based in and around the world of music, which is great.

You also have a thriving career as a singer/songwriter. Is that hard to reconcile with the demands of doing eight shows a week?
Sure, you definitely have moments where you think, “If I didn’t have these eight shows this week, I could be doing this, that, or the other.” But I do have time to keep writing music, much more than if I were tied to a 9 to 5 job. What theater does is lend me financial security while allowing me to keep being creative.

So it’s not as if you have to choose.
I spent a lot of time in my 20s trying to figure out, “Am I an actor or a musician or a singer/songwriter? Where does my heart lie? What should I be concentrating on?" But I no longer see these worlds in terms of boundaries. I’ve got a piece of live music/theater/performance art that I’ve been working on with a director called Phil Griffin that we did at Ars Nova in New York last June, and we’d like to try in London later in the year. I get excited at seeing whether I can combine disciplines.

That said, you must be fascinated by the way Once breaks so many musical theater rules.
Or even eliminates them! The show strips storytelling down to basics so that it feels like a very old-school way of doing theater, with simple lights and the cast moving chairs to create the environment. It feels very medieval in that way; that’s part of what is so charming about it.

In other words, no high-kicking chorus line.
Listen, I’ll take a high-kicking chorus girl or boy any day of the week! If I’m entertained, I don’t give a toss what they’re doing.

Steve Kazee has been open about the vocal problems he suffered toward the end of his run. Does that worry you?
Yeah, I’m conscious of that, and I can definitely empathize. This is a massive challenge vocally: You’ve got to take care of yourself and get a lot of sleep and drink a lot of water and make sure you’re singing the right way. Mind you, we’ve only been doing it for two months, whereas Steve had been doing the show for the best part of a year and a half when he experienced vocal problems. I have no idea what’s down the line for me. I just have to look after myself and also make sure that I’m having a good time and a healthy social life. It’s important not to be consumed by your work!

On the social front, what's it like to leave designer Bob Crowley’s on-stage pub and enter the hurly-burly of the actual pubs near the Phoenix Theatre?
Oh, after living in New York for seven years, I can walk into any pub and feel at home! [Laughs.] New York doesn’t have pub culture, and I must say I really missed that about England. You could put me anywhere with a pub, and I’ll be fine.

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