By R. J. Donovan
Special to the BIR
Erica Spyres – actress, singer and classical violinist – has spent her life surrounded by music. Her parents are both music teachers. Her brothers are both singers. And her family was honored as “The Most Musical Family in Missouri.” The Ozarks native relocated to Boston when her composer-husband was accepted to study at Boston Conservatory.
Spyres has carved out a busy career here in Boston. She dazzled audiences as Clara in "A Light In The Piazza" at SpeakEasy Stage. And she has continued to win praise for her work in "Camelot" at New Rep, "Into The Woods" at Reagle and "Tribes," also at SpeakEasy, for which she received The Elliot Norton Award for Best Actress.
Most recently, she has been on tour playing the Ex-Girlfriend in the international company of the Tony Award-winning musical "Once."
After a lengthy journey that has taken the cast around the globe, "Once" finishes its tour this month here in Boston, playing The Shubert Theatre Dec. 8 through the 27th.
Based on John Carney's 2007 film of the same name, "Once" tells the captivating tale of a Dublin street musician – Guy – who’s about to give up on his dreams. Things change when a beautiful young woman – Girl – takes a sudden interest in his haunting love songs. Over the course of one fateful week, their unlikely connection and collaboration evolves into a complicated romance.
The show features an impressive ensemble of actor-musicians who play their own instruments on stage. Music and lyrics are by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová with a book by Enda Walsh. The film version won an Oscar for the song "Falling Slowly."
"Once" is also renowned for operating a pub on stage, both before the show and during intermission. Pre-show, the actors gather to present a lively Irish session.
Erica Spyres is a summa cum laude graduate of Drury University where she studied vocal performance. Her first time on stage was in a church play. And she began studying the violin at the age of three, initiating her lessons on a mock instrument fashioned from a crackerjack box. "Once" marks her first national tour.
We spoke by phone about the show and her career when "Once" was playing in western Canada:
Q. As an actress with a 20-plus year history as a classical violinist, you appear to be a perfect casting choice for "Once." How did they find you?
A. It was here in Boston, almost two years ago. A few of my friends went to see "Once" and they each came back and said why aren’t you in this show? And I was like, ‘I don’t know the New York scene.’ One of my friends on Facebook said, ‘You need to be in this!’ . . . Another friend (on Facebook) sent me the notice that they were holding auditions in Boston within then next couple of weeks. So I went in.
Q. And what was the process like?
A. You’re supposed to play something on your chosen instrument and accompany yourself. So I went in and sang a Damien Rice song and I played the violin and I got a callback for the next day. . . . They said, "Hey we really like you, but we don’t have a place for you right now. But these [auditions] are for all future productions, so we’ll let you know." About six months later they contacted me and said we’re holding auditions the next week, callbacks. I did those callbacks and a week later I found out I got the job.
Q. And now you're bringing "Once" home to Boston to close the tour. I expect the audience will be packed with family and friends?
A. I'm so excited . . . I have a feeling I'm going to know people at every performance. My first time performing (at the Shubert) was for the Elliot Nortons this year. I think it’s a perfect space for "Once." It’s small and intimate but it’s got that old feel.
Q. "Once" is a very moving, very intimate experience. What makes the show work so effectively?
A. I think it works for many reasons. I know the people who started it, who developed it. They said that they never imagined it would actually be on Broadway. It was just a labor of love . . . I think that the heart was in the right place because they weren’t trying to make it a big success on Broadway. They spoke to people in a very real way.
Q. You're a part of the pre-show session every night. Normally audience members aren't allowed anywhere near the playing area, but with the pub actually on stage in "Once," it's encouraged. Any mishaps?
A. Well I got beer spilled on me last night, so it’s funny that you ask today. They always make people put lids on their cups – people aren’t used to drinking wine and beer out of cups with lids – so this lady took her lid off and then she spilled her entire beer right behind me. And some of it got on me . . . Sometimes they try to sit on the chairs and they have to be told not to. And they’ll try to talk to us while we’re playing, so it can be kind of interesting. It keeps you on your toes.
Q. Does the pre-show session vary by performance?
A. We have about 30 pre-shows songs, I think. So we change every night . . . I have a couple of feature songs where I’ll have a solo . . . We usually do two Irish songs and one Czech song each night. There are always three that change, and the final three are always the same. That’s what leads into the show, and that's when the audience starts sitting down.
Q. Is there a favorite moment for you in "Once."
A. It’s kind of changed for me over the course of the year, but one place that’s always special is "Gold" (at the end of Act One.) They did (that number) at The Tonys for a reason. It’s the first time you see everybody on stage together. Our associate director said it's kind of like choral music. It all flows . . . All of us are moving with our instruments at the same time. We’re all dancing and playing at once. The first time that all comes together, it’s really, really special. In the course of the show, that’s when Guy realizes he has feelings for Girl and she has feelings for him. That is always a special moment.
R. J. Donovan is Editor and Publisher of onstageboston.com.
"Once," Dec. 8 - 27, Shubert Theatre, 265 Tremont Street, Boston. Tickets: 800-982-2787 or citicenter.org.