Zander Meisner knows the Tony Award-winning musical “Once” inside and out. In fact, given his unusual position as an understudy for four of the eight male roles in the play, it’s possible that Meisner is more intimately familiar with the show than anyone else, period. Now that the current cast is nearing the end of their two-year North American tour, Meisner says that they have done somewhere in the neighborhood of 600-700 performances, and he has been on stage for about 10 percent of those. “My job,” says Meisner, “is to make sure I’m ready when I’m called.” That could be anytime, for any length of time. “I don’t get applause every night,” he explains, but his presence is nonetheless important to the production, and even more so given the nature of this particular musical.
What makes “Once” really special, Meisner explains, is its simplicity. It’s set in an Irish pub, unlike the 2007 film of the same name from which the script was adapted, and there is no orchestra. Rather, the actors themselves play all of the music, serving as both chorus and band for the minimalist production. The result is more “human” and thus more relatable than other shows, says Meisner. “Everything is very quiet, but real,” he says, adding that “people will connect with the characters in the show more so than in more animated, traditional musical theater pieces because of that.”
Meisner has to play a handful of instruments for his many roles in the show. Though he plays only two or three separate instruments each night he is on stage, he has mastered parts on the guitar, banjo, ukulele, piano, mandolin, electric bass, drums and a few other percussion instruments for the production.
Raised in a Conservative Jewish family in Deerfield, Ill., just outside of Chicago, Meisner says his interest in music is tied to his faith as a Jew. As a young man he helped tutor other students on Torah trop (musical motifs) for their bar mitzvah ceremonies. It was his musical ability — specifically, the ability to play the clarinet — that landed Meisner his first role in a high school production of “Gypsy” as a freshman, and from that point on he was hooked.
Meisner says he still practices his faith today, though a life lived perpetually on the road can make it difficult to observe certain rituals. “I can’t always make shul or Shabbat dinners,” he explains, “and I have to work on Saturdays,” but he looks forward to when he can delve back into the rituals and perhaps even play with a synagogue band once he is finally settled again in New York. Until then, he’s more than happy to stay on deck for what he considers a “wonderful new genre of theatre.”
“Once” will be performed at Centennial Hall March 31-April 5. Tickets are available at BroadwayInTucson.com or ONCEMusical.com.
(Craig S. Baker is a freelance writer in Tucson.)