Arts Interview: Once Lost, Twice Found

Sam Cieri On Life, Music And Broadway’s Bright Lights

August March
4 min read
A scene from Once (Joan Marcus)
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Sam Cieri rocks. From his early work as a singer-songwriter influenced by the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Elton John to his stint as Drew in a traveling production of Rock of Ages, the 24-year-old is reaching for national acclaim with his latest project. He’s the male lead of the touring production of Once, an innovative, invigorating and intense musical drama set in an Irish pub. Weekly Alibi chatted with the up and coming wunderkind ahead of his production’s stop at Burque’s Popejoy Hall March 8-13. Cieri touched on a wide range of subjects spanning the musical spectrum—including his stint as a lounge pianist in Vegas and his view of Once as a piece of postmodern theater.

Alibi: Your background is particularly interesting. Tell our readers about that.

Sam Cieri
: I dropped out of high school to be a rockstar. Then I realized I was terrible at writing music. So I became a dueling piano player at The Mirage in Las Vegas. I was learning piano and was told that I knew enough to get by and had a great voice, so I started doing that. I was out there for about four or five months, then the club closed. I headed back to New York but just kept having bad luck. A buddy of mine said I should start writing again. I was writing and busking in the subways to pay my bills. Once in awhile, I’d get a gig around town. I put out a record but nothing came of it. It was kinda one of those gut-check moments. So, I got a job selling motorcycles in Brooklyn, but I got into a motorcycle wreck and completely smashed up my hand. I couldn’t play music and thought that would kill me. I thought acting would be a way to satisfy my need to create.

How did that evolve into starring in Once?

I was lucky to have a great manager. She knew some people that were interested in my singing and so set up an audition. My first audition was for a production of Rock of Ages on the Norwegian Cruise Liner, The Breakaway. I did that for awhile and then auditioned for Once.

You jumped successfully into musical theater when you landed the role. How did that make you feel after struggling for those previous years.

It made me realize I had to learn an entirely new thing. It was a lot of luck that got me the role—it was right place, right time stuff. But I felt I could relate to the character. In Rock of Ages, with Drew, I thought, “This could be me when I was a teenager.” With Guy in Once, I thought, “This part is me two years ago, I know what he’s been through.”

Once definitely has some awesome emotional and existential content; and it’s metafictional in that it’s a musical about musicians. How did you work with those sorts of aesthetics?

Our director said the best thing about it. It’s not a musical, it’s a play about musicians. The way it was written … we’re not people who are talking and suddenly burst out into song. There’s music and dancing but it’s about very real people who are stuck where they are. It’s a love story but it’s not just about Guy and Girl (the main characters). This guy pushes this girl forward, she pushes him forward. They get past where they were and that provides a catalyst for the others in the play to move toward the future. The plot becomes this week of explosive momentum.

How does the audience get to partake in that process?

The audiences are participants in the play. The set is a pub. Before the action begins, the players jam out on stage; he audience is encouraged to come up on stage and listen, get a drink at the bar. It’s an invitation to be part of what we’re a part of. It’s also an opportunity to let audiences peek into a real situation; it’s not like we’re putting on a show for you. We’re opening the curtain and inviting audiences into our world. There’s a strong sense of naturalism involved in the magic. Everything about the action is so fluid. It’s very organic; there’s no fakery, no fourth wall.

How are audiences reacting to this postmodern take on musical theater?

I like to walk around after the show and listen to people. There’s a lot of emotion. It’s a hard story, just like real life. People are moved by Once. People are wiping tears away and feel like they just went through something intense with us; that’s amazing.

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