Cameron Daddo is a closet guitar nerd.
It’s a side of his performer personality he seldom gets to showcase, even though he did strum a little while playing the stuffy Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music.
It’s why he jumped at the chance to play a role in Once, the folk-pop-fuelled musical spun from the beloved Irish film and scored by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, aka The Swell Season.
For Daddo, it’s the perfect production to show off his chops and one of his treasured guitars: a 1930s Dobro Resonator.
“I found it in a junk shop in Narooma about 30 years ago,” says Daddo. “I was on a surfing holiday, and since then it’s been sitting in pieces in my garage waiting to be restored.
“When we started rehearsing Once I thought, oh my god, I can get the Dobro out, put it all back together again and bring it to the show.”
It has a unique sound, he says. “It’s got an aluminium resonator inside it, a cone that shoots the sound out, so it’s got a much more brassy tone to it, almost like a banjo. The sound and the look of it really fitted with the character I’m playing – a man who has lost his wife, but then finds his love of music again.”
Daddo is playing the role of Da, father of a character known only as The Guy, a young busker and songwriter with a broken heart and a wavering commitment to his music.
“I’ve always loved Glen Hansard’s music,” says Daddo. “When I heard about Once, I knew I had to be involved in it.”
Second time lucky
This production of Once, directed by Richard Carroll, is second time lucky for Daddo.
When Once had its Australian debut season in Melbourne in 2014, he was too old to play The Guy and considered a touch fresh-faced to play Da. “I slipped through the cracks,” he smiles.
Five years later, his face framed with a distinguished pepper-and-salt beard, he’s right in the pocket. “It’s a very different role for me,” Daddo says. “I’m normally the guy front and centre but this is more of an opportunity to support. Plus I get to play music all the way through.”
Once is an unusual musical in that the entire score is played by the cast live on stage.
“The music sounds quite simple but when you come to actually playing it, it’s quite complicated,” Daddo explains. “Learning it was … a journey. It took me the full four weeks of rehearsals to really get it down. The strumming patterns are so complex and you need to be fairly accomplished just to get around it. And you aren’t just playing guitar – you’re singing, acting, dancing and moving stuff around. It’s a challenge.”
Toby Francis, the guy playing The Guy, says playing the guitar and leaping off chairs is a challenge.
“You know you are going to get it right eventually, all the playing and moving, but you just don’t know how you’re going to do it. It’s pretty exciting when everything clicks,” Francis says. “And being surrounded by musicians makes you a better musician very quickly.”
Francis describes the songs as “cries into the void”.
“Irish music has a really particular sound. I describe it as a calling out, a cry from the heart. I know it sounds a bit of a cliché, but that’s it. And music in Ireland is like music in Africa. It’s a part of everyday life. It’s another way of communicating. It’s not just something you pop on in the background while you’re doing the cleaning.”
Francis comes to the show with a resume that includes lead roles in the hit show Kinky Boots and the Hayes Theatre Company production of High Fidelity (read about his record collection here). He’s played guitar since he was 16.
“I was speaking to an audience member after Once [at the Eternity Playhouse] one night and she said it was like she’d seen a busker playing on the street in Dublin and then followed him home and peered into his life, somehow,” Francis says. “The show makes you feel like you are in an Irish pub, or in a music shop or a recording studio. You get lost in these people’s stories.”
The all singing-all playing Once is something new for Stefanie Caccamo, too.
She plays The Girl to Francis’ The Guy, a young Czech migrant worker working as a cleaner in Dublin.
“It’s the most incredible feeling,” she says. “I’ve never played in a band like this before. We wanted to set up this really raw, organic kind of energy – like something you’d experience at a gig or in a pub. It’s so empowering, the most incredible feeling.”
Caccamo plays piano on stage. She’s largely self-taught. “I never really took lessons, I just loved playing. I learned from YouTube videos or by watching people’s hands or just by ear. So I knew this was going to be a challenge, but everyone in the show is so talented and supportive. They make it much easier.”
Once is unusual for its downbeat ending, too, says Caccamo.
“I think it’s a reflection of what life is. In the big blockbuster movies or shows, you get the happy ending. But I think what’s so special about this is that the story is really truthful.
“And that’s why it’s so hard-hitting. It’s why people are walking away in tears but feeling uplifted.”
Not Your Typical Musical
Once is often described as “the musical for people who don’t like musicals”.
Daddo agrees wholeheartedly. “Above all, it’s a great story full of love and heart and humour. But it’s raw, too. There’s no vibrato and sequins. It’s people in front of you playing their instruments, sweating on stage and singing live.
“If you’re feeling numb from Instagram and Facebook come and share a real experience – a live experience.”
Once plays at the Eternity Playhouse until July 21. It plays the Illawarra Performing Arts Centre, Wollongong, July 24-28.
The production returns to the Eternity Playhouse, Darlinghurst, July 30-August 4.