Alex Nee, 22, has worked in prestigious theater productions. He played the lead role in Green Day’s “American Idiot” musical as Johnny. Now he is on tour with “Once,” bringing the role of Andrej to life. Arriving at Gammage next week, “Once” is a love story that is equally honest and musically alluring.
The recent Northwestern University graduate sat down with The State Press to discuss his experience with the 12-time Tony Award-winning musical.
State Press: “Once” comes off as very raw and emotional. Is that vastly different from your experience with “American Idiot”?
Alex Nee: Not the raw and emotional part of it. I think most shows actually try to depict life as it actually is and how it’s experienced through music. And they’re not worried about looking pretty or wrapping things up nicely, so they’re not too dissimilar in that way. I definitely would characterize “Once” as raw and emotional, especially the music.
It accepts that there is silence in life and there are unfinished sentences and unfinished relationships that sometimes just have to linger in the air, and that’s not very typical for a musical to allow the audience to sit in silence with the actors on stage while they try to figure out what the next step is.
SP: You mentioned you’re playing your own instruments in the show. In “Once,” the cast is essentially the orchestra. Has that been unlike your previous experiences?
AN: Yeah, this is definitely the highest level to which I’ve incorporated my instrumental musicianship with my theater passion, and it’s very exciting for me, and I know for all of us on stage. I think it’s also important to the show because this is a show about the love of creating music with people and what relationships can thrive and be discovered by opening yourself up to making music with another person.
The fact that we are the only orchestra, we’re swapping instruments all the time, there’s not conductor so we have to be constantly be keyed in with each other 100 percent.
SP: This tour is different from the previous productions “Once” has done. You and the rest of the cast had creative liberty with the conduction of the songs. What was that like?
AN: It was fantastic. During the rehearsal process, the creative team, on day one, they said they weren’t going to try to copy any of the other productions of the show, because it would be counterproductive to what this show is all about. We got the score, which by the way won a Tony which I find hilariously awesome, because when you see the score, it’s basically just chords and lyrics, there’s not a lot written out. Really they just guide us, the musicians, through the songs and what they’re supposed to feel and sound like. And we have the liberty as true musicians to make it our own and make up instrumental parts.
It makes it feel like we are a true band as opposed to a group of actors, like we’re a band on tour and it makes the songs feel our own.
SP: Because there is so much musicianship that goes into it, would you say it’s a musical for seasoned theatergoers, or do you think anyone can adapt to that story?
AN: I think anyone can adapt to the story for a lot of reasons. It’s not a traditional musical which welcomes in people that maybe haven’t responded well to traditional musicals before or think that they don’t like theater, but they love going to concerts or seeing bands but don’t really like plays — I think they would enjoy this show. People who really love theater or refined plays, I think this would also attract them because it’s a play more than a musical.
SP: “Falling Slowly” is my favorite song from the show. It’s a truly beautiful song. What’s your favorite, if you have one?
AN: I do, it’s “Say It To Me Now,” which is a song that Guy sings later on in the show. It’s just the kind of roller coaster song that Glen Hansard likes to create. It starts off with this low kind of broil and you can sense all these undercurrents of emotion but it’s kind of quiet, and then it busts out into this animalistic howl that is so raw and just rips you open, and then you drop and it resolves down to nothing. You’re left with, “Oh my God, what did I just experience?”
Nee says his favorite part of the show comes 30 minutes prior to curtain call, when the audience is invited on stage to drink at the working pub that is part of the story. The actors join the audience on stage and play traditional Irish folk tunes, interacting with fans and bonding over their love of music.
You can purchase tickets to “Once” here. The show will play at Gammage from April 29 to May 4.
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