Perhaps you’ve seen her as a cranky bridesmaid on The Sopranos. Or maybe as a pigtailed, threesome-loving writer on 30 Rock. But starting now, you’ll see Cristin Milioti on the Broadway stage as “Girl,” a Czech singer/songwriter in the stage adaptation of the 2007 movie Once. With its Oscar-winning, soaring song “Falling Slowly,” and powerfully complicated romance, this musical announced its move to Broadway just minutes before its off-Broadway run even began. Here, Cristin Milioti shares all — what’s fresh about the adaptation, her fears about moving to Broadway — and what continuously keeps people coming to see the show, more than once.
How did you first become involved with Once?
They asked me to do a reading of it back in February. At the time, I was just playing the trombone for it, but John, the director, and I really hit it off and he pushed for me to audition for the role I’m playing now. I auditioned for him, but they had someone else cast as the girl at the time — Nellie McKay — but then he still really pushed for me. There was a whole issue; I can’t sight-read and I couldn’t play the music, so they gave me ten days to learn it, and I did!
Have you been taking piano lessons for a while?
No, my friend — he’s an actor, an amazing piano player- he wrote out numbers for fingers and letters on top of the keys, so it’s all muscle memory. So then once I did that and learned the songs, they were like, “Okay, great.” And then they brought me to Cambridge, Massachusetts for a pre-Broadway workshop, and now we’re here.
How many songs did you have to learn?
Six or seven. I probably only play about five on the piano because “If You Want Me” I sing just by myself — I’m accompanied, but the rest I play. I also play a classical piece really early on.
Do you write any of your own stuff in your free time?
Yep, but I couldn’t tell you what I’m playing. I can play it for you, but I wouldn’t know what it is; that’s why the sight-reading was so difficult. Everyone in this show is, like, the best musician you’ve ever met. They’re insane. This one woman in the show learned the accordion, this other guy learned the drums and the banjo, and when he plays them, you’re like, “Oh, I’m sure he’s played the banjo since he was eight,” but he’s only been playing it for a couple of months. I’m surrounded by geniuses.
What about Markèta Irglová and Glen Hansard, the original stars and songwriters of the movie Once?
They’re incredible musicians. It’s intimidating. And I know she plays guitar as well as piano, and he plays piano as well as guitar. They can kind of pick up and just go.
When did you first meet them?
Well, Glen came up and played with us for a night in Cambridge and jammed with us. We hung out with him a couple of times in the break, before we started rehearsals. Steve and I played with him at a bar one night and I sang a couple tracks on his album so we got to hang out that way. We met Markèta one day before we went into tech — really, really late. It was really intimidating and she’s a lovely, lovely person. She just sat in on rehearsal and then she came to opening night. I only met her twice.
What did they think of it?
They both love it, from what they’ve told me. But I would imagine it’s a strange thing to watch; I’ve never seen the film and I’ve been told it’s definitely different in its own thing. On stage, we tell it differently.
I heard that you have additional subplots going on, and characters that were merely peripheral in the movie are more fleshed-out in the musical. I’m assuming "Guy’s" vacuum-repairing dad is one of them.
Yes, he’s one of them. The guy who owns the piano store is also more of a presence. We get into my family a little bit more, but again, I don’t know since I haven’t seen the film. I know that a lot of people who are obsessed with the movie have come with these expectations that it’s not going to live up to it, and they love it — just as fanatically — even though it’s its own thing.
What’s been the most memorable audience reaction so far?
Wow, I don’t know. Opening night was pretty surreal because they told us we were going to Broadway, like, right before we went out on stage. Glen and Markèta were there. All of our families were there. All of our friends. I’ve had great feedback from audience members; if I’m walking down the street and someone saw it the night before, they’ll say, “I can’t stop thinking about it,” or “It’s incredible.”
This is your third Broadway show. Have any of your previous roles informed this one?
No. I feel like every time I do a play, I forget that I’ve done other plays; I’m always confused, it’s always brand new. I never know what I’m doing. Every time feels like the first time, which is a great thing. I’ve always wanted to be a musician and never really pursued it, and I feel like this is the closest something has been to my heart, in a way, because I get to sort of live that out.
I read that Markèta said the Girl she created is who she wants to be because of the character’s honesty and integrity. How do you feel about the Girl you’ve created? Who do you think she is?
I’d say the same thing. She’s the girl I want to be. It’s interesting though, because when I met Markèta, I looked at her and thought, “I wish I could be you.” More who she is as a person. She’s very honest. She says everything very simply but you’re like… oh my God. And she seems very confident and very gracious. There’s an incredible grace about her that I really admire, so I find it interesting she would say that because I feel that way about her, but I do feel that way about this character as well. But there are things about this character that I wouldn’t want to be.
What are those?
The fact that she’s selfless to her own detriment, but also such a positive presence. She does, I really believe, the right thing. She made a commitment to someone, she has a child, and they can’t work. But yeah, I still wish I could be more like her.
In an article, you said that you “like acting because you have so many things you can do in performance to hide behind when you’re nervous during a moment onstage. “ Have you had moments like this with Once?
No, so far I feel like for the amount of adrenaline that you go through up there, I find it to be very… not safe, I’m trying to look for the right words… anything can happen up there. And it’s all magical. You feel like you can pull something from thin air. In a way, it’s more comforting than actual life, where things seem much more black and white or concrete. You’re just in a fantasy up there, and yet it’s so real. Especially with this piece.
How did it feel having Markèta Irglová and Glen Hansard sit in on rehearsals?
Terrifying. I got a little used to Glen since we had played with him in Cambridge, but I was intimidated by Markèta. She’s such a good musician that I was worried I wouldn’t live up to her standards. She was gracious and wonderful. The acting had nothing to do with it because I’m not playing Markèta, I’m playing Girl. She’s not gonna be like, “She’s playing me wrong,” because I’m not playing her, but I was still worried about performing her music for her because that’s such an intimate, delicate thing in life.
Did they ever talk about their real-life romance?
Only once, in an interview. She’s married now, he’s dating a lovely woman. But this changed their life. And I think they both changed each other’s lives. From what I can tell, there’s a beautiful bond there.
And how does it feel to be coming back to Broadway?
Since it’s an open-ended run, it’s all very unknown. Off-Broadway, we had an open and close date, but with this, do we run for a month? Do we run for six months? A year? No one knows. But I can say this show has been the best experience I’ve ever had, hands-down, theatrically. I kind of feel like I’m the luckiest girl alive. Not alive, but… I just feel very lucky.