Q&A: Once the Musical's Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti

Whitney Spaner

The Tony Awards nominations were announced on May 1, and leading the pack with an impressive 11 nods, including Best Musical, is Once the Musical. The production is based on the 2006 indie film hit of the same name, starring musician/actors Glen Hansard as a Dublin street busker and Markéta Irglová as a Czech-born passerby who is so moved by his sullen strummings that she stops to chat. The two have a strong connection from the start, but soon learn they are both carrying heavy emotional baggage. Taking their place onstage as the characters who are known only as “Guy” and “Girl” are Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti, relative newcomers to Broadway who were each nominated for a Tony Award for their individual performances.

Once began its New York life last November Off-Broadway at the New York Theater Workshop and swiftly moved uptown to Broadway in February, after glowing reviews for its vibrant energy—each ensemble member plays an instrument, be it fiddle, cello, harmonica or mandolin—and tearful portrayal of two lives that are on the verge of becoming one. We talked to Kazee (an Upper West Sider) and Milioti (a Bushwick resident) about what it's like to star in a hit show, the transition from Off-Broadway to the Great White Way, and where you can spot them around New York City when they're not onstage.

Once has just been nominated for a whopping 11 Tony Awards, including Best Performance by an Actor/Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical. How does it feel? Steve Kazee: I am so incredibly proud to be one of the 11 nominees of Once! I knew the show was something special, but being recognized by the Tonys in this way is thrilling.

Cristin Milioti: I'm thrilled beyond words. We've come so far as a company, and the feeling is overwhelming. I am extremely honored, grateful and stunned.

You both are like triple threats up there—singing, dancing and playing instruments! Steve, how long have you played guitar? SK: I've been playing since I was 13, so 23 years. But I've gotten exponentially better since we've started playing in the show. When you play eight times a week, you can't help but become better. [Cristin], do you feel like you've gotten better playing piano?

CM: Ha, I couldn't really play piano until this. I could only do chords. I couldn't sight-read, so I could only play you those.

And now I hear that in addition to pre-show where the cast plays Irish tunes while the audience is getting seated, you've also been playing at pubs around town, such as O'Flaherty's in Hell's Kitchen and The Path Café in the West Village. SK: Yes, this cast is insatiable when it comes to playing music!

What are some other places that you like to hang out? CM: I just went to Bar Centrale for the first time the other night. That place is cool.

SK: Yeah, it's on West 46th Street, on Restaurant Row. It's a little theater industry kind of place. There's no sign. You just have to know where the door is, right next to Joe Allen.

CM: I only drink on Sunday nights. I eat at Westville, the Chelsea location. It's so good, and I eat at 'sNice a lot, too. I also like Bareburger; it's an organic, grass-fed burger place. I go to Juice Generation every day for juice.

SK: When I do go out, I go to this little place called Lillie's. It's got a very cool vibe, but I usually stay on the Upper West Side. I eat at this place called Gabriela's, which is a really great Mexican restaurant, and a place called Cafe Frida. There's a nice little Asian-fusion place called Ozen up there in my neighborhood, and there's also this little bar I like to go to called Dive Bar. It's very quiet. It's a dive, ironically. I feel like I did a lot more when we were at New York Theater Workshop. I would go to Atlas Cafe.

With the nominations, you have a lot of reasons to go out and celebrate! Have you ever been a part of awards season before? SK: This is my first sort of experience of being involved in something that's getting a lot of notice and a lot of recognition. Cristin and I were also nominated for Outer Critics Circle and Drama League Awards, so it's really exciting. It's thrilling to sort of feel like for the first time in my seven-year career I'm getting some recognition for something that I feel equally proud of. And to be recognized for this show specifically is 10 times more of an honor than I think it would be if it was anything else.

CM: When we got nominated for Outer Critics Circle Awards, I was blown away by who I was nominated with. They are women that I've looked up to for years. That was the most thrilling thing; Kelli O'Hara, Audra McDonald, Marin Mazzie, Jan Maxwell—and me. I was like they're going to come knocking on the door and say, “Oh, just kidding, sorry!” These are women I've looked up to for a long time. Also the possibility of dresses! I was loaned a Zac Posen dress for our opening night, and it was so fun.

SK: She looked like a princess.

CM: And he was in a fancy Calvin Klein suit. I was out till 5:30am that night with John [Tiffany], our director, and a couple other cast members. We went to Marie's Crisis, and I sang show tunes in that gown. It was my first time there. We sang “America.” You don't sing a number by yourself—everyone sings with you. I thought it was like the karaoke thing where it's like, “And now it's my turn,” but that's not how it goes. Then I got on the piano and started to sing “Someone Like You,” and everyone got all excited, but I'd had a few drinks and only could remember the intro, so I sang the first line and then I was like, “I don't know the rest. I have to go home.”

SK: I love a good karaoke bar.

What's your go-to song? SK: I always sing “At This Moment,” by Billy Vera & The Beaters. It was featured in an episode of Family Ties.

CM: My best friend and I basically became BFFs at Sing Sing. I just love everything about it. There's a guy there that only does songs from Jekyll & Hyde. Those are really long songs, and everyone has to endure it together.

Have you both been able to see any of the other shows this season? SK: I've actually been seeing a lot. I saw Peter and the Starcatcher last night, which is unbelievable. It feels like you're watching our sister show. And I recently saw Book of Mormon for the second time, and I'm going to see Newsies next week. For some reason, there are a lot of shows with Monday-night performances right now. Evita, Newsies, Peter and the Starcatcher…so I've been trying to use all my Mondays to see shows.

CM: I should do that. Do you find it really inspiring?

SK: Yes. When I was watching Peter and the Starcatcher last night, I was like, “Oh, wow, that's what I look like onstage!” Sometimes I forget what kind of magic there is behind being an actor. Sometimes we're onstage and I just feel like we're having a conversation, like right now, but when the lights go up and the sound is going, there's a certain bit of stardust that gets sprinkled on it. It's nice to see that and remember that.

When you're not in a show, does it feel strange watching a show? CM: Every time I see a show, if I'm not in a show, I want to be like, “Let me get up there!” And not in a mean way—I just want to play with everyone.

SK: I wanted to be in Peter and the Starcatcher real bad last night.

That show started at New York Theater Workshop too! What is the biggest difference between performing at that theater and on Broadway? CM: Downtown, the ladies all had to share a lighting closet as a dressing room—it was literally a closet where they kept old lights and wires, and we had to step over the wires, and there were mice. We all had to share one mirror, and there was a curtain that was made from an old sheet. It's really nice that that's not the reality anymore! And the audience size—that was the first thing that blew my mind, because I walk through it at the beginning. I'll never forget the first preview when I walked through that audience. I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. Walking through a thousand people when you're used to walking past 150 is a huge difference, and you can feel it because everyone was so excited onstage and in the audience. It was like pushing through molasses—it felt thick. It was awesome.