‘The Lonely Few’ Is a Frustrating Attempt at the Next Great Lesbian Musical

The Lonely Few press photo by Joan Marcus

When the movie Once premiered at Sundance in 2007, it immediately became a phenomenon. Made on a budget of €112,000 and starring non-actor musicians Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, Once received the Audience Award at Sundance, won Best Foreign Film at the Independent Spirit Awards, was a box office smash, and even won the Oscar for Best Original Song. More than these awards, its greatest success was how it reinvented the musical, combining the raw form and emotion of early digital movements like mumblecore with excellent songwriting.

Due to all this success, it was no surprise when a stage adaptation was announced. It premiered at New York Theatre Workshop in 2011 before transferring to Broadway the following year. Soon after moving to New York, I excitedly waited in the rush line to see the show. That excitement quickly faded. Gone was the intimacy and raw musicality of the film. Gone was the grounded dialogue and authentic romantic connection. The best part of the show had become the grand presentation, dancing and staging meant to impress rather than elicit feeling. Even worse, it had the easy jokes of a standard Broadway book. As played by Cristin Milioti — the mother of How I Met Your Mother – Markéta Irglová had been turned into a cutesy Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

The Once musical was also a massive success and went on to win eight Tony Awards. Audiences and critics alike did not share my disappointment. And yet I yearned for a version that didn’t replace the movie’s strengths with theatrical pizzazz, but rather built upon them. Could that be possible? Could the impressive dancing and staging have led to more emotion instead of less?

I thought about Once last week as I watched The Lonely Few, a new musical that premiered last year in Los Angeles at The Geffen and is now coming to the end of its Off-Broadway run at MCC Theater. Written by Zoe Sarnak and Rachel Bonds and starring Taylor Iman Jones and Tony-winner Lauren Patten, The Lonely Few is another tale of melancholy people bonding over the music they create alone and together. And, even better, this time the musicians are lesbians.

Patten plays Lila, a queer musician living in a small Kentucky town who works at a grocery store and lives with her erratic brother Adam. One night, Amy Burnett, a professional musician, sees Lila’s band perform and the connection is immediate. Amy convinces Lila to leave her brother to go on tour with her and the two women attempt to fall in love despite their pasts and traumas.

Directors Trip Cullman and Ellenore Scott turn the theatre into the bar where Lila performs with select audience seating on the stage itself. In theory, it should make this concert heavy show more immersive, but instead it highlights the show’s frustrating lack of setting. Given the thematic import of Lila’s small town and the oasis of her local spot, placing a cross-section of the New York theatre audience on-stage removes its sense of place. When Lila greets her “fellow freaks,” she’s cheered on, not by counter-culture Southern queers, but a crowd whose definition of freaky is probably a second aperol spritz at family brunch.

This becomes even more glaring when Lila and her band join Amy on tour. There’s a lot of discussion about the varied of experiences of different venues when touring as a queer musician throughout the South. Even if changing the actual set wasn’t feasible, we should have the opportunity to imagine the differing crowds based on the actors’ performances.

It’s unfortunate, because the set design itself is quite strong. Lila and her brother’s apartment is situated over the venue’s bar, an excellent choice that allows her home life to hover even when Lila is on-stage. It becomes even more powerful once she’s on tour and her brother’s literal presence haunts moments where she’s miles away.

I fixate on the choice to place the audience on the stage, because it’s indicative of larger problems with the show. The Lonely Few wants to be a grounded drama about queer outsiders, but has the rock n’ roll edge of a Glee episode. It’s a work that begs for a clear setting and clear characterization and instead finds a muddled suggestion of who these people are, where they live, and what motivates them.

There’s a moment where Lila’s bandmate JJ plays her own original song, a pop number inspired by Lila and Amy’s lack of communication. It’s played for laughs, but its pop energy actually feels more in line with the show’s tone than the attempts at edgy rock. It’s followed by a gorgeous sequence where Lila and Amy share their feelings and have sex. This is all a high point for the show — except that the specifics feel confusing given what precedes. JJ saying she doesn’t have enough trauma to write songs motivates Amy to tell her to write about people she knows. But why wouldn’t JJ have her own struggles in this small town as a fellow freak? And the moment of connection between Lila and Amy is beautifully done, but the issues they’re overcoming are confusing in the context of Amy’s initial pursuit of Lila and Lila’s stated motivations.

The cast — especially the show’s leads — are excellent and they make moments like these transcend the surrounding flaws. It’s the potential of the show that makes it as difficult to dismiss as it is difficult to love.

The Lonely Few closes this week and it’s likely to live on primarily through its cast album. In a Broadway landscape where just about every show is based on a movie, original musicals — original queer musicals — are rare even in Off-Broadway spaces. But the mediocrity of Broadway means shows like these have even more responsibility to value basics like character and setting, to ground our stories in all their complexity.

I’m sure Lila and Amy would agree: You can represent the nuances of humanity and still put on a helluva show.

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 545 articles for us.

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