How the Academy Award-winning indie film sensation was transformed into the 8-time Tony Award-winning Broadway musical
In 2007, the charming, off-beat Irish film Once opened to glowing reviews and quickly developed a fervent following. The touching, lyrical musical tells the story of two down-on-their-luck musicians, an angst-ridden Dublin street singer/songwriter who works as a vacuum repairman, and a Czech immigrant who sells flowers in order to support herself and her family. Girl (as she is known) initiates a friendship with Guy (as he is known), and in the course of a week they make music together, fall in love and part, but not before changing each other’s lives. The movie’s stars, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, also wrote much of the score, and received an Oscar for their beautiful ballad, “Falling Slowly.”
Once is simultaneously graceful and gritty, and has a naturalism and intimacy that are generally best achieved in film. Which explains why the noted Irish playwright Enda Walsh was less than enthusiastic when he was asked to write a Broadway musical based on the movie. “I guffawed when my agent called and asked me to speak to the producers,” says Walsh. “I said, ‘What a stupid idea.’ It’s a two-hander with very little plot. It’s delicate. So I called the producers and told them it wasn’t for me. There’s no tradition of musical theater in Ireland, so I rubbished the idea. Then they told me John Tiffany was attached to it as director.”
The two men are longtime friends, and although Tiffany also had doubts as to the viability of the material as a Broadway musical, he convinced Walsh not to reject the idea outright. “John said, ‘Let’s just take two days, and we can read the screenplay and listen to the songs and talk about it.’ So I said, ‘Okay, we’ll do two days. And that’s all we’ll do.’”
Not quite. “Those two days convinced us that we wanted to do this show,” says Tiffany. That was the beginning of a journey that led to Broadway and eight 2012 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book (Walsh), and Best Direction of a Musical (Tiffany). The show became such a critical and commercial success that it spawned a London production and a U.S. national tour, which opens on October 1 at the Providence Performing Arts Center.
“I never think about adapting films for the stage,” says Tiffany. “That’s not the way I work. And when I was approached about Once, I hadn’t even seen the film. But one of my best friends said, ‘You will love the music.’ So I downloaded the soundtrack, and absolutely loved it. I’d never heard music like that, and the music is the reason why I wanted to do the show. Not just the music itself, but the fact that it’s a story about creating music, a story about the healing power of music. Immediately I thought, ‘We’re going to be able to see actors create that music in front of us’ That’s really exciting. Actors have played instruments onstage for years, but not always in a show about making music.”
In reading through John Carney’s screenplay, Walsh discovered there was much he could relate to. “I’m a big fan of the movie Brief Encounter, and I saw similarities,” says Walsh. “There’s a bittersweet pang that really hurts. Very quickly I thought I was a good match for the material. I tend to write characters that are inarticulate and lonesome, and something comes into their life that changes them. And from listening to the songs, I thought it might be good for me to do something about Ireland, which was so hurt in the recession. I thought it would be sweet to do a little love letter to Dublin. That was my way in.”
The 12 adult members of the cast play at least one instrument, and are onstage virtually throughout the show. “I didn’t want anyone onstage who we didn’t get to know intimately,” says Tiffany. By individualizing each character, adds Walsh, “we built a community, and that became the heart of the piece. They’re an ensemble of misshapen people who sing and tell the story. Watching them play the music and sing and find their voice is very beautiful and very strong. But in addition to making it about community, we also wanted the show to be hugely communal. So how do we do that? We allow the audience onstage.”
Prior to the start of the show, the audience is welcome to come onstage and mingle with the cast, who are having a jam session. This bonding ritual doesn’t merely break the fourth wall; it obliterates it. “We wanted the audience to own the experience,” says Walsh. As the show unfolds, the focus is, of course, on the relationship between Guy and Girl, but the audience also catches glimpses of the lives of the other characters. “We needed to be sure that there are all these other love stories in the air. Each person is riffing off a love that’s been lost, that got away. That was the key: for the audience to feel part of the experience, and also to look at the people on the stage and go, ‘They’re us.’”
The material has proved to be as powerful onstage as it is on film. “I think what’s very moving about the piece is how sometimes we meet people who we don’t necessarily stay with forever, but they give us the resources to move on to the next part of our life,” says Tiffany. “There’s something very truthful in that. People have said to me, ‘When I was sitting in the theatre watching Once, I felt like I was watching it with everyone I’ve ever loved, whether or not they’re still in my life.’”
Don't miss ONCE THE MUSICAL at ASU Gammage April 29 - May 4, 2014. For more information or to purchase tickets please visit asugammage.com.