'Once' more with feeling

The Oscar-winning film is getting another lease of life as a Broadway musical, with a script by Enda Walsh

The Oscar-winning film is getting another lease of life as a Broadway musical, with a script by Enda Walsh. But how will a story with scruffy Dublin themes and settings play to a US audience, asks FRIEDA KLOTZ.

ON THE WALL outside the Bernard B Jacobs Theatre on West 45th Street, five huge posters advertise Once. The largest one shows a handsomely dishevelled Steve Kazee (Guy) holding a guitar and looking soulfully at the big-eyed Cristin Milioti (Girl).

Half a block from the pink and orange lights of Times Square and the tourists snapping each other with their cameras, the posters signify the journey of Once, which in six years has travelled from the streets of Dublin to the glitter of New York's theatre district.

On Sunday, the musical version of the film opens. On one side of the theatre, a Gore Vidal revival is currently running, while a production of Seminar, starring Alan Rickman, is on the other.

A story about love, music and a dream of success, Oncehas already had a fair share of success: the film that Glen Hansard, Markéta Irglová and John Carney created in 2006 grossed $10 million in the US and won an Academy Award for best original song.

In December, the musical debuted off Broadway at the New York Theatre Workshop in the East Village. Even before the Broadway show formally opens, a new soundtrack, sung by the Broadway cast, has been released.

Onceclearly had great appeal to the theatre-goers at a recent preview show, who gave it a standing ovation. The audience included teenage boys and adults of all ages, although notably more women were present than men.

The actors in this production are American – a voice coach helped them to get a grasp of the Dublin twang. Milioti, a 26-year-old brunette from New Jersey, has appeared in The Sopranosand 30 Rock; Kazee, 36, from Kentucky, looks far more like a Hollywood heart-throb than a down-and-out Dublin busker.

Enda Walsh, who adapted this production, says that the story was already there when he began. “I just had to unlock something in the telling of it,” he says. “It’s massively simple. And the songs actually are the soliloquies.”

Walsh and the director John Tiffany felt that music was at the production's core. That's why, Tiffany says, he took the unusual step of having all the actors play instruments and dance. It's a bit like watching a session in a pub, but a self-conscious one, since the joy of creating music is one of the central themes of Once.

“I think the music is absolutely extraordinarily beautiful and very unusual for a Broadway show,” Tiffany says “I’ve been haunted by it since I first started listening to it, and certainly then working on it.”

The challenge for Walsh in writing the script was to make it fit the big stage – to transform the film, which he describes as "invisible" and "barely there", into something that would work on a stage before a thousand people. He took figures that had been marginal in the film and fleshed them out into three-dimensional characters: a man in the shop has become a bearded young misanthrope who has a crush on Girl; Czech housemates now have individual stories and comedic lines of their own, although they still learn their English from Fair City.

Dublin has become a character in its own right. “When they came to me with the idea of doing it just over a year ago, I said ‘I think this is a perfect time for this story about a city that’s stuck in a recession and it’s been beaten’,” Walsh recalls. “I said to John [Tiffany], ‘It feels to me like the characters are down, that they’re all stuck’.

“A light is shone on them by this presence of this ball of energy, this girl, and everything changes, momentarily, for five days. That seemed a very beautiful thing and it was important for me to reference Dublin in a positive way because things are so bloody hard there and in Ireland.”

In a gesture towards the musical’s current audience, Guy’s ex-girlfriend has moved not to London to find her fortune, but to New York.

From the start, there was a huge amount of American interest in the musical. Tiffany says that in auditions, enthusiastic actors did their best to prove they had the right selection of skills for the part. “People were turning up at auditions with shopping trolleys full of instruments to display their versatility. I was quite amazed that in New York, it seems to be everybody’s favourite film and everybody’s favourite soundtrack. I suppose it’s partly about winning the Academy Award as well. People were turning up and you could feel, it was tangible, the kind of love that they had for this music and this story.”

While the film ranged around the streets of Dublin, the musical is necessarily more static: much of the action occurs in a bar, or in the house of Girl, or in the music shop. At the start and during the interval, the audience are invited onstage to have a drink and mingle with the musicians. “I really wanted it to feel like an open doorway between what was going on onstage and the audience,” Tiffany says.

The language that describes the city is sometimes quite poetic. For instance, one of the Czech men observes: “A million times heartbroken and Dublin keeps on going. You’ve got to love Dublin for dreaming.”

Walsh felt the story was too slight to carry social commentary: “It can’t take that political or social muscle on it.” Even so, when trying to persuade the Banker to lend them money, Girl declares that Ireland is open for business.

Her words happen to echo a statement made by Enda Kenny on a recent trip to the US. “I thought it was an extraordinary thing to say – like that Ireland’s just a massive shop,” Walsh says, laughing. “I don’t think Ireland’s just a massive shop. I think Ireland is bigger than that. Irishness is much bigger than that.”

For Walsh, work on the musical was a refreshing change. His most recent play Misterman, which was in New York before Christmas, explored the psychology of a murderer (Tiffany has also focused on dark themes; last year he directed Black Watch, about Scottish soldiers who return from Iraq). "I really wanted to work on something really hopeful and very beautiful," Walsh says. "It was really important for me to just take a break from the dark f**king material that I tend to work in and allow myself to enjoy the process."

He and Tiffany have been friends for 14 years. They met at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh around 1998 when both were embarking on their careers. Disco Pigshad just opened and Tiffany was working as a director. This is the first time the pair have collaborated on a major project. Another friend, Steven Hoggett, who was "around" Edinburgh at that time, is the choreographer for the New York production.

When it showed at the New York Theatre Workshop, Oncereceived mostly warm reviews. A few voices were more sceptical, questioning, among other things, the chemistry between the two leads ("A love affair with music, maybe with each other," ran the headline of the review in the New York Times).

Walsh says that while the Broadway production is similar to that in East Village, it has gotten better. “The story is hitting the air correctly. Structurally it feels really strong. It’s hugely simple, hugely delicate and they’re tricky things to get completely right. It’s a massive improvement.”

Read More