'Once' upon a stage in New York


IF THE FILM Oncecaused a surprise when it made €15 million at the box office five years ago, the stage version, which is playing in New York, also seems set to be an unexpected hit.

Oncestarted out as a musical film, then triumphed at the Oscars when its stars, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, won an Academy Award for best original song. Now Broadway is in sight.

The stage musical of Onceis showing in the East Village at a small, experimental venue called New York Theatre Workshop. Performances have sold out and the run has been extended. This week the producers said they would bring the musical to the Bernard B Jacobs Theatre in February. This early announcement, just as the first reviews of the off-Broadway show were appearing, was unusual.

“We wanted to go to Broadway and we weren’t waiting for reviews to tell us,” says the show’s producer, John Hart. Hart’s other production credits include notable films, such as Revolutionary Roadand Boys Don’t Cry. A stellar team has worked with him on the new incarnation of Once. Hansard and Irglová composed the music, as in the original film. Enda Walsh, whose play Mistermanhad its New York premiere last weekend, wrote the book for this production, and John Tiffany directs. The Hansard and Irglová roles, in the musical simply called Guy and Girl, are played by Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti. (Kazee and some of the other actors needed a voice coach to get the Irish accents right.)

For Hart it is the intimate relationship between the two main characters that is at the heart of the musical’s appeal. The simple storytelling allows the tale to “move an audience in a very deeply personal way. It is people watching other people – musicians, artists – in the service of music, and that is a very personal visceral experience.”

Audiences have been impressed by the show’s blend of talents. “I loved it. I laughed, I cried,” says Eileen Weiss, who works in theatre and attended the show with her sister this week. “What was really special was that every single person was an amazing singer and actor and dancer. I’ve never seen such a conglomerate of intimate talent on stage. It’s really rare to get that.”

All of the 13 actors play at least one instrument, and all are on stage for the whole show.

There are differences between the 2006 film and Walsh’s stage version. Reviews have noted that Walsh’s script adds some humour to the story. The show also places the action in a post-Celtic Tiger world. Hart, who wrote a thesis on James Joyce’s Ulysses, says the show’s portrayal of Dublin as a city in difficulties has universal application. “Every great city, when it falls on hard times – just like New York, when it was at its nadir – depends on the immigrants to pick it up by its bootstraps,” he says.

This theme is mirrored in the relationship of Guy and Girl in the musical. Girl, who is Czech, inspires Guy, who is Irish, to continue his musical career.

With only a few quibbles, New York’s newspapers have given Oncerave reviews. For New Yorkmagazine it was “a sweet mash of tuneful, youthful, beautiful blarney that’s successfully leapt from screen to stage”. The Hollywood Reportersaw it as a reminder of “theatre’s singular capacity to enchant and transport us”. And the review in the tabloid New York Postrisked a pun: “ Once: more than enough for Dublin your pleasure.”

Only the New York Timeswas sceptical. Ben Brantley thought the show was soppy and complained that the lead actor was too good-looking. He “has been transformed from a shaggy nerd into a figure of leading-man handsomeness”, Brantley wrote.

The transition to Broadway will lead to more changes, although not within the cast. “A lot of people say, ‘How do you go from the New York Theatre Workshop, of 200 seats, to 1,000?’” Hart says. He is hopeful that the old-fashioned balconies in the Bernard B Jacobs Theatre will help to create an intimate experience.

But this week’s audiences were happy they saw it first. “I was so glad I got to see it here before it gets big on Broadway,” Weiss says. “You could be so close up.”