'Once' a hit, always a hit: the little Irish film takes to the big stage


CULTURE SHOCK:GIVEN THE CHARM of John Carney’s film and the melodic power of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s songs, it was inevitable that someone would make a stage musical of Once. And almost inevitable that they would screw it up.

The film worked because it was delicate, understated and subtle: not the first qualities that come to mind when you think of the Broadway musical, a form that revels in glamour and noise. Once came in under the radar, both commercially and emotionally. It snuck up on audiences and whispered in their ears about quiet yearning and unspoken feelings. That gentle approach is no longer possible after the success of the movie. Even it were, the big theatrical musical doesn’t really do sighs and whispers.

All of which makes John Tiffany’s production at the Bernard Jacobs Theatre on Broadway little short of miraculous. It navigates the rough passage from screen to stage with remarkable fluency. What emerges is not a mere adaptation of the movie. It is a supple translation of one form into another: Once has been stripped down, taken apart and rebuilt in a completely different mode. But the charm and delicacy of the original survive intact. The thing feels the same, only different.

The key to musicals is not the music. If it were, staging Once would be easy. Hansard and Irglová’s songs – Leave, Gold, The Hill, When Your Mind’s Made Up – have a lovelorn lyricism that is robust enough for a big ensemble show. There’s a ready-made Oscar-winning showstopper in Falling Slowly, which is sufficiently rich to be recast in different arrangements. (The show-stopper, according to Broadway convention, gets a reprise at the end.) The songs are pretty much cut and pasted into Martin Lowe’s mostly acoustic soundscape. The main additions for the show are a few stomping instrumentals for the ensemble cast, each one of whom plays an instrument.

But Broadway is full of terrible musicals with good songs. They fail because they are badly written. The paradox of the musical is that it is entirely dependent on the words: the story and dialogue that make up the “book”. The foundation stone for the success of Once is the decision to have it rewritten by an accomplished playwright, so that it has the shape and coherence of a drama with songs rather than the diffuse feeling of a bunch of songs in search of a play.

Enda Walsh’s book is a masterclass in economy; every line carries a big weight of plot, character and emotion. There is room for just two characters to develop: the depressed songwriter living above his da’s Hoover repair shop and the Czech woman who sweeps into his life and kick-starts his broken heart. But Walsh manages to sketch all the others in bold, vivid lines, so that none of them remains merely functional. There are a few moments of overstatement towards the end, but almost all the time his script uses a dry, ironic humour to kill off any incipient germs of earnestness or sentimentality.

On this solid base, the show builds its energetic theatricality. Irish audiences will remember Tiffany’s work from the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch. It is characterised by simplicity, directness, rapidity and a belief that elaborate scene-setting and false realism should be ruthlessly ditched. His economy of action is a perfect match for Walsh’s economy of words.

It helps, I think, that neither Tiffany nor any of the cast is Irish. It would be hard for Irish people to get the physical reality of the movie’s Dublin out of their heads and not to want to do what in fact cannot be done: reproduce film realism on stage. Tiffany’s approach is relentlessly reductive, hacking away the specifics of place in order to create a purely theatrical space. Bob Crowley’s superb semicircular set defines that space roughly as a Dublin pub but more meaningfully as an imaginative arena within which any other setting can be conjured. The actors are playing and singing on stage even as the audience assembles, and the fourth wall is deliberately breached by asking them up on stage. All the illusions are open and upfront.

A non-Irish cast brings the predictable problems of wandering accents, some of them dreadful. But this doesn’t matter all that much: half the characters are Czech and speak with central European accents. (One of the actors, Lucas Papaelias, does a very decent impression of a Czech immigrant speaking in a Dublin accent learned from watching Fair City. It says much for his efforts that he gets a Broadway audience laughing at an Irish soap.) And dodgy accents are a small price to pay for the strength of the two leads. Steve Kazee seems too conventionally handsome and sleek for the down-at-heel Dublin busker he plays, but in fact he creates just the right aura of naive vulnerability. And Cristin Milioti, playing opposite him, is a rare jewel: birdlike but commanding, inscrutably deadpan yet fizzing with energy, both girlish and life-worn.

If the show benefits from not being insistently Irish, there is still something especially poignant in it for an Irish viewer. Once was no hymn to the Celtic Tiger, but its story of an Irish life transformed by an encounter with an immigrant was very much of that moment when Dublin was a place to come to, not to leave. It probably won’t matter to a Broadway audience, but Walsh has subtly updated some of the references to shift the narrative into our own post-boom world. The bank manager has a spiel about how Ireland is still “open for business”, and the busker’s lost girlfriend has gone to New York because there were “no jobs, no prospects” in Ireland.

That Once itself has joined the emigration trail gives it an added tinge of bitter-sweet melancholy.