Once: The Musical
The beloved Irish film adapted to the stage.
It is hard to forget the little Irish movie that could, Once. Released in 2006, Once was shot in Dublin over a 17-day period, with a scant budget of $150,000. It became an Indie sensation with stars Marketa Irglova and Glen Hansard of the Frames winning an Oscar for Best Original Song and winning far more fans with their show-stealing, sweet acceptance speeches.
The film has now been adapted into a live musical. With a book by Irish playwright Enda Walsh and a cast of bright young actors, Once opened November 15th at the New York Theatre Workshop, an Off-Broadway hub for theater lovers. Just as the film seemed to grow right out of its humble clothes, so too has the musical. After a short stay at the Workshop, Once will premier on Broadway at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater on February 29.
Once tells the story of an Irish songwriter in Dublin who has lost hope in his own ability. His drive is reignited by a young Czech woman he meets on the street who takes a liking to his songs. At its core, it is the classic story of boy meets girl but what sets it apart is Hansard’s soundtrack.
In the film version, neither he nor Irglova came to the set with any acting experience whatsoever, but both were iconic in the roles, leaving incredibly difficult shoes and songs to fill. Actors Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti were selected to fill the starring roles in New York.
The stage show opened with a very charming set-up that invoked the fly-on-the-wall filming technique of the movie. The set was a crescent room lined with foggy pub mirrors and a bar at the back. As the audience trickled in to find their seats, they were encouraged to visit the bar on stage and have a drink as the cast stood at the front, playing Irish and Czech folk songs. The transition from this seisiun into the show itself was seamless as the audience was quietly ushered off stage and the cast continued their songs. Then, Kazee stepped up to play the song “Leave.” The lights dimmed and it was clear the show had begun.
Kazee was refreshing in Hansard’s role. He nailed the songs and, for the most part, stayed true to the character so many fell in love with in the film. Milioti, never having seen the film, took on Irglova’s character with an interpretation entirely her own.
In various interviews, Hansard himself expressed quite a few reservations about the stage show as it prepared to open. He made no apologies about his fear that the very quiet and unassuming nature of the film would be transformed into an over-the-top stage production.
His fear was not totally unfounded. There were definitely moments in the show that felt at odds with the film. Both the dance numbers, which were thankfully understated, and Milioti’s much more animated interpretation of Girl, distinctly separate the two incarnations of Once. Ultimately, Irglova fans are likely the ones who will grapple with the changes the most, but something that becomes very clear during the production is that the goal of this show is not to perform a film live. It is its own entity.
With the addition of more Hansard/Irglova (now performing as the Swell Season) songs not featured in the film as well as a stunning a capella performance of the memorable “Gold,” Once as an off-Broadway show also made many welcome changes. The characters of Girl’s Czech roommates and Billy the music shopkeeper were given more depth and attention, filling much of show’s comedic moments. Lucas Papaelias played one of the Czech roommates, Svec, and he was quite the scene-stealer. With a pronounced Czech-Dublin accent, he played the role of the wild drummer and dedicated soap opera fan hilariously.
The entire cast also takes their turn playing the abundance of acoustic instruments that line the stage. Songs often began with Kazee on guitar and Milioti on piano, but by the end of the tune the cast would join in with two mandolins, a cello, two violins, bass, drums and anywhere from two to four guitars. The resulting build-up of each song grew somewhat chaotic more than a few times. Just one of each instrument would have sufficed instead of the army of strings that bellowed by the end of each song.
Overall the cast was lively, the production sound and the script certainly had a refreshing dash of humor thrown in.
As the production moves uptown to Broadway, it is expected that the power of Once that shook the Oscars will do the same come Tony season. Stay tuned.