The story is a simple, classic one: Guy meets girl. They fall for each other, but it’s complicated. In the end, they seem to go their separate ways. But will the split stick?
That’s a bare-bones summary of Once, the Tony Award-winning musical opening Tuesday at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. It’s accurate, but it doesn’t begin to capture the essence of a beguiling, unusual show that doesn’t just entertain its audiences: It captivates them. Most fall in love with it and wish they could write its ending.
Once has been unusual from the time it began its life as a 2006 Irish independent movie. Written and directed by John Carney, it starred musicians Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová as Guy, an Irish street musician and vacuum cleaner repairman, and Girl, a Czech flower seller and pianist. Filmed in 17 days for $150,000, it grossed more than $20 million and yielded a hit score written by its stars — including the Oscar-winning song Falling Slowly.
Movie producer Barbara Broccoli thought of hot British director John Tiffany when she got the theatrical rights to Once. With his longtime pal and movement collaborator Steven Hoggett, Tiffany had turned the 2006 National Theatre of Scotland production of Black Watch into a hit that toured the world. Broccoli, who saw Black Watch in Brooklyn, felt Tiffany was just the man to transform Once — and given that he went on to win the Tony Award for it, she was right.
But the director, who’s likely to get another Tony nomination this spring for his work on the acclaimed Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie, wasn’t so sure.
“I listened to the songs, watched the movie and thought, ‘Are they mad?’ ” Tiffany says, laughing as he waited for a flight from London to New York. “The film is practically a documentary. It couldn’t be less theatrical. ... It’s such a delicate and beautiful and fragile thing. I expected that for Broadway they’d want chorus lines of Hoover repairmen. I knew that would be like taking a sledgehammer to a butterfly.”
Fortunately, Broccoli and her fellow producers let Tiffany craft his own kind of butterfly, an intimate and adventurous musical quite unlike the typical Broadway blockbuster. That’s not surprising either.
“I hate pomp and circumstance with an empty heart,” Tiffany says.
Retaining Hansard and Irglová’s music from the movie, Tiffany assembled his own creative team. Martin Lowe was hired as musical supervisor and orchestrator, Hoggett as the creator of the show’s movement. Award-winning Irish playwright Enda Walsh signed on to write the musical’s book — though he, too, was initially hesitant.
“The whole notion of musicals I found a bit embarrassing. I’m an Irishman. We don’t have musicals. I thought, ‘I’m a proper writer.’ I just was brilliantly snobby,” Walsh says from London. “But as soon as I took my head out of my a**, I realized I’d learn something.”
Once evolved into a piece of theater that feels surprising and organic, though in fact each moment has been carefully crafted to create fluid storytelling through words, music and dance. The characters in the show are musicians, so the team decided that the actors would also function as the orchestra, sometimes dancing as they fiddle, strum guitars or play the cello.
Getting that sound right, says orchestrator Lowe, wasn’t easy.
“I wrote down all the music from the [soundtrack] album, because that’s what audiences and fans would want to hear,” Lowe says. “Staging it was a very slow, precise process. I had everyone sit to start with, then kept an eye on them as they moved around. With the advances in technology and sound in theater, everything usually sounds like a CD or a recording. I think the audience likes actually watching musicians play their instruments.”
Invariably, the first song he teaches a company of Once is that Oscar winner, Falling Slowly. Sung in the show by Guy and Girl, it hints at the torrent of feeling that will develop between these two almost-strangers.
“I’ve never known a song that makes people cry like that,” Lowe says. “It begins with guitars, then the strings come in. It gets under your skin.”
Hansard, the man who created the film score with Irglová, came to Boston when Tiffany and his collaborators were getting ready to try out the show at the American Repertory Theatre in the spring of 2011. He didn’t know the work of Tiffany and Hoggett, but Walsh assured him that their reputation was justified.
“He immediately liked them knew that the show wouldn’t be a piece of s**t,” Walsh says. “I said, ‘I guarantee you, if it is a piece of s**t, we’ll shoot it in the back of the head.’ ”
Once, of course, lives and breathes. After Boston, it opened at Off-Broadway’s New York Theater Worshop, then transferred to Broadway in February 2012. It got 11 Tony nominations and won eight, including the best musical award and Tonys for Tiffany, Walsh, Lowe and original leading man Steve Kazee.
On the road, Stuart Ward is playing Guy, with Dani de Waal as Girl. Both are British actors, though in the show he speaks and sings with an Irish accent, she with a Czech one.
De Waal, who had played piano for years as a hobby, says she loves being an actor-musician in the show.
“Initially, it’s more complicated, but I feel it draws the piece together more,” she says. “The actors really have to listen to each other and look at each other. There are no speakers coming back to us, so the sound changes in each venue. This is all about ensemble. And it’s amazing to watch. People have cellos stuck to their chest so they can dance.”
The show, she adds, “touches on huge universal questions in the simplest ways. It deals with missed opportunities, love, hard family relations.”
Ward, a singer-songwriter and rhythm guitar player as well as an actor, understudied the role of Guy in the London production of Once. He had seen and loved the movie, and when he learned about the stage version, he says he became obsessed with being in it and playing Guy.
“It was singing, acting, playing the guitar and no dancing whatsoever. It’s what I look for in a role,” he says, laughing.
Ward believes audiences are drawn to the show’s love story and its honest characters, baggage and all. Nor does he have a beef with its lack of a fairy-tale ending.
“It’s fitting,” he says.
Tiffany, who cast and directed the touring company, notes one of the distinctive things Ward and de Waal achieve.
“There’s an innocence to the way they fall in love. It’s very, very powerful,” he says.
Putting across a simple love story in 2,000-seat theaters like the ones Once is playing on tour isn’t easy. One move to increase the actor-audience connection involves Bob Crowley’s Tony-winning set, which looks like a Dublin pub. To get a head start on breaking down barriers, theatergoers are invited into the “pub” before the show or at intermission to quaff a beer with the performers.
Walsh thinks the quiet intimacy of the story makes even an audience of thousands feel close to Guy and Girl, as if everyone is in the same room as a human connection is made. Which, in point of fact, is the case.
“There’s some alchemy between what we’re doing and what the audience is bringing,” Walsh says. “Whatever age people are, you can feel thousands of love stories zipping around the space, floating above us all. That sort of magic doesn’t happen often.”