Once, the made-from-a-movie musical with an aching heart and songs full of longing, entranced audiences during its first South Florida visit when it played Miami’s Arsht Center in February 2014.
On Tuesday, the Tony Award-winning show returns to the region, this time for a two-week run at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. Coming back with it are its touring leads, British actors Stuart Ward as an Irish street musician and vacuum cleaner repairman called Guy, and Dani de Waal as a Czech pianist called Girl.
Once is no big Broadway spectacle. It’s simple, somewhat delicate, a perhaps improbable grand success in the tradition of the independent movie that spawned it. John Carney’s 2007 film starred Glen Hansard of the Irish band The Frames and Markéta Irglová, a Czech musician who was just a teen. Made in 17 days on a budget of $150,000, the movie grossed more than $20 million and won its stars, who composed the music, an Oscar for their song Falling Slowly.
The little movie with the big appeal was transformed into a musical in 2011, Hansard and Irglová again providing the music, successful Irish playwright Enda Walsh making his musical theater debut with the book. Hot director John Tiffany staged the show, and his collaborator Steven Hoggett devised the emotionally expressive movement, which at times has the actor-musicians dancing as they play their instruments — including the cello. The musical went on to win eight Tony Awards, including one for Walsh, who acknowledged before the show’s Miami run that he had previously found musicals to be “a bit embarrassing.”
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His smashing success with Once, however, caused him to change his tune.
With Irish composer Doncha Dennehy, he wrote the chamber opera The Last Hotel, about a place where lonely people check in to check out — commit suicide, in other words. After successes in Edinburgh, Dublin and London, The Last Hotel will play Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse Jan. 8-17.
Walsh has another New York opening this season, one even more attention-grabbing because of his collaborator: David Bowie. The two have transformed the Walter Tevis sci-fi novel The Man Who Fell to Earth — Bowie made his movie debut in Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 screen adaptation, playing an alien seeking a way to save his planet — into a musical titled Lazarus. Starring Michael C. Hall of Dexter fame, the show will preview Nov.18 and open Dec. 7 at Off-Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop, where Once debuted. Of Bowie, Walsh says, “He has no ego. It’s great to see a man who has done as much as he has put his head down and make something.”
The playwright, who lives in London, says that the transformation of Once from screenplay to musical — at least his part of it — was quick work.
When you write a love story, there are thousands of love stories being constructed in the atmosphere.
Enda Walsh, Tony-winning playwright
“I did 15 days’ work on the book. I didn’t talk to Glen [Hansard] at all then. [Director-screenwriter] John Carney had put all the songs together narratively, so they all added up to something,” Walsh says by phone from London. “I’m obsessed with form, how story comes at an audience.”
Director Tiffany, speaking to the Herald before the musical played Miami, wasn’t at all sure Once could become a musical.
“I listened to the songs, watched the movie and thought, ‘Are they mad?’ The film is practically a documentary. It couldn’t be less theatrical. It’s such a delicate and beautiful and fragile thing,” Tiffany said. “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.”
So Walsh’s task in Once was to make a subtle story stageworthy.
“I was a fan of the film. It’s invisible. It creeps up on you, the story is so delicate. It needed a bit of an engine. Over five days, the lives of Guy and Girl change. It’s sort of bittersweet. You realize that maybe this is a community that won’t see each other again. You see them in the moment and in the day, and then they’re just gone,” he says.
And he adds of Tiffany and Hoggett, “They’re masters at making sure each second matters but making it look effortless.”
Once literally invites audiences into its world, letting theatergoers walk onto its Dublin pub set and drink beer with the actors before the show and during intermission. Walsh’s script serves as another kind of invitation.
“There’s a sparseness in the telling of a musical. When you write a love story, there are thousands of love stories being constructed in the atmosphere. You’re not conscious of doing that. But there’s so much room for an audience to imagine,” he says.
Ward, an actor who had a small role on an episode of Downton Abbey and who was a rhythm guitaris/backup singer for British music legend Cliff Richard, is the one who gets to play out that love eight times a week. He has been doing the show for two years, with another three months to go. De Waal, fortunately, has been a great scene partner as the two have performed Once about 750 times, give or take.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better co-star. It could have gone the other way,” Ward says from a tour stop in Tampa. “Dani and I speak often about keeping it fresh, doing slight variations in scenes.”
A performer’s life on a long road involves rest and focusing on health. Because Once is such a physical show, Ward says, “we get a lot of repetitive injuries. And we have to do lots of counter-exercise, because we’re always in this hunched posture.”
But the show has also become an opportunity to deepen his résumé as actor and musician. Ward has applied for a green card and hopes to move to Los Angeles when his run in Once ends. And during a tour stop in Toronto, he recorded the seven-song EP Pictures, with backing from some of his cast mates. He signs the EP in theater lobbies after the show (it’s also available on iTunes), selling them for $20 each. So far, 7,000 people have bought them.
“I didn’t have the money to make an EP or a platform to sell them before Once,” Ward says, adding that his style is somewhat similar to Hansard’s.
“Glen and I write in a similar way. We have similar voices. I write to climaxes — I’m a big Roy Orbison fan. And I love telling a story,” he says.
If you go
What: ‘Once’ by Glen Hansard, Markéta Irglová and Enda Walsh.
Where: Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday additional matinee 2 p.m. Oct. 14, no evening show Oct. 18), through Oct. 18.
Cost: $35-$90 ($125 club level).
Information: 954-462-0222 or www.browardcenter.org.