Broadway-Aimed Once, the Musical That Has Crowds "Falling Slowly," Opens in NYC

By Kenneth Jones
December 6, 2011

The East Village stage of New York Theatre Workshop, where Rent was born, has taken the form of a Dublin pub — complete with booze bottles, smoky mirrors and sepia-glowing incandescent bulbs — for the Manhattan premiere of the Irish-pop and folk-infused musical Once, inspired by the hit indie film. Opening night is Dec. 6, following previews that began Nov. 15.



Plaintive and rousing songs by Irish troubadour Glen Hansard and Czech musician Markéta Irglová, who appeared as mismatched would-be lovers in the picture and won the 2008 Academy Award for writing its hypnotic signature ballad, "Falling Slowly," populate the new musical. On stage, Steve Kazee has Hansard's role of Guy and Cristin Milioti has Irglova's role of Girl.

The songs from the film and subsequent songs by The Swell Season (Hansard & Irglová's band) — as well as Irish and Czech folk songs — are folded into the stage experience. Despite an April 2011 tryout at American Repertory Theatre in Boston, the rise of Once has been quiet, with NYTW and attached commercial producers saying yes to very few interview requests. Like the low-budget/high-grossing film before it, Once is waiting to be discovered, though it's no secret that Broadway producers are poised to carry the show to a wider life. Off-Broadway performances at NYTW continue to Jan. 15, 2012, representing a two-week extension. Tickets are becoming difficult to get.

Director John Tiffany and choreographer Steven Hoggett (collaborators of the acclaimed ensemble Iraq War drama Black Watch) commandeer a troupe of 13 actor-musicians — including Anne L. Nathan and David Patrick Kelly as Girl and Guy's mother and father — who are jamming even as the audience enters NYTW. The film's songs and other tunes are orchestrated and arranged by music supervisor Martin Lowe. Expect Guy on guitar, Girl on piano (as in the film) and a supporting cast on mandolin, melodica, banjo, ukulele, harmonica, accordion, bass, drums and more.

The songs do not seek to tell this simple story in a brash in-character way; this is a new era of show tune where music (and movement) punctuates and gives expressive life to the characters' moods and hopes. (After the Guy and Girl and their pals have a 24-hour recording session, there is an a cappella number that defies convention and description, and has helped create buzz for the show.)

Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová

Ritual, ensemble and community are at the core of the two-act musical. In previews, the idea of community has extended to the audience: At intermission, you can climb on stage and buy a drink in the pub designed by Tony Award-winning scenic designer Bob Crowley (Aida, The History Boys, Mary Poppins, The Coast of Utopia, Carousel), who also designed costumes. The lighting design is by Tony winner Natasha Katz (The Coast of Utopia, Aida).

The pub floor serves as the neutral ground for multiple scenes that reimagine the original screenplay by John Carney, who also directed the film and captured improvisation by Hansard and Irglová. (The humble stars fell in love during the making of the movie but have since parted; she's married to someone else now.) Irish playwright Enda Walsh, whose Misterman just opened to solid reviews at St. Ann's Warehouse, penned the libretto for Once, making Girl, a Czech immigrant, a much more active and twinkly muse for Guy. Walsh's plays include The Walworth Farce, Penelope and The New Electric Ballroom.

In addition to Kazee (known for Broadway's To Be or Not To Be, 110 in the Shade) and Milioti (NYTW's Little Foxes and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Broadway's Coram Boy), the cast of Once features David Abeles, Claire Candela, Will Connolly, Elizabeth A. Davis, David Patrick Kelly, Anne L. Nathan, Lucas Papaelias, Andy Taylor, Erikka Walsh, Paul Whitty and J. Michael Zygo.

Elizabeth A. Davis and Cristin Milioti in Once.
photo by Joan Marcus

Here's how NYTW characterizes the work: "On the streets of Dublin, an Irish musician (Guy) and a Czech immigrant (Girl) are drawn together by their shared love of music. Over the course of one fateful week, an unexpected friendship and collaboration quickly evolves into a powerful but complicated love story, underscored by the emotionally charged music that has made Once an international sensation."

The creative team also includes sound designer Clive Goodwin, dialect coach Stephen Gabis, vocal supervisor Liz Caplan Vocal Studios, production stage manager Bess Marie Glorioso and assistant stage manager Katherine Shea.

The independent Irish film "Once" was made for $150,000; shot in 17 days; and grossed $20 million worldwide.

Hansard and Irglová won the Los Angeles Film Critics Award for Best Music, and the film's soundtrack was nominated for two Grammy Awards. "Falling Slowly" won the Oscar for Best Original Song.

Commercial producers attached to the show's future are John N. Hart, Patrick Milling Smith, Brian Carmody, Fred Zollo, Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson. The producers first announced a fall 2011 Broadway launch, but opted for a more modest kickoff at NYTW. A 2012 Broadway life is expected, but not officially announced as of Dec. 6.

Although commercial producers have shepherded Once, NYTW artistic director James C. Nicola, when pressed by Playbill.com, couldn't help celebrating that the show was under his East Fourth Street roof. He said, "NYTW strives to remind its audiences that experiencing an act of creative expression is as important to maintaining a healthy, balanced human life as wearing your galoshes in case of a rainstorm, or brushing your teeth twice a day. These acts, when practiced regularly, promote well-being, and prevent disease — of both the mind and the body. I believe experiencing Once does exactly this — it heals. It celebrates the act of communing, of gathering together to accomplish a larger purpose, of making something bigger than is possibly individually. It gets us in touch, in a bleak age of isolation and voracity, with a profound truth: that sometimes, all too rarely, as a species, we can collectively do good instead of evil, that we can make beauty instead of ugliness and, in the doing, perhaps redeem ourselves just a little."

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Hansard, the frontman for the Irish alternative rock band The Frames, and Czech singer-songwriter Irglová went on a world tour after the "Once" soundtrack album went gold in early 2008. With some members of The Frames, they released a follow up album, "Strict Joy," under the name The Swell Season, in the fall of 2009. They now tour with that group.

The regular performance schedule for Once is Tuesday through Wednesday at 7 PM; Thursday-Friday at 8 PM, Saturday at 3 PM and 8 PM, and Sunday at 2 PM and 7 PM. There will be an additional performance on Dec. 19 at 7 PM. There will also be a special student matinee on Dec. 14 at 1 PM.

NYTW also has $25 student tickets available for all performances. Student tickets may be purchased in advance from the NYTW Box Office with valid student identification. The NYTW Box office is open 1-6 PM, Tuesday through Saturday.

Once tickets start at $75 and may be purchased online at www.ticketcentral.com, 24 hours a day, seven days a week or by phoning Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200. For more information, visit www.nytw.org.

New York Theatre Workshop is at 79 E. 4th Street, between Bowery and Second Avenue in the East Village.