A fervent fan of the 2006 modern-day movie musical "Once" will tell you that the title refers to the fairytale-like plot: Once upon a time, an Irish boy (Glen Hansard) met a Czech girl (Markéta Irglová).... Less romantic viewers might connect "once" to the ephemeral, lightning-in-a-bottle quality of the pair's connection. The fact that Hansard and Irglová — who wrote all the movie's infectious songs, including the Oscar-winning "Falling Slowly" — fell in love off screen, and have since parted, only bolsters that theory. (The beautiful, bittersweet documentary "The Swell Season," now on DVD, follows them on the road with their band and through their breakup.)
But the film's writer-director, John Carney, tells a different story on the "Once" feature commentary: "A lot of guys that I know...are very creative people, but they don't have the kind of get-up-and-go. So you hear that line a lot with these people: 'Once I get enough money, once I get out of my parents' house, once I get this little business set up, once I get my great script written, I'll be brilliant.' And they're not actually doing it.... It's the guy hiding behind the pint of Guinness who could be great."
Fitting, then, that in the stage adaptation, also called Once, now at Broadway's Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, we first meet guitarist Guy (Steve Kazee) in a pub, where he's surrounded by other musicians (i.e., instrument-playing ensemble members). The twist is that it's an actual pub, where a thirsty theatregoer can buy a lager before the show and at intermission.
|photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
"I really believe theatre should be an event, and the audience should have an experience from the moment they enter the theatre," says director John Tiffany. He never for a moment thought his pub conceit was impractical. "At the National Theatre of Scotland, we don't even have a building. We've done shows at the Edinburgh airport. Creating a pub onstage and letting the audience onto it is peanuts." And because any good watering hole needs a good soundtrack, Tiffany, musical director Martin Lowe, Hansard and the cast put together a pre-show selection of Irish and Czech folk songs. "We decided not to do them in a traditional way," he explains, "but that we would reinterpret them" in the style of contemporary folk bands like Bellowhead and Mumford & Sons and indie popster Lana Del Rey. "When you walk in, what you're watching is a session — people gathering in pubs, musicians. And if they can't play an instrument they at least tell a story," says Irglovà, who toured with Hansard following "Once" (and still plays with him periodically). "That's the reality of the culture in Ireland. I was lucky enough to be welcomed into that. In many, many situations with Glen, since Glen brings his guitar everywhere, a session would spring out of the evening."
|Photo by Joan Marcus|
From that pre-action communal gathering, the entire show — Girl (Cristin Milioti) and Guy's meeting on the streets of Dublin, the music he makes thanks to her motivation (and her piano) — essentially flows out like, well, Guinness from a tap. "When I went to see it in Boston," recalls Hansard, referring to the spring 2011 workshop at the American Repertory Theater, "I realized immediately they were doing their own thing completely." That, he says, was a huge relief. Hansard estimates that between rehearsals and the Off-Broadway run at New York Theatre Workshop, he's seen Once 15 times. But that doesn't mean he's been butting in at every turn. "My whole involvement has really been hanging out with Steve playing music, saying, 'I love this line, this is where my head was, this is what I was thinking, just so you can have this as a reference point,'" he explains. Adds director Tiffany: "Glen came up and we had a big jam session!" Irglová says she got a door-is-always-open message from the creative team, which also includes Dublin-born playwright Enda Walsh (Penelope, Misterman) and choreographer Steven Hoggett (American Idiot). "The atmosphere [at rehearsal] reminded me of the energy at a film school," she says. "People buzzing off each other and excited about the project." The movie's acclaimed score has been augmented a bit for the musical: it includes, for instance, Hansard's haunting "Sleeping," from the 2006 Czech movie "Kráska v nesnázích" ("Beauty in Trouble"). But penning new tunes wasn't even a consideration. "I just thought, 'I can't go back to that in the same way,'" says Hansard. He still performs "Once" songs, even though lately, like Irglová, he's been touring solo. "With just my guitar there's definitely limits. But sometimes Mar's in the room and she'll pop up." (And sometimes Eddie Vedder's in the room. "Falling Slowly" fans should definitely seek out the YouTube clip of Hansard's duet with the ex-Pearl Jam frontman.)
Hansard recalls first hearing talk of a Once musical "sometime around the few months after the  Oscars." And yet he never envisioned it ending up on Broadway. "It's had this amazing life, this amazing existence, and we haven't had to change a thing," he says. "But really, it's their work now. All I can do is wish them well and step away."
(This article appears in the April 2012 issue of Playbill magazine.)