With good reason, Once has been one of the most buzzed-about new shows of the Broadway season. Based on the acclaimed 2006 indie movie musical of the same name, the show had a highly-praised production Off-Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop before transferring to Bernard B. Jacobs Theater on Broadway in March. Now Once has snagged the most Tony Award nods this season, with 11 nominations.
Like many people, I was charmed by the movie when it came out. It was like a movie musical for a new generation, with a modern Dublin setting and a passionate contemporary folk-rock score. I also really appreciated that the love story at its center was both simple yet complicated. I won’t go into detail in case you haven’t seen either the movie or the show, but it’s a ‘sort-of love story’ about a Czech immigrant and Irish musician (identified only as Girl and Guy) who meet, form an unlikely friendship, and change each others’ lives.
Unlike the movie, which spends a lot of time on the Dublin streets or inside cramped homes, the musical uses a single pub set. Starting with the pre-show, where most of the cast comes out and plays Irish and Czech folk tunes, Once casts a musical spell. The songs in the show (written by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova), the talented cast (who also act as the onstage band), the phenomenal orchestrations by Martin Lowe, and even the excellent sound design by Clive Goodwin all come together to make Once the most enchanting musical offering on Broadway this season.
Now for the bad news. The frustrating thing about the musical version of Once is the script, which takes a far quirkier approach than the film. Where the movie has a few “cute” moments here and there, the show takes it much further, starting with the character of the Girl, who is almost cartoonishly quirky, and carrying on with many similarly wacky side characters.
It’s not that I think stage adaptations should follow movies to the letter — far from it. And, in fact, writer Enda Walsh and director John Tiffany made some really smart choices in giving the show a new life onstage. For instance, I love how they changed the segue into the show’s signature song, “Falling Slowly”. In the movie, the Guy instructs the Girl on how to play the song so that they can duet. The show, on the other hand, makes the more dramatically interesting decision of having her practically drag the song out of him (to the point of snatching his song sheet and plucking the music out on the piano herself), making it more rewarding when he gives in and joins her.
For me, the problem with the stage version of Once had less to do with the writing itself — which included plenty of genuine laughs — but that it seemed tonally incompatible with original writer/director John Carney’s gentle story, Hansard and Irglova’s soulful score, and even the movement choreographed by Steven Hoggett. That frustration notwithstanding, Once still offers up a lovely story and an incredible musical experience. Already wonderful on film, the score is even more vibrant and thrilling when you hear it live on Broadway.