When playwright Enda Walsh first heard the pitch to turn the ultra-low-budget 2007 musical film "Once" into a play, he says he thought it was "a terrible idea."
Walsh, who eventually wrote the book for the "Once" show playing at the Fisher Theatre, says he "fell in love" with the original movie on first viewing. Directed by John Carney, the film follows two down-and-out musicians — an Irishman identified only as "Guy" and a Czech woman identified as "Girl" — as they meet and skirt the edges of an impractical romance.
Starring musicians and former real-life lovers Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, the film drew widespread critical acclaim for its subtle, bittersweet love story and its soundtrack. Its centerpiece song, "Falling Slowly," won an Oscar for Best Original Song in 2008. Walsh says at first glance a successful transition to the stage seemed unlikely.
"I know the mechanics of making theater, and I know that theater needs a lot more muscle to exist onstage," he says. "Initially, sort of instinctually when I looked at it, it didn't seem possible to take what is effectively a two-hander and make it work onstage."
However, after being persuaded to meet with director John Tiffany and music supervisor Martin Lowe, Walsh began to see some exciting possibilities for adapting the film.
"We started talking about theater in England that was made during the 1970s, this sort of community-type theater," he says. "People would sit around the edges on chairs ... and watch the action. Then they would hop in and do their part. We really liked that idea, just something that open and simple and naive."
The book Walsh ended up writing for the show added some new supporting roles and expanded the roles of characters touched upon more briefly in the film. But the stripped-back aesthetic of the film remained, with a minimalist set consisting of a bar in the middle of the stage and chairs along the edges for cast members to sit upon exiting a scene. After an off-Broadway premiere in 2011, the musical was rapturously received in its 2012 Broadway debut, receiving 11 Tony nominations and winning eight, including Best Musical.
Actress Dani de Waal says she was fascinated by the film upon seeing it, and equally enjoyed the Broadway show when she moved to New York two years ago.
"It's sort of a very modern-day love story," she says. "It's very real and kind of realistic. It's not boy meets girl, and it all ends up happily ever after, you know. It has all the complications of real life."
Enthused by the show, de Waal underwent what she says was "a very long audition process" and ended up landing the role of "Girl" in the show's U.S. tour. Although "Once"'s characters are left somewhat intentionally vague, right down to their generic names, de Waal says "Girl" is a "really interesting" character with "a lot of layers."
"Some people say to me, 'But didn't you need a name?'" she says. "It doesn't need that. They're called that because it's this 'anytime, anyplace' type of thing, and I love that about it."
One element of the show that came as a challenge to de Waal was its unique approach to music. In keeping with the story's musician characters, all the songs are performed live onstage by the actors, with no orchestral accompaniment or conductor. Each performance is preceded by a 15-minute onstage jam session, during which the actors play selections from a repertoire of about 20 Irish and Czech folk songs. The audience is welcome onstage during this time to stop by the bar set, which also functions as a working bar.
"We're kind of playing like a band, listening to each other," de Waal says. "There's not a leader as such. It changes every night, really."
De Waal began playing at age seven, but has played only occasionally for her own pleasure since her school days. "Once" is her first experience playing in a live performance setting, which she says "took some nerve" at first. But now she says she's "caught the bug" and would love to do more.
"I think the music is even more heightened in the stage show because we're also playing the instruments onstage, and that gives a very visceral connection to the music," she says. "You can actually see what you're hearing."
The musical approach also represented a significant departure for Walsh, who had never before worked on a full-blown musical. However, he's often included a song or two in his past plays, so "Once" proved a natural transition for him.
"I loved it," he says. "As a playwright, when you're younger, you're obsessed with the language of plays. But when you're older, you get more obsessed with form. And musicals are all about form."
The Irish-born Walsh had never been to a Broadway theater before "Once" started taking off, and he was at first somewhat overwhelmed by the positive response it received. But he says he understands what draws audiences to the show: the simple, unencumbered presentation of a love story everyone can relate to.
"They get it," he says. "Everyone gets a little bit of heartache, the sort of bittersweet sentiment of knowing that you can't be in love with that person, that it's not going to work out for a particular reason. You see a couple try to bring themselves together, and they just can't. We've all been there."
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.
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