“Once” • Book By Enda Walsh, Music and Lyrics by Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova • New York Theatre Workshop • Open-ended Run
The story behind “Once,” the innocently charming new musical which opened last week at New York Theatre Workshop, is even more complicated than anything that actually takes place on the stage on East 4th Street.
There was, of course, the independent film of the same name which not only became a surprise hit in 2007, but contained a ballad, “Falling Slowly,” which won the “Best Song” Academy Award that year.
The film told the story of a romance involving a depressed Dublin vacuum cleaner repairman and a lonely Czech flowergirl two decades his junior.
The song, and the rest of the music in the film, which had been written and directed by John Carney, was the work of Glen Hansard, famous in Ireland as the frontman of the popular group, the Frames, and his young partner, the Czech-born pianist and singer, Marketa Irglova.
It was planned from the start that “Once” would eventually be converted into a stage musical with Hansard and Irglova involved. Hansard had left his post as leader of the Frames in order to write, perform and tour with Irglova as a duo.
Hansard named their musical partnership “The Swell Season,” in honor of a novel he loved by the Czech author Josef Skvorecky.
It was as a duo that, on the strength of the film’s fame and the Oscar, the couple did a few concerts in New York, including one in Carnegie Hall. Fate, however, intervened and the couple dissolved their relationship. Irglova married someone else, and Hansard decided not to perform for a time.
It was at this point that Walsh, one of Ireland’s most prolific young writers, was brought in to provide a libretto for the reconceived stage version of “Once.” The plot, in Walsh’s hands, remains much the same as before, although the lovers no longer have specific names, and are referred to, rather unsatisfactorily, as “Guy” and “Girl.”
The stage at New York Theatre Workshop has been reconfigured by Cork-born Bob Crowley, one of the theater’s best designers, as a working bar with the theater patrons free to come and go until the play itself begins and again during the intermission.
The production, directed by John Tiffany, has the benefit of an excellent cast, with particularly fine performances from Steve Kazee as “Guy” and Christin Milioti as “Girl,” both of them otherwise unidentified.
Tiffany is best known as the director of the celebrated Black Watch documentary about a military unit from Scotland. Hansard and Irglova are themselves the subjects of a recent documentary, “The Swell Season,” dealing with the personal relationship which grew out of their professional partnership, and how it finally crumbled under the pressures of touring.
Under other circumstances, the pair might be reliving their lives onstage in “Once.”
As things stand, however, they’re represented only by the fine songs they wrote for the beloved film which was shot in downtown Dublin in slightly less than three weeks’ time on a ludicrously tiny budget.
That film, “Once,” eventually made way for the warm and worthwhile new stage version. Much credit is due writer Enda Walsh and director John Tiffany for stepping in and saving a valuable project that could very easily have gone wrong.