In 2007 I fell in love with a little Irish film called
starring Glen Hansard as a heartbroken musician-cum-vacuum repairman, who meets a young Czech immigrant, played by Marketa Irglova, and strikes up an intense romance, mostly unspoken and unfulfilled, except for the music they create together (which was written by the two lead actors themselves). The song "Falling Slowly" won the Oscar for best song, but a number of tunes from the film have been in regular rotation on my playlists for years. When
was adapted for the stage, I was skeptical, despite the 8 Tony awards it eventually won. I'm weary of the trend that turns hit movies into musicals. The latest: The Bodyguard? (???)
The other night I had a hankering to see a show and I found a cheap ticket to
playing at the Phoenix Theatre, so I swallowed my fears and bought the ticket. It was a great deal - I paid 19.50 but was upgraded to the 37.50 ticket - and when I got to the theatre was upgraded once again to the Dress Circle - so I ended up paying about 1/3 of the face price of my ticket. Yay! I figured I could suck up even a horrible show for that price.
I actually loved it. When I entered the theatre the entire cast was on stage (which is a pub that doubles as a number of locales) jamming, playing Irish and Czech folk songs (all of the cast play instruments throughout the show - guitars, violins and even a cello), while they were surrounded by some of the audience. The set had become a working bar. They played a few numbers, and then as the audience was shown off the set, the music trailed off, until eventually only one actor, the unnamed male lead, credited only as "Guy" (played by David Hunter), was onstage. He launched into the heartbreaking "Leave" as the lights dimmed, and the actual show began. The conscious acknowledgement of the audience, and of the deliberate artifice of the performance, made the theatre nerd in me smile, but soon I was engrossed in the characters enough that I forgot it was a performance - and was caught up in the love story all over again.
There are significant differences in the book for
by Enda Walsh, that make it a completely different work than the film. Supporting characters are fleshed out and given story lines - in particular Billy, the music store owner who lends "Girl" his piano - becomes an outrageous rocker and the comic relief of the show, with an unrequited crush on "Girl," and a hilarious one-night stand with "Girl"'s sexpot roommate, Reza. We met "Girl"'s mother and Czech roommates, whose immigrant stories give a sense of what modern, post-EU life in Dublin must be like. The romance between "Guy" and "Girl," ever-so-understated in the film, is definitive here, developed to a point that makes it clear to the audience what each is feeling, even if their circumstances mean they cannot act on the emotions.
The music is woven into the story in a clever and interesting way - unlike a traditional musical where characters simply burst into song, and we the audience are expected to understand that they aren't necessarily aware they are singing - the characters in Once are all musicians. They sing because they love the songs, and the music. It's not a storytelling tool here - it's part of the characters' expression of themselves, something they consciously engage in.
There are a few parts of the musical that I didn't think quite hit the mark. The story is always very clear that "Guy" is talented - "Guy" is going to be a big hit - "Guy" needs to go to New York (London in the movie), not just to win back his ex-girlfriend but to be a successful musician. He needs to be "un-stuck," as "Girl" puts it. And all of this, is achieved. The show ends when Guy makes it to New York. But what about "Girl"? Her relationship with her estranged husband, her own musical ambitions, her love for "Guy" - nothing is resolved for "Girl." I found that to be a weakness in this story - "Girl" seemed to exist merely to admire, help and pine after "Guy." I didn't feel that the imbalance between "Guy" and "Girl"'s story lines was so marked in the film. In fact, there is a moment in the first jam session in the movie, where Irglova harmonizes with Hansard for the first time, where his eyes light up in recognition of a fellow artist. It might be too subtle a moment to capture in theatre, but I felt the absence of that artistic kinship in the musical. Yes, "Guy" is attracted to "Girl" - her sheer force of will and her drive to push him forward seem to be the attraction, though, not a musical connection.
The musicianship of the entire cast made me envious (unless my violin vastly improves, I ain't getting cast in this show). David Hunter as "Guy" was a talented guitarist and had a fantastic pop voice, bringing his own energy and interpretation to Glen Hansard's songs. It didn't hurt that he was kind of dreamy and had a great Irish accent. Jill Winternitz as "Girl" played the piano beautifully (although I must admit I found her Czech accent to be a bit heavy - and she never lost it, even when singing), and brought a humour and spark to the character of "Girl" that was entirely new to the character that Marketa Irglova played in the film. The rest of the cast doubled as band and chorus, singing and playing on chairs (a la productions I've seen in recent years of
Sweeney Todd, Company
- this especially seems to be a thing in the West End), and were uniformly strong as singers and actors. The set design of the "pub" - which through lighting cues became various other settings, including a seaside cliff outside Dublin - was fantastic, with strategic mirrors placed so that even when a character was facing upstage, their reactions could be seen. I wasn't surprised at all to read in the program that the original workshop of
had been scene-specific - in a pub - and they've managed to retain that sense of a site-specific piece nicely, even in a conventional theatre setting.
Even though I knew what would happen, I found myself sobbing my heart out at the finale, and was so glad I had seen what really was a unique piece of theatre, that is still, like the film, about the connections we make that change our lives in an instant.
The only thing missing? My friend Linda saw the same show on Broadway on the same night - and Glen Hansard made a surprise appearance to celebrate the 1000th performance of
on Broadway. I think she wins.