Can a Stage Version of Once Work?

Once is the independent Irish musical from writer/director John Carney released in America in 2007. It features original music written by lead actors Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. The film is best known for its Academy Award winning song "Falling Slowly. " Whether you like it or not, Once is turning into a Broadway-bound piece of musical theater, possibly arriving as early as Fall 2011. According to Broadway.com, a workshop will be directed in April by John Tiffany (Black Watch), with a book by Enda Walsh (The New Electric Ballroom), the original film score Hansard and Irglova, musical staging by Steven Hogget (American Idiot), and music direction by Martin Lowe (Mamma Mia!).

I like to refer to Once as a post-modern musical. Some argue the film isn't even a musical because the music is incorporated in a non-traditional way. The characters in the film are fully aware that they are singing; they're singer-songwriters. What they don't realize is that everything they sing is a reflection of their inner-most emotions. The characters are oblivious to their emotional, almost sexual, chemistry, focusing only on their musical compatibility for most of the film.

A traditional musical would have told the story of Guy (Glen Hansard), a singer-songwriter afraid to pursue his dream. He works by day at his father's vacuum repair shop and by night busking on the streets of Dublin. By chance, he meets a beautiful young woman, Girl (Marketa Irglova), a married pianist who sells flowers to tourists. The traditional musical would have been all about their forbidden love and what they could do to be together.

Once is not a traditional musical. While there are brief diversions into a more personal relationship, as far as Guy and Girl are concerned, they are just two musicians passing by on the way to their next gig. That's why they're Guy and Girl. Musicians work together with no long-term commitment all the time. It just happens to be that Girl saves Guy from a life of obscurity by writing new lyrics for his songs and pushing him to book studio time.

The music in the film is lovely. I can listen to the soundtrack for hours without growing bored. It's the perfect marriage of voices and arrangement. Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova have expressive voices that really sell the subtext of beautifully written music. Just listen to my favorite song from the film, "The Hill."

It's heartbreaking. In the context of the film, Girl is just writing lyrics to a cassette that Guy gave her after they jammed in a piano store. She walks home, scribbling lyrics, staying up all hours of the night getting it right to help her new friend. But the lyrics point out what Girl is feeling. She is seemingly trapped in a loveless marriage. Her husband is still in the Czech Republic, rarely visiting, leaving Girl to tend to his entire family with whatever he mails her and the pittance she earns selling flowers. There is longing and loneliness in her heart and she would be willing to do anything to fill the void.

But here's the thing. Does she ever consider Guy a possible match? No. She is married and in love. Guy is a friend. He brings a new adventure into her life that lets her forget her troubles for a moment. She's a pianist who cannot afford a new piano for her home in Dublin. She only gets to play during an hour break at a music store. Guy hears her play and asks her to write "The Hill." The lyrics reflect an emotional reality she doesn't even realize is happening.

So where could the team go with a musical that doesn't function as a musical aside from actors singing? I fear that the charm of the film will be lost. Imagine if Girl sang "The Hill" in the context of writing a letter to her absent husband. Would that be nearly as effective as the montage of songwriting used in the film? And what could they possibly do with that final act that mostly takes place in a recording studio? Is that dynamic enough for a Broadway stage?

For every moment that doesn't seem to work, there is another moment that will be glorious on a Broadway stage. The first time Girl sees Guy sing would be lovely. Guy is standing on stage alone, an open guitar case at his feet, singing a sad little song by himself. A few people cross by, not even paying attention to him. On the opposite side of the stage, Girl enters with her bucket of flowers. The same people cross by, ignoring her as well. She notices Guy and approaches him. He finishes the song and she applauds, throwing a coin in his case even though she's barely earned money for herself. They talk about their jobs and Girl promises to come back with her broken vacuum since Guy works in a repair shop. It would be a sweet little scene that functions well-enough in the context of a musical.

I fear that Broadway house, even the smallest one, would be too big for Once. It's such a small, intimate story that it might come across as insubstantial in that kind of venue without major changes to the story. Considering there are no other songwriters credited, I tend to think they'll only use the music in the film. There are a good number of songs stacked on top of each other in the studio scene, but I don't know if they can be transplanted successfully to other parts of the story for a narrative purpose.

I applaud the creative team for taking a risk in presenting such beautiful music on a Broadway stage. I hope it works out for them. I just doubt the material will hold up, no matter how low they keep the operating costs. If they can get it picked up as part of a repertory season, it might be able to complete a limited run. Otherwise, the show will probably close early in its run.