Here is one of the interesting things about Once, the Oscar-winning indie film adapted into a Tony Award-winning musical: What has made it a critically-acclaimed and widely-adored hit is largely due to what it isn’t.
Once isn’t a typical big and flashy Broadway musical with over-the-top ballads and anthems tailor-made for the stage. Rather, it tells a quaintly-staged, personal story about two people featuring songs that came from one man’s heart and managed to evolve into something bigger.
Even Once’s origins are anything but conventional for a successful Broadway musical. The 2007 film was an intimate musical portrait of a creative and romantic partnership between two musicians in Dublin, Ireland. The Guy and Girl were played by actual Irish singer-songwriter Glen Hansard (from the rock band The Frames) and Czech singer/songwriter Markéta Irglová with the film’s music primarily featuring Hansard’s original songs written years prior to the film.
The film’s signature track, Falling Slowly, won an Academy Award for Best Original Song at the 2008 Academy Awards. It was later adapted for the stage by Irish playwright Enda Walsh in 2011 and made its Broadway debut in 2012, earning eight Tony Awards, including best musical and best actor in a musical for Ashland native and Morehead State University graduate Steve Kazee playing the role of Guy.
Sam Cieri, who plays Guy opposite Mackenzie Lesser-Roy’s Girl in the current touring production, which plays Friday through Sunday at the Lexington Opera House, was floored by the film and a huge fan before he was cast in the touring theatrical production. He admits he was initially scared some of Once’s essence would get lost in translation to the stage.
“When they said there was a musical being made, I was like, ‘Oh no. What are they going to do with this?’” he said. “The people who love the movie and haven’t seen the show can breathe easy because the people who made the show respect the hell out of the movie.”
The way Once has managed to stay largely intact is due to the central focus on Hansard’s emotionally raw songs and the film’s natural feel and realness. The audience gets to watch a blossoming friendship and partnership as Guy and Girl both pursue their musical dreams and build a connection that often takes unexpected turns.
“There isn’t a night where the show doesn’t rip you apart and put you back together,” Cieri said. “It’s an honest show. You’re going to leave a little different than when you came in.”
One of the ways Once changed when it was adapted to theatre was a slight expansion of the film’s universe of characters and overall scale. In addition to Guy and Girl, the songs they perform — whether they are Hansard’s originals or Irish and Czech drinking songs — are accompanied by 12 ever-present actor-musicians that serve as patrons of an Irish pub where much of the musical takes place (If you get to the show a bit early, you’ll likely hear them playing some drinking songs before showtime).
The audience also gets more insight into Guy and Girl’s respective personalities through the addition of their parents as characters. All-in-all, the supporting cast brings some much-needed humor and levity to the proceedings while adding an additional layer to the story.
“It’s a pressure release,” Cieri said. “You need these people to come along and say, OK, let’s release some of that so you can actually physically watch the rest of this.”
“You can see how the community is resilient and reliant on each other,” said Elizabethtown native Adam Potter, who is an understudy in this production. “We don’t necessarily realize how interconnected and intertwined we are and we rely on each other.”
As this tour for Once has traveled from city to city, Cieri said one of the greatest feelings he gets is seeing this story affect audiences night after night the way it affected him.
“My favorite thing is to look out and see people with hands on their faces,” he said. “They’re wiping away snot and tears, but they’re also smiling.”
Blake Hannon: firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you go
Once — The Musical
What: Touring production of the Tony Award-winning musical presented by Broadway Live at the Opera House
When: 8 p.m. April 22, 2 and 8 p.m. April 23, 1 and 6:30 p.m. April 24
Where: Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short St.
Tickets: $55 to $110