When a powerful story comes along, it transcends mediums. We have seen this to varying success when transferring tales from the film to stage (and vice versa). What started as a film, and is now a musical, the story of Once suggests, “in order to live, you have to love.” And the story is love; living through it, after it, and the many types of relationships that form because of it.
What makes this story more unique and personal than your average love story is that the tale is told through the music of the lead characters. On both stage and screen, Once sings the story of Guy, a heartbroken Irish street busker/aspiring musician and a Czech woman, Girl, who encourages him to follow his dreams. Both are singer-songwriters; her on piano, him with a guitar, each with many songs inside themselves.
As they get to know each other better, they form a complex relationship built on and through music. These star-crossed musicians are just as flawed as any other human, each with a litany of prior personal and romantic issues. Their respective journeys are told through their collaborative songs as they build something stronger than a mere personal or sexual relationship: a partnership creating great art. The arc of the film comes as Guy and Girl work through their problems by collaborating on an album together.
The Irish independent film Once (2006) is an incredible achievement that took the world by storm. It had success both commercially as well as critically, and even went on to win an Academy Award for best original song. Shot in a documentary style, the low budget indie chronicles the impact after two young people are destined to meet. The leads are not seasoned actors: Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová of the folk rock group The Swell Season are the actual musicians writing and performing the songs of the film. Regardless of experience, they play believable human beings that actually seem to be fighting through the lethal lemons of life. There is nothing “commercial” about this film. It screens as real life unfolding in front of you.
Watching Once as a film is a personal and almost private experience. Despite this, and seemingly due to the nature of its production, you feel as if you are right there in the streets of Dublin feeling lost alongside the characters. This unknown urban setting, ostensibly surrounded by strangers, is an all too familiar feeling. Once succeeds by taking this setting and combining it with two broken people that, through the grey fog of city ambiguity, find each other and, in turn, hope. In film, we see first and then we hear, so the story is what draws us in. By the time we start to really listen, what we hear is the actual music that is nothing less than tremendous.
Despite its music heavy plot, Once isn’t a traditional musical but rather storytelling about musicians writing and singing through their human experience. The soundtrack is easily addictive; the songs are simple in theory but meticulously constructed and layered with stirring emotion. If you’ve been through the trials of love – or the painful experience of proving yourself through your art – you can easily sympathize with our two leads.
The combination of a compelling story and profound music naturally led to an staged musical adaptation that landed on Broadway and won eight Tony awards, including Best Musical. In true theater fashion, many “choices” have been made. A supporting cast of characters has been expanded, most for comedic relief in order to balance the heavy themes of the show. Our Girl is a much more persistent and perky person than her film counterpart, and many of her lines are now played for laughs. There is also a change in location as Guy is chasing his ex-girlfriend who now lives in New York, instead of London, presumably made for Broadway’s audience. Adapting a story to stage is not an easy task but book writer Enda Walsh and director John Tiffany have taken the necessary changes to make ease the translation.
From the moment you enter the Broadway theater to see Once, you know something very special is about to take place in a very public setting. Pre-show, there is a live performance on stage by the musicians/ensemble that is of raw explosive energy, channeling the Irish spirit and rhythm. Not only that, but members of the audience actually come up on stage to be a part of this pre-performance. To its credit, the stage production surprisingly brings you the intimacy of the bars, music shops, and recording studios, personalizing each location for you in this musical love saga. The stereotypical glitz of Broadway never taints the production; the life force of the characters are definitely heightened and the scale of the story is larger, a crucial element for the theater. On stage, most of the time you’re hearing first and then experiencing, so the music comes through first and strongest as the story unfolds and the characters “fall slowly” in to your laps.
What unites both the stage and screen versions of the story is the beauty of its music. Regardless of what medium you choose to partake, the music will be the reason your experience is moving. Whether sung on film and soundtrack by the original musicians or live by Broadway actors each night, the power of the music and lyrics continually tap into your soul. There’s something strangely familiar about each song, almost as if you knew it a long time ago, but are now re-living it moment to moment. For the characters on stage and screen their journey is not over but the music will give them the desired release from the perils of life and love. And that’s something that we all need more than just once.