- 28 Feb 13
Once dramatically changed the lives of its two lead actors, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, catapulting them to international stardom, an Oscar win and widespread critical claim. As the stage adaptation of the film hits Dublin, the principal characters explore the show’s remarkable back story, whilst director John Tiffany and writer Enda Walsh talk about fashioning a production that became a Broadway smash...
ne year ago. Presidents’ Day in New York, a city primed for the first signs of spring. Off-Broadway, two famous romantics were going back in time.
Markéta Irglová and Glen Hansard, the stars of the original 2006 sleeper hit movie Once, were about to watch the film that changed their lives forever being brought fullly to life on stage for the first time. This was Once The Musical in its fledgling state, before the rave reviews begam to flood in, and months in advance of a triumphant Tony Awards, at which 11 nominations saw the musical bag an astonishing eight gongs.
You’d imagine there were knowing looks exchanged between them as the show progressed...
“Well, we weren’t even sitting together to be honest with you!” Markéta, who is back in NY, a whole 12 months later, giggles. “He was sitting in a completely different part of the room. I happened to be over the other side with my own family. We briefly saw each other after it, but only briefly because there were so many other people to talk to. But we met up afterwards and had a moment. A ‘this is wonderful’ moment. And ‘this is crazy’ at the same time.”
Crazy and wonderful. That just about sums it up. Half-a-dozen years had passed since the pair first came together to star in the low budget, John Carney-penned screen musical Once. It was the deceptively simple, and beautifully honest love story at its centre and the strength of the songs that expressed the vicissitudes of that love, that brought it to the world’s attention and won it so much acclaim.
Markéta and Glen, long-term acquaintances, had finally fallen for each other – if that indeed is the right metaphor – on set. It was the start of a roller-coaster ride. Playing together in The Swell Season. Recording not one but two quietly brilliant records. Memorably picking up an Oscar for the song that was at the heart of Once, the beautiful ‘Falling Slowly’. Then drifting apart. Ending their relationship on good terms. And getting on with their own lives in the interim. And here was the ‘Guy’ and ‘Girl’ they had played, onstage and ready for Broadway.
Was it at all disconcerting?
“How did I feel watching someone else play me?” Markéta ponders. “Actually, it felt really good. Cristin [Militio] created a completely different character. And that’s a good thing. I think the most important thing about acting is not to be able to lie really well, but to be able to bring a lot of yourself to the part. So I didn’t think it would make any sense for Cristin to try to recreate the character I created. That was a big part of me, and she’s her own person.”
It’s a philosophical outlook but an essential one, enabing the 24-year-old Czech singer, and her co-star Glen, to remove themselves from the world of Once. Were they approached to appear in the stage adaptation to begin with?
“Glen and I were asked to act in it initially,” she confirms. “But both of us recognised that it didn’t feel right. In our hearts we felt that we wouldn’t do it any service. I think we were completely correct in that, and it was the best thing that we’re not in it.”
It would surely have felt strange to be reliving this significant moment in their lives onstage every single night in front of audiences.
“Oh yes,” Markéta laughs. “It completely would have. Definitely. Plus, we both felt very strongly that we wanted to keep going forward with our creativity, into new ventures. It’s a perfect thing that we just support it from a distance, while do our own individual things.”
The success of the film Once remains remarkable by any standards. Made on a very modest budget of $150,000 it grossed in excess of $20 million worldwide, and won an Oscar for Glen and Markéta for Best Song with ‘Falling Slowly’. There must have been pressure to contribute to making the stage musical as successful. However, Markéta had
“I know Glen was more involved, because he was living in New York then,” she says. “But still, the director John Tiffany was adamant that they didn’t want to recreate the movie frame-by-frame, they wanted to adopt it and make it their own. So, as much as Glen was involved, I think the most important thing to them was just his support. And some help when he was asked for it.
“ But I can’t say I was involved in any way or take any credit for it! A few days before it opened off-Broadway, I met the girl who played me. I had a nice chat with her and then went to see a rehearsal. But that’s it. I’m really proud of the people who’ve adapted it, they’re really great people. Creative artists in their own right.”
The curious thing is that, at first, Glen had been totally opposed to the movie being give a theatrical make-over.
“Was I apprehensive about it?” Glen told Hot Press. “No, I was horrified! When it first came up as an idea, it just made me shiver. I said to John Carney, ‘Please tell me we’re not agreeing to this? Is there anything I can do to stop it?’ John was more enthusiastic, yet at the same determined that if it was going to be done, it’d be done his way.”
So what had changed Glen’s mind?
“My attitude changed when Enda Walsh, who’s done dark stuff like Disco Pigs and Hunger, signed up to it. It’s a bit like someone saying, ‘We’re going to get Ken Loach to direct The Commitments 2’. Then John Tiffany who did Black Watch came on board – another serious head who’d never touched musical theatre before. You’ve an Irish guy from Kilbarack writing it and the head of the National Theatre of Scotland directing. Suddenly it began to have a darker undertone. I met the lads and they said, ‘We promise you, we’re not going to turn it into a song and dance piece’. I was like, ‘Cool, I’ll hold you to that!’”
While sticking true to the essence of the big screen original, Hansard expressed his delight that Enda Walsh has given the stage version a
“He’s taken the opportunity to have a good go at some of the developers and bankers. There are moments where, y’know, he gets the shovel into the soil. It’s set in Dublin but they haven’t put too much emphasis on things like accents. The major difference is the girlfriend of the guy has gone to live in New York, which works the city in. The Polish flatmates have a much larger role than they do in the movie – they become part of the band who are all on stage playing in front of you. It’s like a big jam session, with them swapping instruments and generally getting up to the sort of things we used to get up to after-hours at Whelan’s.
“The guy who owns the piano shop, Walton’s, also has a really big role and when you have a drink before the show or during the break it’s served to you on the stage rather than in the foyer. You’re part of it, which is great. It’s a single set with no technicians. The actors push-on the piano, and then begin a scene. It couldn’t be any more un-Broadway! Once was a risk because it doesn’t have the song and dance element and, yeah, budget that other Broadway musicals have. In the beginning they were depending on whatever goodwill the movie had. They did an off-Broadway run and people who were interested in the film went along. The big thing then was the reviews, which were really positive and drove people who’d never heard of Once, prior to that, to the theatre.”
Chief among the crew that began work in the American Repertory Theater, Massachusetts, in April 2011 was John Tiffany. While he can take a big slice of the credit for the success of the stage version, the satisfied audiences winding their way down Broadway throughout 2012 and the rake of Tonys, Tiffany wasn’t especially bullish at the outset. The Englishman had spent a good deal of time at the National Theatre Of Scotland, so he was familiar with the strong sense of ‘place’ in Once – which added to his early concerns. How could this intimate, delicate piece take on the pomp of Broadway?
“I knew that Barbara Broccoli and the other producers’ ambition was that this would end up on Broadway,” he recalls. “And in my head I was a bit like, ‘Eh... ok, fine, have you seen the film?!’ (laughs) But actually, they were totally right. There’s something about that music, and that story-telling that Glen and Markéta have going on. Once is a really lovely story. The challenge was to find a theatrical language that didn’t just feel like a film put on stage. Because that’s the death of theatre.”
Dublin playwright Enda Walsh, charged with adapting the film’s screenplay, had the same misgivings. Renowned for significantly darker work in the past (including the brilliant Disco Pigs, which made a young Cillian Murphy a star), the straight-shooting Enda’s first reaction to the idea was profoundly negative. “I thought: ‘Oh God, this could be fucking appalling’! I didn’t want to do it,” he says, “because it seemed like a very embarrassing thing to be doing. I was a bit snobbish about it, like, ‘musicals aren’t real theatre’. We don’t have a musical tradition in Ireland. We just don’t, it’s not part of our thing and people sort of baulk at it. As an Irish playwright, my instinct is that any musical should be danced by Gene Kelly and stuffed in an MGM film. It shouldn’t be performed naturally – surely people aren’t making this fucking shit?!”
Howver, he got over the hang-ups.
“As I looked back at my plays,” he explains, “there’s a lot of music in them. Someone always breaks into a song weirdly... The work might be very dark but there’s always a big music element to it. So when it actually came to it, it felt like a really natural thing to do. It actually became really, really emotionally strong.”
Part of the attraction for Walsh was that, in footballing parlance, they had a lot of good players on the team. He says he’d ‘danced around’ John Tiffany for a long time.
“I’ve known John and Steven [Hoggett, choreographer] for 15 years. It was the fucking easiest, sweetest job I think any of us have ever done. Just being in a room with about 12 musicians, who can all sing... you go, ‘Jesus, people are actually paying me to be here?!’ One of those jobs.”
So the transformation from low-key, ambiguous European love story to dramatic, theatrical world-beater took place with what, looking back, everyone agreed was extraordinary ease.
“If anybody had said to me,” Glen Hansard confided in Hot Press, “that some guy had made a film about a busker and a girl he meets, I would have thought, ‘rubbish’. Loads of people in Sundance came up and said – ‘You know what? I read the synopsis of your movie and thought it was shit – but now I’m impressed’.”
For his part, Enda praises John Tiffany for taking the whole thing to new heights.
“He was always making it for a Broadway house,” Enda observes. “So he just knows what happens in small auditoriums like that. Whereas I certainly fucking don’t! What would happen in front of 1,300 people – he sort of gets it. So although it moved from playing to 50 people in Boston, in what effectively looked like a nightclub, and then moved to a New York Workshop Theatre to play to 300 people, and then to Broadway, it still maintained its size. It opened its chest a little bit but it’s still effectively the same. And steered brilliantly by him.”
What became clearer with every new step was the universal appeal of the source material.
“The heart of the piece was – and is – really strong,” Enda says. “Whatever John Carney unlocked, over however long that film shoot took... what, three weeks? Wow. It was about honouring that, keeping that, but finding something that was robust. In a theatre setting, it needs new muscles and language. A little bit more story to warrant arriving onstage. We really wanted to do something that, in a Broadway sense, felt quietly revolutionary. So people would be like, ‘Oh my god, it’s incredibly simple story-telling’.”
Tiffany remembers when that breakthrough came. When he found that ‘way in’ and knew he had a proper production on his hands.
“That scene where Glen takes Markéta to the house party, and everyone’s doing a turn? There’s an old guy that sings a song and this woman… well, it really reminded me of my childhood in Yorkshire. My Dad played in the brass band. So, I saw a way into what a theatre version might be through that. ‘Gold’ is an absolutely beautiful song. We’ve got a group of actors who play the cello, the violin, guitars, we’ve got accordions, mandolins... And Steven said that he wanted them to do the biggest dance routine in the show while playing their instruments! It took them two weeks to learn the choreography, and they were hating it. Well not hating it, rather the fact that they couldn’t get it. And then we told them that not only would they be doing this quite difficult choreography, but they would also be playing. They really thought we were mad. But as soon as they picked up their instruments the issues with the difficult choreography just disappeared. That’s when I thought that we might be on to something.”
What was never in doubt, however, was the importance of Dublin in Once. In ways, that has grown through adaptation, to the point where it is now a character in itself. Finished on Broadway, Once The Musical is bound for the West End this spring with a whole new cast. But first, it premieres in its hometown. The Gaiety Theatre on February 22 should be a particularly emotional place to be.
“It belongs in that city,” says Walsh. “Dublin is much stronger in the play. It needs to be. When you’re on a bare stage, you feel like you need to reference your geography. The characters need to plant their feet and tell us where the fuck they are. It has that ingrained in it – and I loved that when we were on Broadway packing it out, people were listening to bizarre dialogues about Fair City. Insane!
“I’ve been out of Dublin for years,” he elaborates. “I moved down to Cork and then I moved to England. So whenever I’d go back I had that relationship where I fucking hated it. Really disliked it as a city. Then over a few years it was, ‘Oh fuck, I miss it’. Not just Dubliners – I’m missing the lay-out of the city. So probably sub-consciously I knew that I was taking it on because, in a really glib way, I wanted to write about Dublin. Particularly now. It has a sting of people trying to do better than they actually do. That’s why I’m very excited to see it in Dublin. The city has had a fucking rough few years. It’s this thing of having to carry on. Trying to dig out some optimism in the tough times.”
Tiffany also sees the capital as central to the experience.
“It’s a story that’s really been crafted and honed and shaped by Dublin. From busking on Grafton Street to going there as an immigrant and trying to make your way. And I don’t think Enda has ever written about Dublin in the way he writes about it here. It’s a real love-letter. The night will be special.”
The European premiere will also be a baptism of fire for the newcomers to the cast. Coventry’s Declan Bennett (Rent, American Idiot) has the task of following Glen, and Steve Kazee’s, lead as The Guy. He stars alongside Croatia’s Zrinka Cvitešic. I catch Bennett deep in rehearsals, trying to get all those lines, all those songs, all that choreography down pat.
“It’s more intense than most shows because everyone is an active musician in the show,” he says. “We are the band. You don’t want to be the weak link. You want to be on top of it and make sure that you’re not messing everyone else up, because the music is so tender and raw and lovely.”
Bennett, a singer-songwriter in his own right, who has released records and done the touring thing away from theatre – including playing onstage with Green Day – understands the mindset of the main character..
“It’s definitely helped me approach this role,” he says. “I can totally relate. I used to busk in Coventry, under the subway. Sit there playing my guitar for hours and walk away with a few pound. Going back to them days and being like, ‘God, I used to actually do this’ is kinda nice.”
A few days previously, he’d gone to see Glen himself in concert.
“He played a solid two-hour set and the way he sings is just so raw. We had a short chat afterwards and the one thing I asked was how the bloody hell he sings like that night after night without blowing his voice out. Cos I’m going to be doing the same thing eight times a week! But you have to disassociate yourself from that. My job is not to imitate. I’m playing a role, I’m playing a part. The same as when Glen did the film.”
He admits that the prospect of a Dublin audience is a daunting one.
“I won’t lie, it’s a bit nerve-wracking. It’s about Dubliners and the city. It’s about the music and spirit of Irish people. I think and I hope that people will come and see the show with a very open mind and open heart. Be excited that this show is being brought home to them. We’re not trying to make me a carbon copy of the film or the Broadway show. Each cast, from here on to forever, will bring their own spirit to it.”
The one constant, however, is that wonderful body of songs. The melodies Glen and Markéta brought to life. The sweetly crafted lyrics. The music remains the be-all and end-all for Tiffany.
“My first kind of connection with it was Glenn and Marketa’s music,” he nods. “I absolutely love it.”
For Markéta, hearing them separated from herself and Glen was more disconcerting than watching a different ‘Girl’.
“Yeah, hearing the songs played by other people was more strange than seeing someone else play me. That was the moment where I went, ‘wow, this is really wonderful’. All these people singing songs that Glen and I wrote at a piano, just with each other in that moment, completely away from people. They were so personal to us when we wrote them and all of a sudden they’re being sung by someone else in a theatre in New York!”
Enda argues that his role was merely to link one musical event to the next.
“These amazing songs,” he sighs. “When they’re sung live, from a story-telling point of view they really add up to a big punch. A lot of the work I did was all the yabber. You’re looking at the language of the inarticulate – and then these songs begin to talk from the stomach and the heart and the head. Glen wouldn’t have known that of course, but you put them altogether and you go, ‘Jesus, this is really good story-telling’.”
Throughout its lifespan, the Once phenomenon has had some remarkable moments, including a tribute from Steven Spielberg (who said: “A little movie called Once gave me enough inspiration to last for the rest of the year”) and an appearance for Glen and Marketa on The Simpsons. However, the success at the Tony Awards ranks with any of those milestones. Nominated for 11 gongs, a record that year, they scooped eight, including Best Musical.
John Tiffany picked up the gong for Best Direction.
“I was in Glasgow when the nominations came out,” he remembers. “My phone was on silent because I was at the theatre. Then suddenly my phone wouldn’t stop buzzing. I was like, ‘What the fuck is that?’ I thought somebody had died. As for the ceremony itself, I remember me and Enda were doing the whole red carpet thing together. Somebody stuck a microphone in my face and said, ‘How did you feel when you found out you got the part?’ (laughs) Then, when they called my name and I got up there and looked down, I saw Angela Lansbury, Philip Seymour-Hoffman and Hugh Jackman? Ridiculous, in a great way.”
“It was fucking insane!” laughs Enda. “It’s a huge, huge business. It’s extraordinary. People talk about it and it’s like, ‘Yeah, whatever’. When you’re there it really does feel like this small town in Manhattan and everyone knows each other. But it’s this massive business and everyone’s trying to produce their best work and get people in the door. I really dig it.”
Once has changed a host of lives, but none moreso than for the two most recognisable faces – who are, of course, at the centre of the story.
“We just became busier,” Glen told Hot Press, “and a couple of years later I still wasn’t entirely comfortable with it. It was an odd weight on my shoulders. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to reject it or completely accept it. You can no longer define yourself as an underdog. That experience required me to evolve at a speed that was breakneck, because I was having to go out and talk to the world about how great it felt, while I was devastated and confused inside.”
As for Markéta, much has changed over these past few years for her too. Her relationship with Glen is over. She has since married. Embarked on a solo career. And divorced. But, again, there is one constant. In New York having finished an album in Iceland, she’s heading for the Grammys, where Once is again nominated. So how has it changed her life?
“In a way that I will probably never be able to fully comprehend,” she says, with the lovely candidness that distinguishes her. “I can say there was a definite split in my life in terms of ‘Before and After Once’. It was a crossroads. I completely owe everything right now to Once: it set things in motion that I’m just seeing the results of right now. It still affects my interactions with people. To be honest with you, maybe I wouldn’t even be doing music if it hadn’t been for it, so I don’t think I will ever stop seeing the results of that in my life.
“Travelling the world, playing music and hanging out with the guys in the band was one thing. Incredible and so very enjoyable. But I think the most life-shaping thing for me has been the feeling I had onstage – that current of energy, that exchange between us and the people in the audience. It made me realise that that’s the thing that draws me to it. It’s not really some ambition about becoming famous, it’s that genuine exchange between people where you feel like you’re making a difference.
“Initially I was freaked out about all the attention, the spotlight that was on us all the time. It took me a while to digest all of that. After I’d finished feeling crowded out, like I had absolutely zero personal space, I completely turned it around and started seeing the magic and the uniqueness of the situation. That is an absolute ultimate inspiration for me today.”
Glen admits that Once was such a life-changing experience that for a while he had difficulty coming to terms with it.
“I was incredibly overjoyed for me and Mar and my family but I was feeling this sort of sorrow,” he explains. “It’s like blood in the milk and I couldn’t get rid of it.
In the end, it was Bruce Springsteen who came to his rescue.
“After we won the Oscar I spoke with Bruce and he said something really great to me – ‘If you don’t mark your successes by opening a bottle of champagne, going on holiday or at least having dinner with your family, you mightn’t recognise that your life has just shifted into a new gear’. He was absolutely right. After we won the award, we just became busier and a couple of years later I still wasn’t entirely comfortable with it. It was an odd weight on my shoulders. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to reject it or completely accept it. The Boss said, ‘For the past 20 years you’ve been a guy in a band, a guy on the street, you’ve been working your way up, you against the world... That guy has just died! The guy you’ve always been, the only guy you had to turn to, is now dead and you’re wearing a new suit. You’re mourning the passing of your old self. Don’t worry about it – take some time to adjust. You know the story about Native Americans sitting at the airport for four or five hours after a long-haul flight till their soul catches up with them? Just give yourself time to let your soul catch up with ye and then you’ll be fine’. That really helped me to get my head around things'.”
Once opens at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin on February 22 and runs until the March 9.