Of all the Tony Awards upsets in the best musical category in the 21st century, the second-biggest had to be in 2012, when a musical based on 2006 indie film Once beat the show adapted from the 1992 Disney film Newsies. (The biggest upset would be when Avenue Q took the award over Wicked in 2004, but that’s another story.)
The Once win was a triumph in that so many skeptics questioned whether a musical that doesn’t rely on a hint of spectacle would even survive on Broadway — much less win the top award and last for three years there. To boot, it spawned a London production and an American tour, which will bring a stop this week at Bass Hall. (The tour also played in Dallas in December.)
All of these productions of Once have thrived on word-of-mouth buzz, perhaps more so than bigger brand-name musicals that are decked out with falling chandeliers, gravity-defying witches or felines of either the domestic or wild variety.
“People are used to going into the theater and being blown out of their seats by these mega-musicals,” says Stuart Ward, who plays “Guy” in this leg of the tour. “And all of a sudden they’re watching these two people on chairs telling stories. And they’re loving it.”
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Once — which thankfully didn’t resort to adding “the musical” or an exclamation point to its name — is actually more than just two people sitting in chairs and telling stories. It’s 13 people sitting in chairs telling stories, and doing so in a creative staging in which all of them play instruments onstage, in lieu of a pit orchestra.
They tell the Dublin-set story of Guy, an Irish busker and vacuum repairman who is about to give up on his first love, music, no thanks to a girlfriend who left him and moved to New York. Enter “Girl” (Dani de Waal), a Czech pianist who implores him to keep playing and singing.
The ensemble members play various characters over the course of a few days in the lives of these two people brought together by music. They also all play instruments, including accordion, fiddle, banjo, clarinet and various kinds of percussion in a score that overlays Irish and Czech musical inspirations on a solid foundation of folk and rock.
“The music is the driving force of the show itself,” says de Waal. “The actors playing onstage make it more visceral.”
Film versus stage
At the 2007 Oscars, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova performed their song Falling Slowly, nominated from the movie. It won, besting three tunes from the Disney movie Enchanted. Indie rock fans knew Hansard and Irglova as the acclaimed band the Swell Season.
They also starred in the John Carney-directed movie as the — you guessed it — Irish busker and Czech pianist whose lives become intertwined, through music, in the course of several days in Dublin.
It’s a lovely little film with fantastic music — all most of the songs in the soundtrack, by the Swell Season, are in the musical, plus a few others. Yet it didn’t necessarily scream “Broadway musical!”
“I knew the movie from when it was first released. … It was about a year later that [stage director] John Tiffany told me about the idea to turn it into a musical and asked if I would be interested,” says choreographer Steven Hoggett, who created the movement for the musical. Martin Lowe orchestrated Hansard and Irglova’s music, and acclaimed Irish playwright Enda Walsh (Penelope, The Walworth Farce) wrote the book.
“I didn’t know what the choreographic language was when I started, but I knew what it shouldn’t be,” Hoggett says.
It wasn’t easy. In fact, the initial concept was scrapped after the first week in a developmental workshop in New York.
“What we achieve with the lives of lovers in the show, that backdrop of people meeting and falling in love … on paper there’s something interesting in it, but I couldn’t make it work on a choreographic level,” says Hoggett, whose work includes movement/choreography for American Idiot, Peter and the Starcatcher, Rocky and the recent Sting musical, The Last Ship.
“Once is about stillness and quiet, but [choreographers] work from the opposite end of the spectrum. The big revelation I had was to watch Martin Lowe teach the songs. I tried to create a piece where you follow two people through choreography.”
Another challenge was the fact that his performers were musicians and not dancers, and in many cases, they would be holding instruments while moving.
“In a piece like [the song] Gold, I built it around watching them play their instruments,” says Hoggett, who took some cues from Irish and Czech folk dancing. “They didn’t realize they were giving me ideas for how to do their choreography with their instruments.”
For Ward, who was trained as a musician before he tried his hand at acting and has toured in backing bands with the likes of Sir Cliff Richard, the learning curve toward acting and moving was a pleasant surprise because he was learning it with other performers who were musicians first.
“Musicians are brought up to play as a group, and in the acting world, there seems to be a lot of thinking about what you’re doing yourself, although that shouldn’t be the case,” Ward says. “But, with musicians, they want to do what’s best for the greater cause.”
There have been plenty of terrific musicals that shun tropes of box office record-smashing musicals — show-stopping dance numbers! Flying effects! Lavish sets and costumes! — but perhaps none that has resonated so much with audiences that word of mouth is as much of a driving force for sales as any kind of marketing and promotions.
A big part of that is the way the intimate show translates to larger spaces. On Broadway, it was in a 1,000-seat theater; on tour, it typically plays to houses two or three times that size (Bass Hall is about 2,200).
“I have no idea how it managed to play so beautifully in big spaces, but it does,” says Hoggett. “I try not to question the simplicity of it.”
That doesn’t mean Performing Arts Fort Worth will have an easy time of selling it out. The organization’s president and CEO, Dione Kennedy, knew it would be a challenge because it’s a newer and lesser-known title. So the group has been holding community awareness events, including “Once Around the Square,” with six local musicians performing at locations throughout Sundance Square, and a Once-themed beer tasting at Rahr & Sons Brewery and a screening of the movie at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.
“Because of these efforts, Once is on pace to meet or exceed our projected sales goal,” she says.
Perhaps the two-week run in Dallas helped. There, it sold 10 percent better than their projections in a similarly sized theater, the 2,300-seat Winspear Opera House at the AT&T Performing Arts Center.
Have a drink with the cast
The Performing Arts Fort Worth strategy touts that the show has a unique pre-show experience.
When the doors to the theater open, musicians will be performing Irish folk songs, and audience members will be invited to come onstage and join them. There’s also a bar up there where patrons can buy beer and wine.
Drinks are not usually allowed in Bass Hall, but for this show, these drinks will come in special plastic cups with lids, like adult sippy cups. (Those are already being used regularly at the Winspear.)
“I think it’s the most amazing start to a show,” de Waal says. “It creates a togetherness between the audience and the actors. It’s us all playing on the journey together.”
When the audience is seated, the lights go down and the love story begins. It’s probably not giving anything away to say that — like everything about Once — the ending doesn’t fall in line with the love stories of most musical comedies.
“It’s very human; it’s a modern-day love story,” Ward says.
“I think it’s refreshing in a way,” de Waal adds, “but I don’t think it’s an unhappy ending.
“They both move forward in their lives. I think that helps people appreciate it even more. … There’ve been times in your life when it’s the right person but the wrong time and wrong place.”