When Once became the surprise indie film hit of 2007, it did it ever so quietly. The low-budget romance was always a musical, though not at all in the classical sense of performers singing their lines or spontaneously breaking into grand ensemble numbers. The songs themselves were less Broadway, more coffee house.
All of which explains why even the playwright was reluctant at first to adapt the film for the stage. In the program for Once, the play (running through Sunday at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House at the Denver Center for Performing Arts), Irish writer Edna Walsh says the film’s thin plot—two Dublin musicians, one Irish, one Czech, meet and sort of fall in love, that’s pretty much it—made it difficult at first for him to envision a theater production.
He figured it out. Once Once landed on Broadway, it became an even bigger smash, winning eight Tony Awards in 2012. This touring company production brings considerably more traditional theatricality to the story. It includes several of those grand ensemble numbers, along with some slapstick supporting characters and a dose of cheeky humor that weren’t really present in the brooding but beautiful film. Those supporting characters double as stagehands, whisking tables, chairs, and a rolling piano on and off the set during the scene transitions. Each of these actors also plays at least one instrument, meaning the “orchestra” for this one remains entirely onstage.
The result is a more fleshed-out version of the original story. Just like in the film, the plot is simple and heartbreaking. And just like in the film, the music is the star. The ballads of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová lose nothing in the translation from screen to stage. Their aching lyrics and soaring harmonies (courtesy of that multi-talented supporting cast) still evoke the wistful yet inspiring sadness that made the movie such an unexpected hit. Whether or not you appreciate the bigger scale of the staged version, Once‘s songs remain the same.
Once runs at the DCPA through Sunday, May 29. Find tickets at denvercenter.org.
Follow 5280 editor-at-large Luc Hatlestad on Twitter.