NEW YORK, N.Y. – “Once” began as a whimsical little film, an unlikely love story that was charming enough to become an unlikely cult classic and even unlikelier Oscar-winner for its hypnotic love song, “Falling Slowly.”
The next transformation was even more, well, unlikely: beloved indie film to Broadway musical, now the top-nominated show of this year’s Tonys, with 11 nods.
The creative team that sat down for an initial two-day workshop in London in 2010 was well aware of what they were up against in preserving the film’s enchantingly fresh spirit. To the director, John Tiffany, “it was like catching a butterfly.”
Actually it was even harder, he said Tuesday, after hearing the happy news: “It was like catching a butterfly and trying to keep it alive. And happy. And free.”
But first, there was the matter of getting the right person to write the book. And in the beginning, the Irish playwright Enda Walsh was balking.
Not that he didn’t like the 2006 film â€” he loved the simple and bittersweet story of a Czech flower-seller, played by the soft-spoken Marketa Irglova, and an Irish street singer, the scruffy Glen Hansard, bonding in Dublin over a shared love for music.
“I loved the film, but I just couldn’t imagine it onstage. So I declined,” Walsh said Tuesday from New York, where he was visiting. “But after two days in that workshop, thinking about how we’d tell the story, I really wanted to do it. I wanted to do something positive about people, and about Ireland. I thought, maybe we can make something useful, simple and delicate.”
Tiffany, who spoke from Glasgow, Scotland, where he got the Tony news while sitting in a play and watching his phone light up like crazy, hadn’t even seen the film before the job came up. The first thing he did was download the music by Hansard and Irglova.
“And that’s what drew me in,” he said. “I absolutely loved it, and I thought ‘Wow, I’ve never heard anything like that on a Broadway stage.'”
But how to recreate the unstructured, almost improvisational feel of the film? It must have felt like the furthest thing from Broadway. Tiffany said the key, through an initial run in Cambridge, Mass., then an off-Broadway run and then the leap to Broadway, was to have faith in the material, in all its simplicity.
“We just trusted it,” he said. “We trusted that the butterfly didn’t need to be sprayed in glitter. ‘Once’ is incredibly unassuming. It’s a delicate, heartbreaking, raw story.”
A key issue was casting. Creators didn’t go for carbon copies. To play Girl, a Czech, they chose Cristin Milioti of New Jersey, who has a spunkier vibe than Irglova and a powerful voice. To play Guy, an Irishman, they settled on Kentucky-born Steve Kazee, with matinee idol looks and singing chops to match. (Both are nominated for Tonys, as is Elizabeth A. David in a featured role.)
Kazee said he immediately threw away thoughts of imitating Hansard. “I knew there was no way to do Glen. So that pressure was off. But the task was to create something as memorable.”
He also didn’t want to ruin something he loved so much. “It was one of my favourite movies,” he said. “I didn’t want to be a part of destroying something really precious. My goal was: Don’t mess this up.”
The secret of the show, he feels, is that is has “a universal message about love. Not just between two people, but a love of music, a love of your country, how we share things as people.” And that it doesn’t have a traditional Broadway ending.
“There are moments that are just snapshots in your life, but they stay with you forever,” he said. “We all have those moments.”
For Milioti, there was never even a possibility of imitating Irglova, because she’s never even seen the film. To this day, she plans to wait until the end of the run, lest she try to mimic her counterpart on film â€” who has become a friend.
The hard part for Milioti was learning to play the piano. She could barely play when she auditioned. She was told it was a deal-breaker. But she went and studied with a friend, and in 10 days she came back and played two songs from the show. She had the part.
“This show is the hardest thing I’ve ever done â€” and the best,” she said, speaking on her cellphone as she rushed through the theatre district, getting hugs from friends on the street.
For the creative team, there was much more to figure out than casting. A key decision was to create an ensemble of actor/musicians who remain onstage and take their turns playing and acting. “There was this fantastic scene in the movie where Guy takes Girl to a party at a house,” Tiffany said, “and everyone has their turn playing. I wondered if we could create a big hootenanny onstage.”
A hootenanny with drinks: “Once” has a working bar onstage, where theatregoers can get a pint before the show. “For a Broadway audience, they’re like, WHAT? But it’s nice, it makes the audience feel some ownership of that bar, and what happens in it during the show,” he said. “That’s what they’ve told me.”
Drinks will doubtless be on the agenda as the entire “Once” team gets together on Tony night.
“This will be hilarious. So many of us never get to see each other â€” now we can hang out,” noted Walsh.
“You know, I look at the show now and I think, ‘Thank God I wasn’t born a hamster! Because look what we’ve done.’ Of course, maybe in the hamster world they are doing something great, too. But we’re not aware of it.”
That gives Walsh some thoughts on what to wear on Tony night.
“Maybe I’ll just come dressed as a hamster,” he quipped.