BY R. J. DONOVAN
SPECIAL TO THE BIR
“Once” first sparked to life as a tiny, 2007 independent Irish film about the power of music to draw people together. The two main characters are simply called Guy and Girl. Guy is a struggling Dublin street musician who has lost faith in his talent and his life. He crosses paths with Girl, a Czech immigrant who shows him his work is not yet done. Over the course of one fateful week, they diligently collaborate on music and an unlikely love emerges. However, complications follow.
With music and lyrics from Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová (who starred in the film), “Once” went on to capture the hearts of critics and audiences alike around the world. Included in its score is “Falling Slowly,” which won an Oscar for Best Original Song.
Lightning stuck yet again when “Once” made a stunning transition to Broadway, cast with an ensemble of actor/musicians who play their own instruments on stage. The show picked up eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical and one for Best Book, which went to Dublin-born playwright Enda Walsh. The prolific Mr. Walsh has authored 17 plays (“Penelope,“ “Hunger,“ “The New Electric Ballroom“), most of which have been translated for productions around the world.
He’s currently working on multiple projects including an adaptation of Roal Dahl’s “The Twits” for a run at The Royal Court Theater, a play with Cillian Murphy for London’s National Theatre plus a new Broadway project.
Speaking by phone from his home in London, Enda said. “I’ve done the odd movie, but theater for me still holds that draw. It’s still extraordinary when you get it right it. It’s still, for me, the most beautiful and the most dangerous medium.”
Here’s a condensed look at our conversation about “Once,” coming to Boston’s Opera House from January 7 - 19.
BIR: Boston audiences feel a kind of ownership for “Once,” considering it all began with a workshop at the American Repertory Theatre in 2011. Audiences just fell in love with the show’s intimate, bittersweet magic.
EW: It rarely, rarely happens. I’ve been making work now for about 16 years … and this was one of the moments where the alchemy was really right … I swear there was just something about us all living together. First of all, it wasn’t our own town. We were all sort of on top of one another and meeting and socializing and trying to make the work and talking about it … And making a work about people who are transient in a city. Immigrants in a city, really, who are rubbing up against one another and forming friendships … there was a lot of correlation between what we were going through and what the characters were going through … It became much, much bigger that the sum of its parts.
BIR: The musicians are jamming on stage as the audience comes into the theater. Was that a choice from the beginning?
EW: That came really, really early. Actually that was (director) John Tiffany’s initial (idea) to do it, and I balked at it originally. I thought it was a terrible idea. I thought it was just a gimmick. I said I think you should just begin it in black, and then the characters start. I was interested in the story happening from no space. From a space that wasn’t charged from something already. John, a great director, he went “No, no, no. It’s much larger. It’s about forgetting about musical theater and what’s been presented before and really showing the bones of it.”
BIR: And you have an actual, working pub on stage for the audience.
EW: Opening up the space and allowing the space to be used by an audience – I didn’t understand until we got to the end and could feel how audiences were reacting to it. We’re telling one love story on stage, but somehow, by handing it over to the audience, you’re allowing a thousand love stories to bounce off one another … It’s most extraordinary – you can feel people in the audience bringing their own love story to it, their own experience. It’s an amazing thing.
BIR: Most theaters want to keep the public completely away from the performance area. Have there been any issues with people socializing too much on stage?
EW: Yeah, there’s been a bit of that (laughing). There’s guitars all over there and banjos, and a number of times we’ve had people grab a guitar and try to play along. The thing about it is, that would have been fine in a session, but actually some of the guitars are tuned (laughs). And lots of dancing. You know, it’s the sweetest thing. Watching an audience get up there and be excited about it and go “Geeze, we’re going to watch a story unfold and already our feet have been on it. We’ve been in the world, been in the space.”
BIR: I’ve read that you believe good theater is created more on the stage than on the page.
EW: Absolutely. We believe in ensemble and we believe in actors. Believe the power needs to be in the stomach of the actors. If (the play’s) in any way sort of “authored” by the director or the writer or the designer, it just doesn’t seem correct … There’s great power for the actors … It’s that great thing about theater. It’s only true to the effort of the actor, sort of pushing words into space and taking it forward that the thing happens and the magic begins to happen.
BIR: Great theater really has that ability to transport, doesn’t it.
EW: There are so many variables in the air. And there’s that thing that it’s such a daft medium, you know? It’s all complete make believe. It’s all lights and sets and pretending. But there’s something that happens, with the deal that an audience comes, and there’s that suspension of disbelief, of just going in and watching the imagination of that world happening in front of you. When you get it right, it’s an extremely powerful medium.
R. J. Donovan is Editor and Publisher of onstageboston.com.
“Once,” Jan. 7 - 19, The Opera House, 539 Washington Street, Boston. Tickets: 1-800-982-2787 or BroadwayInBoston.com.