When doing a stage musical based on a beloved film it makes sense to not fix what isn’t broken. The creative folks behind Once certainly understood that when they adapted the 2007 film; adding two more songs from original “Guy” and “Girl” Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová to the theater version, plus a book by Enda Walsh (Penelope, Hunger, The New Electric Ballroom) that fleshed out background characters and story, turned the indie flick hit into an award-winning stage work in New York and elsewhere.
Dani de Waal, who plays Girl in the national tour that calls Tennessee Performing Arts Center home today through Sunday, saw the film and knows audiences that are familiar with it will easily recognize what they see on the Andrew Jackson Hall stage. “It stays true to what the film was about, this raw intimate story that’s not polished, that’s a bit edgy. I think the stage show works that way too,” the 24-year-old London native says.
That edgy story should prove engaging for those that haven’t seen the movie, too. It concerns a Dublin musician (Guy, played by Stuart Ward) and a Czech immigrant to Ireland (de Waal’s character) brought together by their shared love of music. Those inclined to think Once might follow the standard story pattern of boy meets girl, etc., should know, to borrow from the Bard, that the course of true love never did run smooth, particularly in a contemporary tale.
“We keep using the term ‘modern-day love story’ to describe Once,” de Waal notes. “It may unconventional for the stage, but it’s how such things happen today. It’s complicated.”
Walsh’s script (which de Waal says “read more like a film script than the theater scripts I’d seen before. A lot goes on between the pauses in the dialogue… (And) a scene that might be one page in the script goes on for several minutes on stage”) was a big aide to finding her character, according to the actor. “She’s quirky, she’s different, and she speaks her mind. I didn’t have to think too much about creating the character because she’s all there on the page,” she explains.
The beautiful mix of folk, pop and other influences found in such songs as the Oscar-winning “Falling Slowly” are certainly pleasant on the ear, but they also help drive the plot. “The music is part of the story…it’s not like the usual musical where a character is like ‘I can’t speak anymore’ and breaks into song which I think can disconnect you from it,” de Waal says.” It’s music that touches your soul. It’s not the most complicated music…but I feel really connected. I did even before joining the show but now that I’m singing and playing it there’s another layer of connection.”
You read it right – actors don’t just speak and sing in Once; they’re the orchestra as well. On a minimalist set, there’s nothing to distract performers or audience from the tale. “You get on stage and you’re in the scene with whoever’s onstage with you and that’s all you have to think about. You don’t have to worry about a bit of the set or part of a costume that are uncomfortable for you, or anything else like that,” de Waal notes with a happy laugh.
What keeps the show fresh for her? Tuning in to different instrument contributions to the score sometimes helps, but there’s something else that makes each show new for de Waal. “I try to remember that it’s the first time some in the audience will have ever seen this story so I want to share that magical feeling with them.”
What has made Once the winner of (among other awards) eight Tonys and a Grammy, kept it running on Broadway the past two years and made this tour so successful? Perhaps it’s the simplicity of a straightforward story and beautiful score that interact seamlessly. “The simplicity allows people to reflect on their own lives a bit. I think it’s broad enough for people to look at it and perhaps see parts of their own lives and relationships, their own hopes and fears,” de Waal says. “I think simplicity makes this show so universal .
“It’s the whole Guy and Girl thing – it could be anyone anywhere.”
Once runs today through Sunday in Jackson Hall (505 Deaderick St.) as part of Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s 2014-15 HCA/TriStar Health Broadway at TPAC season. Performances start at 7:30 p.m. Today-Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. The onstage bar is open before curtain and at intermission. Tickets ($27.50-$72.50) are available by clicking here, visiting TPAC’s box office or calling (615) 782-4040. Note: This show includes adult language. Show Info: www.oncemusical.com.