‘Once’ Moves Seamlessly From Indie Screen to Musical Stage

Once 1When 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.

Once 5That 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.

Once 2The 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.”

Once 3What 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.

Once 4*Photos of the Once Tour Company by Joan Marcus courtesy Once Tour Company and TPAC.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).