A SMASH on Broadway in 2012, the musical Once opens in the Gaiety Theatre tonight. Once is an adaptation of John Carney’s successful 2006 film of the same name, and won eight Tony awards.
Enda Walsh won for his script. That Walsh — the acclaimed writer of blackly comic plays like Disco Pigs, The Walworth Farce, and Misterman — is now the author of a hit Broadway musical seems unlikely.
“I find myself waking up in the morning, putting on a pair of black tap-shoes, slipping on a pair of white gloves, and then setting about my day,” he says with waggish delight.
When English director John Tiffany approached him with the project in 2010, Walsh was hesitant. “I was a bit surprised and I did balk at the idea,” he says. “Only because I didn’t think it was a very good idea. I’d thought the movie was really perfect. I just couldn’t imagine it happening onstage. But the pull of two things — John Carney’s storyline and those great songs — was just too strong. So I thought, ‘Fuck it, it’ll be a great thing for me to do, and it’ll get me out of my head for a while’.”
Walsh wasn’t the only person who needed convincing. Tiffany and Walsh met Glen Hansard in New York. The Frames singer played ‘Guy’ to Markéta Irglová’s ‘Girl’ in the film and, with Irglová, he had won an Oscar for the film’s signature tune ‘Falling Slowly’. Hansard wasn’t keen on a musical adaptation.
“Glen was very, very nervous,” says Walsh. “He was just like, ‘whoa, this could be a bag of shite’. And that was something we all felt. But we said, ‘at least give us a chance of putting it into workshop mode and see if we can get something’. The more we talked to Glen that evening, the more he was like, ‘okay, fair enough’. But, first of all, in his eyes, we were wankers.”
The show came together over four weeks of workshops and rehearsals in the basement of a Boston church. Aside from its American cast, the creative team included choreographer Steven Hoggett, musical director Martine Lowe, and one of the most esteemed of set designers, Corkman Bob Crowley.
“Bob designed this set that is so simple, beautiful and clever,” says Walsh. “It has mirrors that look back at the audience and you see different angles on the actors while they’re onstage. All of the mirrors seem like different stories. But Bob was just the perfect person for it. He got all the references. He was sitting there, pissing his sides laughing at dialogue about Fair City: ‘You’re putting Fair City on Broadway. Jesus. I love it’.”
What so charmed Broadway, says Walsh, was the show’s focus on character and its deceptively laid-back aesthetic. “We came up with this very simple, sort-of-1970s community-theatre style, where actors sit on seats at the edge of the stage and just come in and do their parts,” he says.
“So, it’s all really naked and bare. Everything is framed really beautifully, and with great simplicity, so that what you’re doing is just watching actors push words or music up into the air. And, for all of us working on it, that felt very strong. And the first scene is so odd, it’s almost Beckettian. They’re just talking very slowly to one another. You’re like, ‘are we really in a fucking musical?’.
“And I always feel with it that the show barely exists. It’s barely there and then, suddenly, things start to happen and it begins to fill with words and music, character and story. On Broadway, people were going, ‘oh, what the fuck is this? It’s very strange’.”
Strangeness has long been a hallmark of Walsh’s writing, of course, but Once — with its wistful, romantic storyline about love forestalled, and its sweeping songs — was a brave new world for the writer, too.
“Tonally, it’s very different to my other work,” he says. “But, then, my first play, Disco Pigs, was essentially about two people who couldn’t be in love. So I understand — we all do — what it is to be in love and the really itchy quietness and difficulty of that.
“So, I thought, ‘well, this is a sort of similar story’. It was about making sure that all the silences in the show were charged with bittersweet subtext, and that it would be almost hard to look at, because it hurts a little bit. But I did really enjoy the shift of tone, where I was working with characters that really didn’t carry the usual baggage, the usual dysfunction, that I would put on them. They’re actually just really normal.”
Walsh is working with Canadian singer Rufus Wainwright on a movie musical. He is also on “page 45” of a new play. His experience on Once will inform his work, he says.
“I am so, so happy that I wrote it,” he says. “After my initial hesitation, I got lost in it and I can see that it’s something that’s going to affect other work from here on in. I don’t know in what way, yet, but I think, now, I’m always going to chase down something that is very complex emotionally and which, as an audience, you’re watching and going, ‘I’m being moved by this and I’ve no idea how or why’. If I could recreate that in another play, I’d be a very lucky man.”
The Once production in Dublin is the first outside of America. It travels to London’s West End next month, but Walsh and Tiffany were eager that it return to its spiritual home first. Does Walsh have any anxiety about how it might be received? “I could lie and say, ‘no, it doesn’t matter’,” he says. “But, you know what, it really, really matters. Working on this musical was almost like a love letter from me to Dublin. So it really matters. But do I have any anxieties? Absolutely not. I saw their second full run the other day, with this new cast, and I’m so excited by it. And I’m delighted that it’s an Irish audience that will be first to see what this new ensemble have done with it.”
Nor is he worried by any native Irish cynicism about putting emotion and sentimentality onstage either. “You should park your cynicism at the door,” he says. “Or, actually, maybe you don’t have to. Bring it in with you and I think we’ll kick the shit out of it.”
*Once runs at the Gaiety until March