It’s ran in the West End, Broadway, and even Korea. As the award-winning Once opens in Dublin, John Meagher takes a look behind the scenes — and chats to Glen Hansard about seeing his real-life relationship on stage.
Des Kennedy is better placed than most to fully grasp the extraordinary global appeal of Once.
It was he who had the task of making the Dublin-set musical work in South Korea.
It may have been a far cry from the West End or Broadway, where Once, the musical, played to packed houses, but it turned out that the Koreans also couldn’t get enough of the sweet boy-meets-girl story adapted from the much-feted low-budget film.
“In many ways, I found Korean people to be quite like the Irish,” he says, in a short break during rehearsals at Dublin’s venerable Olympia Theatre.
“But, ultimately, this is a story with a universal theme. And music connects everyone, no matter where in the world they are.”
They like their music in Korea, it seems, especially if John Carney has anything to do with it.
The former Frames bassist-turned-filmmaker dreamt up the story of Once a decade ago and another of his films, the charming musical comedy, Begin Again, starring Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, has the distinction of being the highest grossing independent English-language film in Korean history.
But whatever about enjoying the story of down-at-heel buskers, some of the finer points of Enda Walsh’s adaptation were lost on audiences in the Far East, and in London and New York too, for that matter.
“Yep,” Kennedy says with a smile, “the references to Fair City only really work in this country.”
In a neat twist, there were several Fair City actors in the Gaiety audience when Once first opened in Dublin in February 2013.
That production was well received, but this one, which opened on Tuesday, will be the real test of the enduring power of the musical romance. Running until August 22, everyone associated with it will be hoping the Olympia will be full every night until then.
New York actress Megan Riordan has lived in Dublin for several years, having studied drama at Trinity College. She plays the role of ‘Girl’, the Czech busker who falls in love with an Irish street musician.
“Even people who usually wouldn’t go to see a musical love it,” she says, in the cramped backstage office that houses Landmark Productions for the duration of the run.
“There are no big show-stopping numbers or special effects or elaborate stage designs. Everything is low-key and that really works for a story as intimate as this is.”
She first heard of Once, the film, when it generated Oscar buzz in 2008. “I didn’t see it in theatres, but my mom gave it to me on DVD, saying, ‘You live in Dublin, you’ll like this,’ and yeah, I loved it.”
The film starred Carney’s old bandmate, Glen Hansard, and Hansard’s then girlfriend, the Czech singer-songwriter Marketa Irglova, and much of it was inspired by the pair’s relationship.
"Shortly after Once, the Musical first played Dublin two years ago, Hansard told me he was now able to go to see the musical and not think it was about him.
“It’s not like” — here he adopted a grand, authoritative voice — “the Glen Hansard Story. I certainly don’t see it as such, although, there are snatches of dialogue that are uncannily like the sort of things me and Mar used to say to each other.
“The film was made in a few weeks with a pair of Handycams. We thought it might have some resonance in Ireland, but we didn’t for a moment imagine it would lead to this huge thing.
"I mean, the musical is just so much bigger now — in retrospect, it feels as though John’s film was just a demo for what people experience on Broadway and the West End.”
Tom Parsons, the English actor who plays the Hansard part has yet to meet him.
“The closest I got to that,” he says, “was rehearsing for the role in the Australian production I was shown a tape of Glen going through the songs with the actor in the original Broadway production and that was really helpful.
"I’m a self-taught guitarist and I don’t read music, so I could really relate to Glen’s instinctive approach.”
Whatever about playing the part of an Irish busker in Melbourne, making such a character believable in Dublin is another matter entirely.
“I’ve had some very good dialect coaches working with me and the reaction from the preview audiences have been really good,” he says.
“Just living in Dublin for the past while has been really helpful, because I’m picking up idiomatic Irish phrases by osmosis and just getting a real sense of how important music is in this city. While the story is very universal, it’s very Irish too, and I’ve really come to appreciate that in the time that I’ve been here. Phelim has been very helpful, too.”
He’s talking of Phelim Drew, who is part of the 12-strong cast.
“As some of those who’ve played with me will tell you, I’m not a great musician,” he says, with a grin, as he attempts to tune up an acoustic guitar backstage, “but this is the sort of production that any actor with even a shred of musical ability would want to be part of.
"The songs are fantastic, the music is terrific and it has an integrity and honesty to it that Irish people — as cynical as we think we are —are touched by.”
The beard that he has grown for the role is coming close to rivalling that of his late father, Dubliners founder Ronnie — a figure much adored by Hansard, who was among the musicians who recorded a tribute song ‘The Ballad of Ronnie Drew’ a few months before his death in 2008.
“There’s something really touching about the film,” Phelim adds, “but I think Enda’s writing is what really drew me in in the first place. It’s very pared back, like Pinter or Beckett, and you get to know the characters immediately.”
The adaptation was clearly a labour of love for Enda Walsh, the Dubliner who cut his teeth in the 1990s before moving to London where he has been a prolific dramatist. His 1996 play, Disco Pigs, centred on a pair of Cork misfits and announced him as a substantial new talent.
Five years later, it was made into a film, starring Cillian Murphy. Incidentally, Murphy was originally set to take Hansard’s part in Once, only for the singer himself to play a version of himself.
Once, the musical, has been a remarkable success in an industry where even the most bankable-looking projects can fall flat on their faces.
The Spiderman musical, with original music from U2, was beset by difficulties before it even opened while big-budget efforts from the likes of Paul Simon and Jim Steinman (who made his name as Meat Loaf’s songwriter) closed after terrible reviews and even worse takings at the box office.
Walsh’s adaptation helped, undoubtedly, but equally crucial was the part played by heavyweight director John Tiffany and the production smarts of Barbara Broccoli, who is best know for her work on the James Bond franchise.
But walk around the the sparse set at the Olympia and the feel is about as far removed from the high production values of Bond as you can get.
“I think one of it’s strengths is how stripped back it all is,” Megan Riordan says. “There are no distractions, just a simple story with characters you can really root for.”
The emotional centrepiece of Once happens during the moment where ‘Guy’ and ‘Girl’ jam together and ‘Falling Slowly’ miraculously materialises. Even those who have heard the song a hundred times are likely to get goosebumps.
“I can’t tell you how special it is to play that song,” Tom Parsons says, “you can feel the energy in the crowd as it takes shape.”
Co-written by Hansard and Irglova, and originally released on the Frames album, The Cost, in 2006, it would go on to bag an Oscar in 2008 and change both singers’ lives forever.
“That was a very intense time,” Hansard told me in 2013. “Suddenly, both me and Mar were in demand everywhere.
“After all those years trying to make it, we just didn’t want to give up all the opportunities that were now coming our way. While that was great for our careers, obviously, it did play havoc with our relationship and, I suppose, brought it to a conclusion.
“Nobody can ever look back on their lives and know for certain what would have happened if things had been different.
"I don’t know if me and Mar would still be together if Once hadn’t happened or if there had been no Oscar. Maybe we would, maybe we wouldn’t.”
There was no fairytale end for either songwriter when it came to their relationship, but the fictionalised version — a hit in London, New York, Soeul, and further afield — suggests a very different possibility.
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