If you’re surprised because you never thought you’d be reading a review of a Broadway musical on the Red Hot blog, don’t worry: I’m surprised, too. I never thought I’d be writing one.
I’ve been listening to Glen Hansard’s music for a long time, even before he began his collaboration with Marketa Irglova, a Czech pianist and vocalist who starred alongside Hansard in the cult hit movie Once. The music featured in the movie, written by Hansard and Irglova, won an Oscar a few years ago, and ever since then it’s been a whirlwind trip for the duo and their fans. Recently Once was adapted into a Broadway musical, which has garnered 8 Tony wins out of 11 nominations, including one for Best Musical.
As a fan of the movie and an even bigger fan of the music, I was dubious that the production would do justice to its origins. I shouldn’t have worried. Once manages the seemingly impossible task of remaining true to the spirit of the original movie while inhabiting a new medium and establishing a distinct voice within it. I’ve seen a handful of musicals in my life, and this was like none of them.
Usually, Broadway requires the biggest of everything: the biggest stars, the biggest voices, the biggest acting and staging. Once takes up just enough space to inhabit the Broadway stage (admittedly a much less intimate medium than film) and then brilliantly does the work of drawing the audience in the rest of the way. It makes sense that before the show begins and during the short intermission, audience members are welcomed to come onto the stage and buy drinks from the bar that is an integral part of the set, because when you’re watching this musical, it’s easy to believe that the stage is a shared space, rather than an impenetrable wall.
The moments that truly struck me were moments when Hansard and Irglova’s songs, which I’ve heard thousands of times, were made completely fresh and new. “Falling Slowly” (the song which originally won the Oscar and which is the centerpiece of both the film and the stage adaptation) was the deciding factor in whether or not I would come away impressed. I wasn’t sure that anyone could take that song, which was an incalculably huge part of my adolescence, and make it unique and independent from the original. Lead actors Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti did this beautifully, in part by staying true to their own distinct voices, rather than attempting to mimic their predecessors. Milioti’s emotionally unrestrained rendition of “The Hill” (contrasting with Irglova’s more reticent original) was heartbreaking and powerful. For me, the most sonically outstanding moment was the full-cast a cappella reprise of “Gold” (a song from the movie by Irish band Interference).
Overall, the Once musical impressed me far beyond what I expected. Writer Enda Walsh did an incredible job of adapting the movie for the stage, and the cast and crew deserve every accolade that is given them. After all, they did achieve the seemingly impossible.