Done on a tiny budget of $150,000, the independent Irish film Once barely made it into theaters. And it easily could have disappeared without a trace, but audiences were captivated by its simple story about two musicians writing songs together and falling in love. After it screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2007, Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips became one of its earliest and most enthusiastic champions, calling it “the best music film of any stripe” anyone had made in decades.
But was director John Carney’s film a musical? Not exactly. It certainly wasn’t one of those spectacles where characters suddenly burst into song while fantasy dance numbers break out around them. In fact, it felt more like a documentary, with cameras capturing intimate moments from the real lives of people struggling to make a living with their music.
Even after the movie became a modest hit—and one of its songs, “Falling Slowly,” won an Oscar—Once still didn’t seem like obvious material for the Broadway treatment. Glen Hansard, who starred in the movie and wrote the songs with co-star Markéta Irglová, has admitted, “In my mind, it was never a good idea”.
And yet, Once became something new on the stage in 2011, enchanting critics and audiences on its way to capturing eight Tony Awards, including the big one for best new musical. (Even the skeptical Hansard became a believer.) Now, the show is playing at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora.
“I saw it in New York and fell in love with it,” says Jim Corti, the Paramount’s artistic director, who’s directing the new production. He immediately realized that this wasn’t a typical screen-to-stage adaptation. Typically, he says, “Movie titles get bought up and licensed for stage productions because of their commercial appeal, and you have to reproduce the movie onstage, which is very difficult. That costs millions and millions.” In contrast, the stage version of Once retains the movie’s essential story, but reimagines its presentation, placing the musicians inside a tavern setting that remains the backdrop throughout all of the action. “This is the way to translate something to the stage—by making it theater,” Corti says. “Not trying to put a movie onstage.”
Tiffany Topol, a New York actor-singer-songwriter who grew up in Oswego, stars at the Paramount as “Girl,” the nameless character Irglová, played in the original movie. Topol had just graduated from Millikin University in Decatur—and broken up with a boyfriend—when she saw the film at a suburban theater in 2007. “I cried very hard. I loved it. I loved it,” she recalls. Several years after that, when she watched a number from the stage version during the telecast of the Tony Awards, she became determined to perform in the show someday. Topol, who played flute in high school and writes most of her songs on ukulele, began brushing up on her piano skills for the role of Girl. “I watched the hand of the woman playing Girl, playing the piano,” Topol remembers, “and I said, ‘You know what? I bet I could do that.’”
Topol was thrilled to land a job as the standby for the actress playing Girl in the national touring production. But she ended up performing only a couple of times during a long year on the road. “I sat backstage and watched Netflix movies for a year,” she says. “Admittedly, it was kind of depressing, especially because I loved the show so much and I love performing. This is one of the big reasons I’m excited to be doing it at Paramount. I get to actually do it. And I get to do it in my hometown.”
That love of performing is an essential part of the story itself. With a book by Irish playwright Enda Walsh based on the original screenplay by Carney, Once begins with a busker in a Dublin bar, singing a heartfelt ballad about unrequited love. Identified only as “Guy” in the script, the singer will be played at the Paramount by Barry DeBois, who’s previously starred in the same role in the national tour.
During that first scene, Guy announces that it’s his final song. Ever. He’s quitting music. He may even be thinking about quitting life altogether. He puts away his guitar and gets ready to leave, abandoning his instrument. But he’s stopped by a young Czech immigrant (“Girl”) who’s been listening. She asks questions about his songs. He tells her he’s been writing songs for a girlfriend who broke up with him and moved across the ocean to New York City. Girl suggests that she could play piano on Guy’s songs. Soon, they’re collaborating in a way that feels completely natural and spontaneous.
“It was his art that attracted her,” Corti says. “She intuitively sees his worth.” And she makes it her mission to help Guy find success with his music, asking nothing in return. “He was thinking of calling it quits. Completely. And she has saved his life.”
As they make music together, Guy and Girl grow fond of each other. And it’s obvious they feel a mutual attraction. But will it move beyond flirtation and affection and became a lasting romance? That’s the question that hovers over the story. “It’s all about how these souls connect,” Corti says. “A lot of us have an experience like this with someone, and it just happens once. You’re changed forever by it. I think there’s a great beauty in that.”
There are no musicians in the orchestra pit during Once. Much like the performers in another recent Paramount Theatre production, Million Dollar Quartet, the actors in Once are honest-to-goodness musicians. “There are moments where it literally feels like we’re learning the song for the first time,” Topol says. “You have to perform all the music as if you wrote it yourself. So, being a songwriter is helpful.”
As audience members make their way to their seats, the cast performs songs in that bar on the stage. “There’s a pre-show entertainment selection of songs that all of the actors will play on their instruments as the audience comes in and everyone can go up onstage and get a beer or a whiskey,” Corti says. This scene-setting gesture makes audience members feel as if they’re entering Guy and Girl’s world. “It’s a type of immersion,” Corti explains. And it’s more than just a way of kicking off the show. “You’re watching this story of two very different people from very different cultures, and what they have in common is music and songwriting and singing,” observes Corti. “And then you just want them to be together.”