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'Once' the Musical: Can an Indie Hit Make a Broadway Smash?

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Mar 16, 2012 | 5:45am EDT

ALTI am a self-described "adaptationalist." I know that every book, TV show/book/movie/thing I've ever cared about will, one day, be reimagined, reinterpreted, repurposed in another medium, but that I should be open to the new way it's being presented. Changes, shmanges—someone's telling the story in a new way, and as audience members, you and I should be accepting of their vision. We can't get upset when the director of a Harry Potter movie cuts out our favorite part of a 900-page book. He's making a movie, not a live-action replica of the text.

What is important in adaptation is preserving the essence of the source, whether it's through theme or angle or execution. This is the biggest problem with Once, a new musical opening March 18 on Broadway (the show is currently in previews). Based on the 2007 Sundance breakout of the same name, Once tells the story of Guy, an Irish singer/songwriter wallowing in Dublin after a bad break-up, and Girl, a Czech single mom who takes a fancy to Guy's music, eventually pushing him to record a demo album. The film version, which went on to win the 2008 Best Song Oscar for the striking track "Falling Slowly," is an intimate portrait of two emotionally ruptured individuals connected and enlivened by music. Director John Carney shot the movie for pennies, allowing him to treat the easily overwrought subject with subtlety and intimacy. The finished product is something of a miracle–the two lead actors, musicians Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, miraculously craft an understated relationship that's adorable, painful and true (so true, in fact, that the two eventually started dating in real life). Once became a phenomenon because it felt like lightning in a bottle.

Interpreted as a Broadway musical, Once abandons the low-fi, simplistic approach that made its cinematic counterpart so effective and charming in favor of a broader presentation. Interpretive dance choreography, comic side characters and familiar lighting/set design help homogenize the show with the rest of the Great White Way. No, they don't whip out jazz hands or chorus lines at in the middle of the show's Irish pub setting, but Once succumbs to the obvious tropes that make Broadway Broadway, instead of using the movie as a catalyst for theatrical innovation.

ALT

In the film, Girl is energized by Guy's performing, but hushed. In the musical, her outsider persona is extroverted, amplified to a degree reminiscent of Andy Kaufman's Latka from Taxi. And unlike Hansard's dorky, bashful, shlub, the production's Guy is a handsome loner, cool and composed while he lingers at the crossroads of his life. The leads, Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti are skilled performers with vocals deserving of the stage, but the direction never allows them to be grounded. Expanded for the sake of opening up the action of the film's narrow plot, Girl's music shop owner friend, her Czech family and the bank employee who grants Guy a loan, all have larger roles—played entirely for comedy. The characters act as filler more than complicators to the central struggle, but like recent revivals of Company and Sweeney Todd, director John Tiffany doubles the supporting cast as the house band, narrowing the scope for the better.

What saves the show (and made the movie so powerful) are the songs. Hansard and Irglová provide a few new tunes, along with the film's signature slate, and rarely are the numbers compromised by the same Broadway-isms that plague the rest of the show. Kazee never matches Hansard's raw, cracky vocals in songs like "Falling Slowly," "When Your Mind's Made Up," or "Say It to Me Now," but the man can certainly belt. An a cappella version of "Gold" stands out as the perfect ensemble translation, while Milioti's "If You Want Me" is equally haunting (although the film capitalized on the strange beauty of the number with an extended shot down a long Dublin block). The unexpected treat of Once actually comes before the lights even dim; a 30 minute pre-show opens up the stage to the audience, where drinks can be bought at the pub set and the performers immerse themselves in the huddled mass to play a few off-the-cuff Irish tunes. That's authenticity—but it's downhill from there.

ALTTruthfully, there may not have been a way for me to fully enjoy Once. As much as I commit to the adaptationalist lifestyle, I was so moved by the original film that any glimmer of inauthentic drama—which sounds heavy for a Broadway musical, but hey, we're talking about love and art here—would rub me the wrong way. It happens that the 16-year-old sitting next to me, who (based on age) I'm presuming had never seen the film, was deeply enthralled by the musical. Compared to Wicked, Jersey Boys or Lion King, Once is uniquely small-scale and human, and the show had the girl laughing and sobbing her way through curtain call. Once fundamentally works better on film, but for those who have never seen it, the Broadway version has plenty to offer.

An independent film crawling out from foreign film obscurity to the Academy Awards, all the way to the stages of New York City is an amazing feat, but the newest incarnation of Once is more impressive in idea form than execution. Would the show have benefited from dropping the Once brand? Absolutely. An acoustic Irish musical that doesn't have the word "Riverdance" in the title sounds otherworldly. But the misfire in capitalizing on the Sundance gem by transplanting it to Broadway is an admirable one, an attempt to bring a modern classic into the mainstream. In the end, Once fails to understand what made Carney's movie pull on the heartstrings. Nitpicks aside (which would be uncouth to an adaptationalist), Once isn't just about the revelatory music or the core romance. Pulling off its story, regardless of format, requires delicacy and minimalism—and the Broadway production captures none of it. This time around, at least.

Once: A New Musical opens in New York City on March 18. You can check out the soundtrack right now on Spotify.

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