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“Once” Again

Director John Tiffany brings the hit indie film to the stage

The 2007 film Once charmingly blurs the line between reality and fiction. The stars, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, are indie musicians who dated in real life, so they’re natural on screen as struggling musicians who fall in love.

But how does Once work without them? That’s the question facing John Tiffany, who’s directing a stage musical adaptation at New York Theatre Workshop. Best known for innovative productions like Black Watch, he’s focusing not only on the story, but also on the story’s theatrical shape.

“I’m interested not just in what’s on stage, but also how the audience engages with a piece of theatre,” he says.
For instance, when the audience enters, they find a pub on stage, including a working bar and bartender. Patrons can order a pint before the show, which immediately creates a relaxed atmosphere that suits the production’s shaggy folk and rock songs. (The tunes, written by Hansard and Irglova, were also integral to the film. The soaring ballad “Falling Slowly” won an Academy Award.)

That intimate spirit also suits the story: An Irish busker who repairs vacuum cleaners to make a living meets a Czech immigrant flower seller who shares his passion for music. The two forge a gentle, unexpected connection through song and conversation.

Tiffany, a Yorkshire native, knew he wanted Irish artists to help him mold the production. “The film felt like Dublin was a character, especially the Eastern European migration to Dublin, and I was keen to get someone who knows that world,” he says. To that end, noted Irish playwright Enda Walsh wrote the book and Irish designer Bob Crowley created the set.

Tiffany also worked with Steven Hoggett, a longtime collaborator and former schoolmate, to create a “physical vocabulary” for the performers—gestures that aren’t quite dance in the traditional sense, but that still suggest emotion. “We approached choreography with great care because the last thing we wanted to do was create numbers with rows of dancing vacuum repair men,” the director says.

Tiffany admits to being moved by the film and by its original songs, and he is excited to expand the characters’ stories while maintaining the film’s arc and score. When he staged a workshop of the musical at ART in Cambridge, he invited Glen Hansard to attend. “I think that Glen was a bit nervous, but he absolutely adored it,” he says. “We were all in the cabaret bar, the Oberon, up until 2 o’clock having a big jam session.”


Lonnie Firestone is a writer based in New York City

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