Adapting 'Once': Like 'catching a butterfly'
In this undated image released by Richard Kornberg & Associates, Steve Kazee, left, and Cristin Milioti are shown in a scene from "Once," performing at the New York Theatre Workshop in New York. The production was nominated for a Tony Award for best musical, Tuesday, May 1, 2012. (AP Photo/Richard Kornberg & Associates, Joan Marcus)
NEW YORK (AP) — "Once" began as a whimsical little film, an unlikely love story that was charming enough to become an unlikely cult classic and even unlikelier Oscar-winner for its hypnotic love song, "Falling Slowly."
The next transformation was even more, well, unlikely: beloved indie film to Broadway musical, now the top-nominated show of this year's Tonys, with 11 nods.
The creative team that sat down for an initial two-day workshop in London in 2010 was well aware of what they were up against in preserving the film's enchantingly fresh spirit. To the director, John Tiffany, "it was like catching a butterfly."
Actually it was even harder, he said Tuesday, after hearing the happy news: "It was like catching a butterfly and trying to keep it alive. And happy. And free."
But first, there was the matter of getting the right person to write the book. And in the beginning, the Irish playwright Enda Walsh was balking.
Not that he didn't like the 2006 film — he loved the simple and bittersweet story of a Czech flower-seller, played by the soft-spoken Marketa Irglova, and an Irish street singer, the scruffy Glen Hansard, bonding in Dublin over a shared love for music.
"I loved the film, but I just couldn't imagine it onstage. So I declined," Walsh said Tuesday from New York, where he was visiting. "But after two days in that workshop, thinking about how we'd tell the story, I really wanted to do it. I wanted to do something positive about people, and about Ireland. I thought, maybe we can make something useful, simple and delicate."
Tiffany, who spoke from Glasgow, Scotland, where he got the Tony news while sitting in a play and watching his phone light up like crazy, hadn't even seen the film before the job came up. The first thing he did was download the music by Hansard and Irglova.
"And that's what drew me in," he said. "I absolutely loved it, and I thought 'Wow, I've never heard anything like that on a Broadway stage.'"
But how to recreate the unstructured, almost improvisational feel of the film? It must have felt like the furthest thing from Broadway. Tiffany said the key, through an initial run in Cambridge, Mass., then an off-Broadway run and then the leap to Broadway, was to have faith in the material, in all its simplicity.
"We just trusted it," he said. "We trusted that the butterfly didn't need to be sprayed in glitter. 'Once' is incredibly unassuming. It's a delicate, heartbreaking, raw story."
A key issue was casting. Creators didn't go for carbon copies. To play Girl, a Czech, they chose Cristin Milioti of New Jersey, who has a spunkier vibe than Irglova and a powerful voice. To play Guy, an Irishman, they settled on Kentucky-born Steve Kazee, with matinee idol looks and singing chops to match. (Both are nominated for Tonys, as is Elizabeth A. David in a featured role.)
Kazee said he immediately threw away thoughts of imitating Hansard. "I knew there was no way to do Glen. So that pressure was off. But the task was to create something as memorable."
He also didn't want to ruin something he loved so much. "It was one of my favorite movies," he said. "I didn't want to be a part of destroying something really precious. My goal was: Don't mess this up."