It’s 2011, and Glen Hansard is worried. His breakout film, Once, is about to open as an Off-Broadway musical at the New York Theatre Workshop in Manhattan’s East Village. Sure, the movie brought him and his co-star Marketa Irglova a level of fame in America neither could have ever dreamed of – the duo had, at that point, played two sold-out shows as The Swell Season at Radio City Music Hall, won an Oscar, and garnered two Grammy nods – but they both, Hansard especially, were anxious about how their delicate, incredibly low-budget indie film would transfer to the stage. “What if these guys fuck up?” Hansard reminisces. “What if they turn it into some nonsense?”
So one night in late autumn, Hansard decides to take the leads of the musical to his favorite Manhattan bar, an unassuming, dimly lit Irish pub on a quiet block on 5th Street called The Scratcher. He has his friends, including renowned Irish singer-songwriters Mark Geary and the late Fergus O’Farrell, meet him there as bartender Brendan O’Shea promptly locks the doors. After a few whiskeys at the bar, the musical’s co-stars, Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti, were led to the back of the bar alongside all of the other musicians, who had readied their acoustic guitars, tambourines, and other assorted instruments and began to play. Throughout the course of each traditional or modern Irish folk song, certain musicians would join in and sing – everyone was expected to participate.
After a few tunes, it was now Kazee’s turn. A self-described Irish folk superfan, Kazee, who was gearing up to play Hansard’s “Guy” character, began to strum the opening chords to Van Morrison’s classic track “Into the Mystic”. “Oh my god, I was fucking terrified!” he remembers. “It was almost like this weird hazing, but more of an indoctrination into that world. It was like, ‘Alright, if you’re going to be doing this, know the roots of it; know that this is what it’s about.’”
“I remember just beaming the whole night,” Cristin Milioti adds, recalling her performance of an a capella song she had written. “It was so, so beautiful and the music was gorgeous. I remember walking out when the sun came up and feeling on top of the world.”
They had passed the test. Soon after, this iteration of Once hit the stage at the New York Theatre Workshop for a critically acclaimed one-month run and was quickly moved to Broadway, where it became one of the most successful musicals in recent memory, eventually winning eight Tony Awards in 2012 and a Grammy in 2013.
The musical, written by acclaimed Irish playwright Enda Walsh, gave Once, then a cult classic of sorts, a second life. Though Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova had been playing some of the world’s most important stages for years, their music was introduced to a different audience entirely – hell, the aforementioned O’Farrell song “Gold”, an inclusion on the Once Soundtrack originally recorded by little-known Irish band Interference, was being performed onstage at the Tony Awards, complete with choreography and about a dozen voices.
So, how did we get here? Hansard’s band The Frames was playing midsize rooms across America – Chicago’s Metro and New York’s Bowery Ballroom, for instance – but they surely weren’t hitting No. 7 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums Chart like the Once Soundtrack did on March 15, 2008. To understand the Once phenomenon, we need to dig deep in the film’s origin story, which now dates back a full 10 years since its release. It’s a narrative as absurd as it is unlikely; a low-res, quickly shot, extremely independent Irish film that only hit dozens of art house movie theaters became ingrained in American popular culture on the backs of two extremely talented musicians with little to no acting experience and a director who never gave up.
“I’ve got it!” screamed John Carney as he ran down the stairs of his house in Dublin toward his girlfriend in 2005. Carney, then a struggling filmmaker a few years removed from On the Edge (one of Cillian Murphy’s first movies), felt as if he’d finally cracked something, though it was unknown what that was.
“It was one of those moments with this script,” he says over the phone a few months ago, now twelve years after his eureka moment. “With this idea, with this story, I felt like I had finally managed to crack a story that would have universal appeal no matter which way you did it.”
That original screenplay was simply a page-long outline of the story, beginning with a musician meeting a woman on Dublin’s Grafton Street, a pedestrian walkway famous for its many busking artists, and ending with the unnamed female character receiving a piano at the end. The film was set to star Cillian Murphy, fresh off of his portrayal of Scarecrow in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, and would include Glen Hansard and Damien Rice (among others) as its musical advisors, helping Carney develop the busker character while also writing new songs for the soundtrack.
Upon Hansard’s first conversation regarding the film, he insisted on introducing Carney to Marketa Irglova, whom he had met while on tour in the Czech Republic and would eventually fall in love with. She’d frequently visit Hansard in Ireland and they would routinely throw dinner parties with 20-30 of his closest friends. At some point, Hansard had invited Carney over.
“Glen had a piano at the house, and at some point John asked if I would go to the piano and play something for him,” Irglova says over a lengthy Skype conversation. “I sang a song and played a piece from one of my favorite movies, called The Double Life of Veronique, and then Glen and I had a concert. [Carney] was like, ‘OK, well this is as good of a place to audition as any.’ At the end of the party, John was like, ‘I think you’re the girl!’ and I was like ‘What?’ I don’t think I would have gone to a proper audition. I would have been totally too intimidated to go into a room where there’s a movie producer and a director and a casting agent and I had to read some lines from a script.”
After attending an early Swell Season concert a couple of nights later, Carney was enthralled by Glen and Marketa’s onstage chemistry. “After that,” Irglova adds, “He said, ‘The two of you are the people for this movie. Whatever energy you have together is exactly what I’m looking for.’”
It was more important for Carney that the character was a great singer who could act moderately, rather than a moderate singer who could act impressively. He felt that if he was enchanted by the whole music part, everything else could just follow.
Enda Walsh, a close friend of Murphy’s, reiterated the misguided idea of an actor performing Hansard’s music: “‘I just read this script called Once written by John Carney,’ [Murphy] told me about. Cillian turned around and said, ‘If I was in it, I think I’d ruin it a bit. I really think Glen should be in it.’ It was perfect that Glen ended up being in it because he’s not an actor; he had a real honesty to it.”
But try telling that to a movie’s financial backers, who were counting on a big-name star to carry the film. Though it was a huge risk – one that lost him a fair amount of money – over time, Carney realized that Hansard was the man for the role; the character was loosely based on him in the first place, and he had acted previously in the Irish classic The Commitments, though that was well over a decade earlier. Several of the scenes that involved performing on the street had actually happened to Hansard in real life.
“In a sense, I almost said that Once would be my last shot as a filmmaker,” Carney explains. “There was a lot riding on it for me.”
With so much on the line for Carney and a miniscule budget of just $150,000, a bare-bones crew of about 12 people, and a cast of predominantly non-actors, it didn’t seem as if the film stood much of a chance. Everything was shot on location using natural light, and Carney and Hansard’s friends served as extras – even Hansard’s mother makes an appearance in the dinner party scene. The whole movie was shot in less than three weeks with few to no benefits for the cast and crew; over Skype, set photographer Cleary describes the production situation thusly: “There was no craft services or any of that shit. On set, if you wanted a coffee, you’d have to walk down to a café and buy one with your own money. There was no catering when we broke for lunch. I remember once we had pizza, which was regarded as a real day out!”
At one point, it looked as if the movie would simply be sold as merchandise at Frames and Swell Season gigs. Getting a distributor was nearly impossible – the sound was muddy, and it didn’t look great on a big screen since it was shot on little digital cameras – and it was getting rejections from most major European film festivals. Only Galway Film Fleadh picked it up, where it was shown in July 2006.
By chance, John Nein, the Senior Programmer at the Sundance Film Festival, happened to be in the audience at Galway and later rung up Carney to ask if he’d like to put Once into the running. Three or four months later, it was accepted.
“To get into Sundance was mind-blowing because that’s the sort of thing that’s the Holy Grail for me,” Carney says. “Particularly back then, it was pre-iPhones, pre-anyone-could-make-a-movie and making a movie for $100,000 was still a novelty. To me, to be honest, getting accepted to Sundance, then having some little triumph there, was the highest accolade that I could get for that movie.”
Immediately upon its screening at Sundance, seemingly everyone wanted a piece of Hansard, Irglova, and Carney. The film won the 2007 World Cinema Audience Award in the dramatic category, and film critics were falling head over heels for it; Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips wrote, “It may well be the best music film of any stripe since Stop Making Sense a generation ago.”
Glen Brunman, the head of the Sony Soundtracks division that had previously put out the soundtracks for Garden State, Titanic, and Forrest Gump, among many others, did a deal on the spot. “I don’t know what the number was, but he got it for next to nothing,” Jack Hedges, the general manager at Canvasback Records, explains. “A couple of the executives saw the movie, and I don’t think anyone knew what to do with it. It was being shopped around the building like, ‘We’ve got this cool thing and we’re not really sure what it is, but we didn’t spend a lot of money on it and it’s cool.’ ”
Canvasback Records, which had just been launched months earlier under the Columbia umbrella, were the first to raise their hands. Hedges, just 26 years old at the time, had his first signing. Simultaneously, Fox Searchlight won the distribution rights and immediately proceeded to book Hansard and Irglova on an American press tour where they would perform after each screening.
“It was the most amazing thing!” Hedges exclaims over drinks on a cold Bushwick winter night. “You just watched this movie and then this thing came to life in front of you. It was like in Purple Rose of Cairo where the guy steps out of the screen and into the movie theater, and now he’s in the real world. The reason we were so drawn to it is that – yes, it’s a movie; yes, it’s a soundtrack; yes, it’s a musical – but the people who write the songs and sing the songs and play the songs in the movie are here and are available to write the songs and sing the songs and play the songs in real life.”
While Once never had a wide release – it was only ever shown at art house theaters – it managed to make $23,344,056 worldwide, or roughly 155 times the film’s production costs. Domestically, it was the 150th highest grossing movie of 2007. The numbers qualify it for a massive box office success, even as the film itself slid into the cult movie cannon.
But those who did see it in theaters raved about it. Steven Spielberg famously told USA Today, “A little movie called Once gave me enough inspiration to last the rest of the year.” It led to infinite opportunities for Hansard and Irglova: they contributed to the I’m Not There soundtrack, covering “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”, and The Frames were chosen to open for Bob Dylan’s Australian tour.
Though the movie was the perhaps the biggest surprise of 2007, much of its longevity stems from its soundtrack – 13 acoustic tracks, all written and performed by Hansard and Irglova themselves with the exception of the aforementioned “Gold” by Interference. Even after the album hit No. 2 on the Billboard Soundtracks Chart on July 7, 2007, sandwiched between Hannah Montana and High School Musical, it steadily gained popularity due to Canvasback’s aggressive MySpace and iTunes campaigns. Just over a year and a half removed from playing the Lower East Side dive venue Pianos, the duo performed at the almost-3,000 capacity Beacon Theatre on the Upper West Side in November 2007.
A mixture of Frames songs and new ones, the tracklist was chosen by Carney himself. Though the film’s opening number, “Say It to Me Now”, dates back to 1996’s Frames album Fitzcarraldo, many were written specifically for the movie. “When you listen to the songs, there’s lots of unfinished lyrics – we didn’t have time!” Hansard explains. “We had to have songs finished for shooting days. Myself and Mar would be writing some songs after the shoot for the next day. Things had to be knocked together really quickly, which was actually really helpful. As Brian Eno says, ‘An artist’s two best friends are no budget and no time.’”
The long and steady climb for Hansard, Irglova, and Carney hit a fever pitch on January 22, 2008; the Once soundtrack was officially recognized by the Academy, and “Falling Slowly” was nominated for Best Original Song. The promo tour, the social media push, and the fluke Sundance submission – none of this was ever done with an Oscar nomination in mind. (Remember, this was a film to very likely be sold at merch tables in the back of concerts.) Now, suddenly, the core Once team found themselves in the heart of it all in Los Angeles, with some of the biggest celebrities in the industry falling over themselves to hang out with Hansard and Irglova, not the other way around. They were half the world away from the rain-drenched Grafton Street where the film opens – and then some.
After a lengthy couple of weeks of around-the-clock press and parties, the duo hit the Kodak Theater stage for their Oscars performance. To say they were out of place is an understatement – similar to when Elliott Smith, complete with an oversized white suit, sang “Miss Misery” in 1998, Hansard and Irglova played a largely acoustic rendition of “Falling Slowly”, with subtle added strings from the orchestra under the stage. Irglova’s voice was shaky at first, but after a few seconds, a tie-less Hansard looked her way and smiled, barely able to contain his amazement that they were at the award ceremony at all. That understated emotion hearkens back to Carney’s original idea to cast the duo in the first place; their onstage chemistry from that 2005 Dublin Swell Season show was on full display for the world to see. Armed with his old acoustic guitar with the massive hole in it, Hansard and Irglova had fully arrived.
Later in the broadcast, perpetual mispronouncer John Travolta took the stage to announce the winners of Best Original Song. Against a triple attack of Stephen Schwartz Enchanted tracks, Travolta opened the envelope to Hansard (pronounced Han-SAHRD) and Irglova’s names. Immediately, Hansard’s hand went immediately to his face, covering his eyes, not believing what he just heard.
Hansard began his speech by laughing, barely able to blurt out a very Irish “tanks” before uttering, “Go raibh mile mile maith agat,” which roughly translates to “Thanks a million.” After a short, minute-or-so speech about the humble beginnings of the film, he concluded with a simple plea – “Make art, make art!”
But when Irglova stepped up to the microphone, the orchestra began playing them off, leaving Marketa unable to give her speech. Quickly realizing their mistake, the house band stopped performing their version of “Falling Slowly”, but by then it was too late – the duo had already begun walking backstage for champagne, interviews, and celebrations.
“‘Wait a minute, [host] Jon Stewart wants to talk to you before you go back to the seat,’” Irglova remembers. “He was standing by the side of the stage, and he explained to me quickly, ‘Listen, you didn’t get to do your speech, and we felt bad that you got interrupted. There’s a commercial break now. Do you mind going back on the stage and saying whatever you were going to say?’ I really believed that I was going to talk to the room while they were taking a break for the commercials.”
While high off the moment, Glen and Marketa were just off on the side of the stage joking about making their Oscar trophies kiss, not thinking for a moment that she would be invited back to give a full-length speech. Then all of a sudden, Stewart returned to the stage and said, “I just wanted to do something very quickly. The winner of best song, Marketa Irglova, didn’t get a chance to say her thank yous, so I just wanted to bring her out again real quick. Enjoy your moment!”
“And as I was walking on the stage toward the microphone, I started realizing that this was live because all the cameras were recording,” Irglova adds. “It sort of hit me – ‘Oh no, this is going to be part of the thing!’ I think under normal circumstances, I probably would have been nervous and all of that, but I was so high on joy and the insanity of the experience that I couldn’t. There was no room for being nervous or being fearful of saying the wrong thing. I’m really happy with managing to say something that made sense because really, it was almost like putting somebody on stage who has just done ecstasy. It’s something that shoots out into space – that’s why all of these crazy speeches happen during these ceremonies because you have to bring yourself back to earth from the amazing place in space that you get teleported to.”
And what a speech it was, especially given the circumstances. “This is such a big deal, not only for us, but for all other independent musicians and artists that spend most of their time struggling, and this, the fact that we’re standing here tonight, the fact that we’re able to hold this, it’s just the proof that no matter how far out your dreams are, it’s possible,” Irglova said in a remarkably calm manner. “Fair play to those who dare to dream and don’t give up.”
With those words, Hansard and Irglova etched their names in Oscar history. Their soundtrack, a mixture of old Frames songs and new ones written at lightning speed, hit No. 7 on the Billboard Top 200 Charts three weeks later, simultaneously topping the Independent Albums Chart.
Over time, “Falling Slowly” would become a classic, becoming a go-to American Idol song while soundtracking weddings to this day. The duo toured the world for a few years, hitting Glastonbury, Coachella, Newport Folk Fest, and pretty much every stage in between. In 2009, the pair reprised their Once roles in an episode of The Simpsons. Soon after, the couple broke up, but The Swell Season continued to heavily tour through 2011. By then, the film and its corresponding soundtrack had returned to its cult status once again, widely considered one of the best indie productions of its decade, leaving a beautiful and memorable impression on its generation.
“After the Oscars, people were coming at them from all sides with all kinds of ‘Do you want to do this thing? Do you want to do that thing?’” Jack Hedges remembers. “They were getting offers to do everything. They said no to 90% of it. I just remember [their manager] Howard [Greynolds] telling me nonchalantly, ‘There’s these Broadway guys talking to us, and they want to do this as a musical.’ I’m thinking to myself, ‘I don’t know if that’s going to work!’”
Many people in the Once inner circle shared this same notion – if the movie worked so well, why mess with it? Musical renditions of movies rarely, if ever, live up to the original film, let alone even come close. Hell, Spiderman: Turn off the Dark was already running into issues at this point in time.
For the Broadway rendition to work, it simply had to be different. The film works so well due to the intense intimacy of it; musicals are notorious for overstuffed and oversung, corny ballads featuring choreography and multiple singers at once – the antithesis of the movie’s stripped-down, largely acoustic tracks.
“In my mind, it was never a good idea,” Hansard explains. “I never liked the idea of it, so I can kind of put my hands in the air and go, ‘It’s not my thing.’ Mostly what we did was resist. Ironically, in the resisting, some good decisions were made. There were a couple of directors from the beginning that had they got their hands on it, it would have been pure ham. Through the resistance of myself, John, and Marketa, they eventually went with people who, first of all, didn’t do musical theater, and second of all, did a really good job of writing it for a new place. If the musical never happened, it’d have been fine with me.”
One of those people they eventually enlisted was Enda Walsh, an award-winning, Dublin-based playwright, who had never worked on a musical before. While he loved the movie, like many, he initially struggled to see how it would transition to the stage – musicals aren’t really part of the Irish theater tradition, after all. To soothe Hansard’s fears, Walsh, during the early workshops in New York, remembers confronting him, saying: “I promise you, if it turns into a piece of shit, I will tell you and I’ll pull out of it.”
With Black Watch director John Tiffany at the helm and Walsh writing the script, this was guaranteed to be a different kind of musical; the duo’s past work can be categorized as anything but light and upbeat – Tiffany’s biggest hit prior to Once was Black Watch, about a British regiment in the Iraq War – so they made a point not to go overboard with Broadway-style theatrics.
But that being said, Walsh in particular wanted to insert some much-needed humor into the play. He wrote Girl as a completely different character than the one Irglova portrayed. “She needed to be a force, and he needed to be someone who wouldn’t move and then began to,” Walsh explains. “I really wanted a Girl who was really pushing a rock that won’t move. That’s the brilliant, quiet tragedy of it – she gave him the confidence to go, and that’s really hard because you want him to stay.”
As a result, Guy was written to be relatively similar to the Hansard interpretation and if anything, a bit more insecure and sluggish than the film version. Girl was written to be loud, brash, with loads of attitude; though the story remained relatively unchanged, the character was completely reimagined for the plot to move along.
In this context, the musical casting makes complete sense. Steve Kazee, who was eventually chosen to play Guy, saw Once at a small theater near the Lincoln Center on the Upper West Side of Manhattan right when it was released and then proceeded to attend multiple Swell Season concerts, even routinely putting the film on TV just before falling to sleep. Prior to his agent calling about the musical, he routinely ranked Once in his top 10 films of all time.
“I’d never seen the film, and I’d never heard their music,” Kazee’s co-star Cristin Milioti says. “I knew who they were because I remember them winning the Oscar and I knew the song, but I didn’t know it that well. I was sort of blissfully unaware.”
With no prior knowledge of Irglova’s portrayal of Girl, she was perfect to play the revamped character. Purposely staying away from the film and its soundtrack while the musical was in production, she actually just watched the movie for the first time on a plane returning from shooting season two of Fargo in mid-2015.
Though it’s most notable how the lead characters were written differently than in the film, there were many other variances as well. Perhaps the emotional high point of the movie comes when Guy and Girl take a motorcycle ride to Killiney Hill Park and Guy asks, “Do you love him?” Girl responds with a Czech phrase that’s never translated with subtitles. It’s obvious to the viewer that there are sparks flying between the two characters throughout the entire film, but they are never actualized.
In the musical rendition, there was more of an emphasis on Girl and her family, and as such, an LED-screen was placed near the top of the stage to translate into Czech as an attempt to make the Eastern European immigrant conversations more lifelike, even though they are spoken in English. However, Milioti’s character breaks into Czech for the intense moment outside of Dublin, but this time, her words are translated onstage for everyone to see – “I love you.” The characters pause for an extended period as those words sink in, leaving the audience all the more dejected.
“It seemed like a really important thing for an audience to understand,” Walsh explains. “To read that as an audience without him understanding and to feel that you know as an audience is really heartbreaking.”
Along with the subtitles, there was more of an obvious plot about Irish immigration within the musical, though it played an extremely important, if slightly subdued, role in the film. When Carney wrote the screenplay, Eastern European immigration to Ireland was at an all-time high; due to the Celtic Tiger economic boom beginning in the 1990s and extending through the mid-2000s, the foreign-born population exploded to 15% in 2006, up from 6% in 1991.
At its core, Once is the story of the conflict between the Irish instinct to leave for supposed greener pastures abroad – in this case to London – and the Eastern European enthusiasm for their new home. This concept reaches a fever pitch in the scene where Guy and Girl apply for a bank loan. In the movie, the scene is relatively rushed, but in the musical, Walsh wrote in an extended, prideful monologue about Irish culture as a whole, further pushing the immigrant versus emigrant narrative:
“For an island this tiny, to make all of these poets and writers and musicians – this is insane. And yet, on this tiny, little rock in the middle of the ocean, for centuries, you have made men and women who can speak and sing of what it is to be a person. Yates, Swift, Wilde, Joyce, Beckett, Van Morrison, Enya, the fantastic people who give the world Riverdance… But it is people like you, it is people who invest in the Irish culture to make the culture, so you are responsible to show the world that Ireland is still here, that Ireland is open for business!”
In the end, Guy still leaves for London to reunite with his ex girlfriend, but her plea for Ireland resonates, even though that wasn’t the intention. “I wrote it in because I was going, ‘This is an incredibly manipulative thing that this girl is doing,’” Walsh says. “Every Irish person loves to be told just how extraordinary the island is and how many writers are from there. Fuck, wouldn’t it be great if she walked in there and blew a bunch of smoke up this guy’s arse? What happened then was the more we did it, people were going, ‘Right on! Yeah!’ When we do it in Ireland, people start clapping, and I’m thinking, ‘No! I meant it as a joke!’”
But even still, many of film’s major players were anxious. Hansard’s night at The Scratcher helped ease some of those tensions, but they didn’t go away completely. He worked one-on-one with Kazee throughout multiple intense sessions, once advising him to drive across America and busk in small towns, which Kazee later did. One day during the New York Theatre Workshop rehearsals, Hansard pulled Kazee aside to test his performance skills and the two of them went downstairs into the basement of a church across the street.
“It was one of those old places where the ceiling is only like six or seven feet,” Kazee remembers. “We were hunched over in this room, sat down in these chairs, and were maybe three feet apart from each other facing each other. And he says to me, ‘I want you to play “Say It to Me Now” for me, but I’m going to play it for you first.’ So he pulls out his guitar – the guitar with the hole in it – and he proceeds to give me a Wembley Stadium-type performance of “Say It to Me Now”. It was definitely a this-is-how-it’s-done-so-let’s-see-if-you-can-do-it-this-way thing. In that moment, I thought, ‘Steve, this is your one moment. I don’t care if you can’t speak for another four weeks. You leave everything on this fucking floor right now.’ It was like one of those moments from 8 Mile where I put the hoodie up and I hit that first chord and I didn’t look back. I got done and he was like, ‘Fair play man, fair play.’ It’d be like a Beatles fan getting to play to one of The Beatles. He was, in my mind, my musical hero at the time.”
Reflecting the way Walsh wrote the main characters for the musical, Hansard and Irglova took completely different approaches to offering advice or their level of involvement when the play was in its infancy. Irglova – as did Carney who asserts that he “didn’t want to be that guy who was milking my own ideas for years” – mainly stayed away from it all, dropping by once or twice simply to see how it was all going. “I was excited to see how they did it, but I had no need to try to control the result in any way,” Irglova says. “They approached me when the play was just about to start in the Off-Broadway theater, and I met with Cristin for a coffee. I was very happy to do that, but I don’t know if she got anything out of it. She wanted to make it her own thing and she did. I think she did a great, great job at making this very endearing, attractive, and funny character in theater space. I couldn’t have been happier with the adaptation myself.”
After about a month or so of Hansard showing up to rehearsal every couple of days or so, he was taken aside by director John Tiffany and the two went for a drink. “Very straight-up and very blankly and very straightforward, he said to me, ‘Glen, thank you so much, it’s really helped. Now will you fuck off!’” he laughs. “That was the last I sat in on rehearsal.”
First shown in Cambridge, MA, in April 2011, the play hit the New York Theatre Workshop on December 6, 2011, with previews starting three weeks prior. The Off-Broadway rendition garnered major buzz, even in a sub-200-seat venue, with critics raving about it: “It may sound like heresy to fans of the 2007 Fox Searchlight release, but this bewitching stage adaptation arguably improves on the movie, expanding its emotional breadth and elevating it stylistically while remaining true to the original’s raw fragility,” reads a review from The Hollywood Reporter.
Sold out every night, the news broke on December 7, 2011 – just a single day after its Off-Broadway opening night – that it was going to be transferred uptown to Broadway at the Bernard B. Jenkins Theatre. “I remember John, our director, taking me out one night when we were downtown and telling me before he told the cast that we’re going to Broadway,” Milioti reminisces. “He sat with me and looked me in the eyes, and I didn’t believe him.”
Officially opening on March 18, 2012, the musical proved to be a bit of a slow burn. “People were curious, and they didn’t really know what it was,” Kazee explains. “Especially Broadway audiences, they hadn’t seen the film, they hadn’t heard of the film, and they didn’t know the music. It was almost a nightly basis where somebody asked me if I wrote the songs. Slowly but surely, after the first month of us performing on Broadway, you started seeing every night that the house got more and more full and the lines at the stage door got deeper and deeper. Within the first month and a half, two months of us being up and running, I think we were at capacity and people were dying to get tickets.”
The musical ended up being a smash hit, eventually grossing $110,306,780 by the end of its New York run in 2015. Between mid-May and the end of October 2012, the Bernard B. Jenkins Theatre was never less than 95% full.
Both the subtle and not-so-subtle variations between the musical and the film worked – on May 1, 2012, Once was nominated for 11 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Actor and Actress, Best Book (screenplay), Best Direction, and more. At the ceremony almost six weeks later, the musical largely cleaned up, taking home eight awards. Kazee, Walsh, and Tiffany, among others, won individual awards before the company as a whole took home Best Musical. With Hansard and Irglova front and center at the ceremony, it was a night to remember; Hansard’s initial anxiety and pushback led to one of the most successful and critically acclaimed musicals of this millennium.
I was a 16-year-old high school sophomore living in a small suburban Bay Area town when Once came out at the beginning of 2007. I have no idea if it was ever shown at any art house movie theaters in San Francisco, though it probably was. I never saw any commercials for the film; I had never heard of The Swell Season, Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova, or The Frames. My parents routinely played All That You Can’t Leave Behind by U2 in the car, and my AP Euro teacher showed us In the Name of the Father at some point that school year – this was the extent of my knowledge about Irish culture.
But Once opened my eyes to a new world. I heard the music before ever seeing the movie, first noticing the album popping up toward the top of the iTunes charts and later when local radio stations started playing “Falling Slowly” near repeat. I bought the soundtrack immediately after the 2008 Oscars, blown away by the performance and the acceptance speeches, particularly Igrlova’s.
Upon finally seeing the movie a few months later, I desperately wanted to travel to Dublin, exploring the parks, the music stores, and streets where it all took place, eventually studying abroad there in 2012.
Once has long been one of my favorite films. But how did an only slightly culturally savvy teenager halfway across the world even come across something that barely even got made on a shoestring budget?
“I don’t think there was ever an idea that they were going to shop it for the world,” David Cleary says. “I think Sundance totally pulled it out of one world and into another that they weren’t aiming for. I don’t think John was planning on doing anything with it outside of showing it at some festivals – he certainly wasn’t thinking about Sundance. Glen has phenomenal talent and Mar was a marvelous foil and the story was really simple and John did a great job keeping the pace of the whole thing. It’s one of those films that not many people have seen, but the people who have adore it.”
On one hand, Once was a total fluke. Sure, John Carney had written a great script with two incredible musicians in tow, but had John Nein not been in the audience at Galway, the film likely would have ended up being sold at Swell Season gigs. And without the film, who knows how long that band would have lasted? They had the songs to play Radio City Music Hall and Coachella, but they probably never would have gotten there.
But when revisiting 2007, the world was ripe for a film like this. With indie rock fast becoming ubiquitous – The Shins’ classic Wincing the Night Away hit No. 2 on the Billboard 200 a couple weeks after Once premiered at Sundance – Carney’s movie and Glen and Marketa’s corresponding soundtrack offered something similar for the screen, equal parts twee folk and heartfelt singer-songwriter rock.
Though it was still in its nascent stage, social media helped spread the word. “Yes, there was Myspace and yes, there were blogs,” Jack Hedges explains. “But social media as it exists today did not exist then. The way that things got spread around was different – it was just people saying, ‘Hey, have you seen this thing? Have you heard this thing?’ You didn’t have the ability to push things out to people. You could put stuff up there and hope people could come find it, but you couldn’t tap people on the shoulder.”
Further benefiting from iTunes, Once was simply in the right place at the right time, launching the careers of almost everyone involved. As previously mentioned, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova rode the Once wave to massive shows and impressive-selling albums, both as a duo and solo. Carney later released 2013’s Begin Again and last year’s Sing Street, a CoS favorite. Canvasback Records, a label started in quite possibly the worst year to open up shop in music history, allowed Hedges & co. to keep going, eventually releasing albums from Frightened Rabbit, Alt-J, The Orwells, and more.
But unlike nearly every cult film before it, Once received an unexpected second life, even though most of the people involved in both the film and the musical itself were hesitant at first. The Broadway rendition built upon the movie’s legacy, rather than marring it. A full five years after its initial release, Once again exploded in popularity in 2012, giving the world a major reason to revisit the film and its soundtrack.
At the end of the day, it’s still amazing that I had ever seen the movie and listened to the music from it. But it’s a reminder that good art can find its way of reaching millions of people, even if it comes from the most unexpected of places.
Marketa Irglova and Glen Hansard’s respective award-winning speeches at the Oscars sum it up best; Irglova’s “Fair play to those who dare to dream and don’t give up” and Hansard’s “Make art, make art” pleas both influenced millions that night, including this writer.
“Fantastic stuff. That’ll be a hit, no question,” Guy’s father says in the film, immediately after Hansard’s character plays him the songs he and Irglova’s character had recorded. He was right, assuming people somehow were afforded the chance to actually listen. All of the pieces were there – a gripping story about a love that’s never consummated, delicate and intensely emotional music, and a director with a very distinct vision – and it’s a near miracle that we ever got to see it in the first place. Sometimes simply making art can lead you in the most unexpected places.