For decades Sardi’s bar and restaurant on West 44th Street in New York City has been the top spot where Broadway casts celebrate their opening nights while waiting for The New York Times to tell them if they’ve got a hit on their hands.
When the critics deliver a big thumbs up the party usually lasts into the wee hours; but when it’s thumbs down the place empties faster than you can shout cholera epidemic.
So when the cast and crew of the new musical Once, based on the 2007 Oscar winning Irish film of the same name, reach their opening night I’m predicting they’ll will be partying into the wee hours at the legendary haunt. The fact that they held the press event to announce the show at Sardi’s on Monday suggests they must be feeling confident about their chances.
First of all the storyline is time-honored -- lonely boy meets lonely girl, they start making sweet music together, and then love blossoms.
Then there are the show’s two irresistibly charming young breakout leads, Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti. Both are rising Broadway stars with buckets of talent and raw energy. English director John Tiffany, who wowed New York with his National Theatre of Scotland production of the Iraq war play Black Watch, helms the show.
Last and not least there’s the music. Oh my God, the music. The film version of Once took its cast all the way to the Oscars because, despite its laughably low budget, it was buoyed by songs that bypass all the glitter of plastic pop and speak directly to your heart.
Once broke all the rules, and for the first time in years resulted in good old fashioned art winning out over all the flashier rivals. That’s still the secret to the show’s enduring appeal.
Telling the story of a Dublin musician and a Czech immigrant who are drawn together by their shared love of music, Once unfolds over the course of one magical week as an unexpected friendship becomes a musical collaboration and then an unexpected romance.
For Glen Hansard, 41, it’s the story line that changed his life both creatively and in reality. Thanks to it he now has an Oscar on his dinner table for Best Original Song and, for the first time in his life, multiple choices about where he lives, who he records with and where he’s going.
“(In New York) I’m living down by Bleecker Street, but I live in Dublin and this year I’ll spend in Ireland any free time I get,” Hansard tells the Irish Voice.
“It’s been a confusing year but it’s been great too. Right now it’s the whole rock star thing of, ‘Where am I living?’ I have stuff in both places but the time here is coming to an end.
“I needed to be here for a while to keep an eye on the show. To make sure that Steve (Kazee) feels comfortable with the songs. Just to be an ear.”
It takes a bit of getting used to, success. Recall that Hansard was in the Dublin-based band the Frames for 20 years. Many times they were on the verge of making it big and many times they watched as the opportunity withered before their eyes. If he doesn’t get too worked up about fame and its trappings now, he can be forgiven.
“I would never have said that that I would make a music film with my friend John Carney and my friend Marketa Irglova and it would win an Academy Award and then become a stage musical on Broadway,” he reveals.
“This is all stuff that is way, way out of my experience. So yes, there is a certain turbulence that occurs in your life where you’re like, really? It was all out of my control.”
Hansard still has his Dublin working class accent. There are no airs or graces about him at all. When most people would be elated to hear they’d won the ultimate accolade, Hansard’s reaction says a lot about him.
“When we won the Oscar one part of me was so deeply embarrassed because it was a world I never knew anything about, and I guess I had some cynicism about it too,” he said.
“But then I recognized that what it brought was a whole new audience of people who were suddenly willing to listen to our songs and I thought, ‘You know what? I’m incredibly grateful for that moment in my life.’”
It was the moment where everything shifted, Hansard says. The biggest shift was that he had a new audience. And now that audience is set to grow with the arrival of the Broadway musical version of Once.
“I’m very glad to be here and be asked to speak on its behalf, but really they just did it all themselves. It’s someone else’s work now and I’m very happy for them and very proud, but if we’re being honest we’re just here to endorse it, and we do,” said Hansard.
“But since then Marketa and I have walked somewhere else and we’re in different parts of our lives now. It’s great to revisit this because it was the pivotal moment of my life, the biggest so far, so I can only really see it as a blessed project.”
But success, even at Hansard’s level, doesn’t give you a magic cloak, he reminds you. In fact it might take a few chinks out of your armor.
“I just find the whole idea of celebrity so…” He pauses and looks up at the walls, which are literally covered in the caricatures of hundreds of world famous stars.
“We’re living in an age now where the falsity of celebrity is so clear. It seems clearer than it’s ever been. There’s a big line between being a celebrity and an artist.”
Hansard’s enjoyment working with the cast of Once before it steps out on Broadway is obvious. Since they’re all musicians as well as performers he developed an easy shorthand with them that you can see in action when they talk together.
“I can sit back and watch it this and go, ‘Jesus, this is really good.’ They play all the music themselves, everyone in the cast plays, and speaking as an Irishman I think if you can go into a room full of strangers and sing and have a really good time doing it, then that’s where you can look around and say this is in the right hands.”
Hansard says he very much thinks of himself as an Irish performer.
“I started playing music on the street in Dublin and that’s where I learned my voice needs to hit the wall and reflect back to me, otherwise I’m not being heard. So now when I walk into these amazing rooms like Carnegie Hall, what more exciting opportunity will I have than to fill a room the size of that?”
Irglova, 23, the charismatic other part of the successful pairing, is as sincere and straightforward in the flesh as she is in the film (and the documentary about the film, The Swell Season).
The Czech Republic native agrees with Hansard that the show is in good hands.
“We created it and sent it out into the world and people have adapted it and made it part of their own lives,” Irglova, who currently lives in Brooklyn, tells the Irish Voice.
“That’s what keeps it living through all its incarnations. They’ve made it their own in a wonderful way. Glen and I are now in the position of supporting it along its way.”
The Swell Season, both the band and the film, grew out of the budding relationship between Hansard and Irglova, which began on the set of Once, leading to an offscreen romance, an album, then a tour and ultimately to painful interpersonal conflicts (the two remain close friends after the breakup, and Irglova married last year).
In the documentary it became clear that Irgolva wanted to step out from under the paternalistic shadow of her mentor Hansard and find her own voice.
It was not, she made clear, a dismissal of his influence or some kind of narcissistic desire to hog the spotlight herself, it was just a young girl asking for room to step into herself. Just like she does in the film.
“I’m glad that you noticed it wasn’t some kind of attention seeking thing. I just wanted to step out and set my own terms and grow up a bit, you know?” she says.
“Now I can see Once for what it was and what it’s becoming to this new cast. And I really like what I see. My advice is to wipe the slate clean of what you think you know from the film. This is something new and it’s magic.”
Once will open in previews at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater on February 28 and open officially on March 18. For tickets call 212-239-6200.
Here's the music video for the Oscar-winning song 'Falling Slowly':