Bringing 'Once,' the new musical based on the 2007 Irish Oscar winning film of the same name, to Broadway was always going to be a huge gamble.
After all, it’s a low-key, intimate show a million miles from the flashier big budget draws it’s competing with. From the start the fear was that the homespun charm of 'Onc'e simply wouldn’t stand a chance against them.
There was good reason to be concerned. 'Once' originally opened off-Broadway (downtown, at the New York Theatre Workshop actually) to generally lukewarm reviews. Critics thought it amiable but slight.
But from the beginning the producers were unusually determined to work the show and take it to Broadway. They persisted through all the negative headlines, certain that the show would find its feet.
And with last week’s Tony Awards validation, 'Once' has proven them right.
Opening to rave reviews in March, 'Once' defied all the early naysayers by coming away with the largest haul of Tony nominations this year, a remarkable achievement for the little show that has sent the tightly-knitted ensemble behind the show into orbit. Sometimes it pays to make a wild bet.
The show’s impressive lineup of Tony nominations includes Best Musical, Best Director (John Tiffany), Best Lead Actor (Steve Kazee), Best Lead Actress (Cristin Milioti), Best Featured Actress (Elizabeth A. Davis), Best Book (Enda Walsh), Best Choreography (Steven Hoggett) and Best Orchestrations (Martin Lowe) as well as nominations for the show’s design elements.
For actor and musician David Patrick Kelly, 61 (best known for his cult roles in 'Twin Peaks' and 'The Warriors'), and for twenty-something actress and musician Erikka Walsh it’s a surreal development.
Kelly, whose grandparents on both sides hail from County Cork, finds his role in 'Once' allows him to finally access the traditional music that connects him to his Irish ancestry.
Onstage Kelly opens the show with a blistering, raise the rafters version of the Irish traditional classic “Raglan Road” that sets the tone for the whole night.
“Both my grandfathers came from Cork. One of them, Daniel Murphy, came here when he was 18 through Canada to Detroit where I grew up in a place known as Cork Town. His daughter Margaret Murphy gave me my mandolin when I was 12 years old,” Kelly told the Irish Voice.
“I first learned ‘Raglan Road’ off a Van Morrison record, and when I told Glen Hansard (the original male lead in the film version of 'Once') about this he approved it for the stage version of the show.”
Let’s just say it -- the musical 'Once' may be one of the most affectingly beautiful shows ever seen on the Broadway stage. It’s a simple and disarmingly moving tale about a boy and a girl who meet in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with unforgettable results.
It’s also a play about being a young mother and an artist at the same time. It’s about immigration and emigration, too, long standing Irish themes.
“The great Woody Guthrie had carved on his guitar the phrase ‘This Machine Kills Fascists,’” says Kelly. “I think that 'Once' is a machine that defeats cynicism.”
It’s a major surprise to see Irish playwright Enda Walsh’s name attached to the show as the author of the book. Walsh, 45, has made his reputation writing plays about massively dysfunctional Irish families, and 'Once' represents an important creative departure for him.
It’s often harder to write with sincerity about love and affection, but Walsh manages it with real grace.
“Enda has written these beautiful, aching words,” says Kelly. “He’s such a wonderful playwright that his script remains fresh. I think it even surprised him.
“His work is generally very, very dark and so to create something about the power of love, music and art. It’s harder to do something like that and not make it sentimental. It’s very tricky.”
It’s fair to say that the staged musical as it now stands uses the music and plotline of the original film, but it’s very much its own beast, having long since expanded on the outline that was provided by the film.
“It’s such an honor for me to finally do an Irish play, and I feel like I’m starting at the top,” says Kelly. “My whole life I have never worked on an Irish play so it’s really a homecoming for me and a great honor.”
That honor was compounded last week when Ireland’s first citizen paid a visit to the show.
“Last week we had the Irish President Michael D. Higgins and his wife come to see us, and I could really hear my own Irish grandparents cheering,” says Kelly, who was clearly thrilled by the experience.
Meanwhile for Erikka Walsh, who is a classically trained violinist, performing in 'Once' is an opportunity to come into contact with the complexity and emotional range of Irish traditional music for the first time in her career. Both performers clearly revel in the results on stage each night.
Walsh, who is making her Broadway debut, still admits she finds it hard to believe she’s even on the stage, never mind starring in a show that has walked away with the most Tony nominations this year.
Does she dare to imagine, as I confidently do, that 'Once' will carry off the Best Musical award this year?
“From your mouth to God’s ears,” she laughs. “Tuesday night’s performance, just after the nominations were announced, was like opening night all over again.
“The enthusiasm, the energy and the audience were just amazing. We raised the roof that night. We know that we’re creating something great on that stage every evening and we hope it translates to the audience.”
Walsh plays the ex-girlfriend of the hero Guy, and she’s also on stage playing music throughout most of the show. It’s a perspective that allows her to see how much the public responds to the story.
“Before the nominations I could see the audiences and I felt sure we would get something from the Tony judges. I wasn’t sure what, or how many, but I felt sure something good would come of all that energy and joy,” she said.
On the day the awards were announced she actually fell asleep, she confesses. But then a friend phoned and told her quite casually that she needed to check the Tony announcements.
“I couldn’t believe it. It was a jaw dropping moment,” she said.
Steve Kazee, the gifted 36-year-old actor and singer from Kentucky who has found himself playing the Dublin busker Guy each night on Broadway, has had a tumultuous year in tandem with the show. Kazee’s mother passed away as the show was set to open.
“As long as we’ve known him it was an issue for him,” says Walsh. “He was always calling her during rehearsals and the early run. As an ensemble we have all had moments of joy and sadness.
“When he came back from the funeral and he just went out there and did that show, I don’t think there’s anywhere he’d rather be.”
On Monday, the show’s producers announced that 'Once' will hit the road for a U.S. tour in the summer of next year, so all of America will soon get to see what all the fuss is about.
'Once' is playing at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on West 45th Street. Visit www.oncemusical.com.