“Once,” the 2012 hit Broadway musical, tells of an off-kilter romance in Dublin, in the hardscrabble world of buskers. Most, like the Broadway production, have been set in a bar, a seemingly natural place for storytelling by actor-musicians.
“We’re doing it very differently,” says Carol Dunne, Northern Stage’s producing artistic director.
“We really wanted to focus on busking,” she said recently between rehearsals. “The movie (that it’s based on) is very raw, heartfelt, and he’s a busker. The choice of a bar is just a choice, and our choice is to focus on the harshness of being a musician on the street, because you can’t play anywhere else. No one cares.
“So that’s been really fun for us, to sort of reinvent what the vocabulary is,” she said. “What’s on the street for a busker? We don’t want it to be too slick or too romantic.”
Dunne is directing the Upper Valley professional theater’s production of “Once,” which runs April 10 through May 19 at the Barrette Center for the Arts in White River Junction.
“Once” is based on the 2007 film of the same title by John Carney and, like the film, the music and lyrics are by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, including the Academy Award-winning theme song, “Falling Slowly.” Enda Walsh wrote the book for the musical, which opened on Broadway in 2012, winning eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
Set in Dublin, this unusual tale centers on an Irish street musician and a young immigrant Czech woman, described only as Guy and Girl. The Girl overhears the Guy singing one of his songs and is smitten, but he is going to chuck it all because he’s getting nowhere, and his girlfriend, who moved to New York, has found another.
The Girl takes the Guy on as a project, not a romantic one, but to push him to success. But the Girl has her own issues, including a young daughter and an absent husband. Add to this tragicomic mix of Irish and Czech cultures — “I’m always serious. I’m Czech” — some great Irish music, and you’ve got “Once.”
Unlike most Broadway musicals, the story is performed by actors who are also the pit band.
“They’re actor-musicians, so there’s a totally different feel to this company than any company I’ve worked with,” Dunne said. “They have that easygoing actor-musician thing, but then they beat up on themselves if they play one note wrong. Whereas actors tend to be pretty neurotic, but when we miss a line, it’s ‘Well, I missed it, let’s move on.”
Dunne has been careful in her casting. She didn’t want Guy to be a young hero, rather someone in his later 30s who has pretty much given up on any future.
“It was very important to me that Guy and Girl had never done the play before,” Dunne said. “I saw a girl who had done it four times, and it’s rote by then, it’s truly rote. It becomes sort of a facsimile of something else.”
Despite breaking other traditions, “Once” is truly a song-and-dance musical, and its choreography has become iconic.
“So we have stayed away from seeing any video, so (choreographer) Kyle Brand is reinterpreting it,” Dunne said. “That’s a tall thing to do — and really exciting. He’s a great storyteller-choreographer.”
To add to the feeling of authenticity, some of the musicians will begin playing on stage 10 minutes before curtain. But to set the stage, Northern Stage has invited local musicians to become part of the festivities.
“We’re inviting them to sign up for a night,” Dunne said. “They can either play in the lobby if it’s cold, or out on the patio, 45 minutes before the show. They get to showcase themselves and put their case out for tips.”
For Dunne and the cast, the real inspiration is coming from the film’s true story
“We know these people, we know this really happened. I think there’s a beauty,” Dunne said. “It’s not ‘musical theater,’ it’s a real Irish story.”
jim.lowe @timesargus.com / jim.lowe @rutlandherald.com