Written and directed by John Carney, the award-winning 2006 musical film “Once” — a simple, bittersweet love story set in his hometown of Dublin and featuring wonderful music by co-stars Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova — was perfect on its own. Wouldn’t a Broadway stage treatment ruin the quiet, refreshingly unsentimental tone that made the low-budget indie based on a book of the same name by Edna Walsh so beloved?
Instead, English director John Tiffany — famed for his production of “Black Watch,” a play by Gregory Burke based on interviews with British troops in Iraq — wisely chose to stay away from overchoreographed dancing, large sets and complex musical arrangements for the show’s signature songs.
The result is something that’s becoming more and more common: a Broadway musical that (usually) doesn’t feel like one. It’s a trend that audiences and critics seem to love: “Once” won eight of the 11 Tony Awards it was nominated for in 2012.
The work’s beguilingly simple tale centers around an unnamed Guy and Girl who meet by chance. The Guy is a busker and a talented singer-songwriter who’s living in the tiny room above his father’s vacuum-repair shop and nursing a broken heart. The Girl is a young Czech immigrant with a relentlessly positive attitude who cajoles the Guy into taking his music seriously again.
Do they fall in love? Yes, but it’s complicated — and it’s the complications that make the film and its music so poignant. The relationship is just as real and charming on stage as it was in the film, and as in both it’s the connection between the two characters that drives the story.
It’s a love story, of course, but it’s just as much about the way that music — and another person’s gentle push — can breathe new life into someone.
For a musical, however, the dancing in “Once” — which opened on Broadway in 2012 — is minimal and the costumes simple. The set is a beautiful and rustic-looking pub covered in smoky mirrors and tiny lamps that fill the entire theater with a warm glow. Before curtain-up and during the intermission, this “pub” serves as an actual concession stand, and the ensemble plays music as the audience lines up for drinks.
As in the film, “Once” is anchored by its signature song, the haunting and Oscar-winning “Falling Slowly.” The first time we hear it, it begins cautiously, fearfully — just like the Guy who, we learn, is being held back by his fear of failure as a musician and the blow to his confidence dealt by a girlfriend who moved away. But then the Girl joins in, the song swells (but not too much), and when it ends the audience just sits in appreciative silence.
“Once” is at its best with moments like this, but it’s less than delightful when it tries to bring in a bit of wacky humor, most of which seemed to fall flat in Tokyo. The supporting cast also feel like a distraction — each delivering a few lines or cracks, but without developing as characters.
However, none of this can really tarnish the charm of this work, which stands wonderfully apart from all those love stories set to music that have become exercises in manipulation, with ridiculously perfect or overly tragic endings set to cloying pop songs.
Instead of pulling their strings or forcing them into a happy ending, “Once” simply sits back and lets its co-stars sing their real, messy story — and it’s so good to know there’s a place on Broadway for shows such as this.
“Once” runs through Dec. 14 at Ex Theater in Roppongi, Tokyo. For details, visit once-musical.jp.