It’s not often that a story based on an Irish independent film lands on the stage of one of Tokyo’s premier playhouses — but “Once” has long punched above its diminutive weight.
From the unforeseen success of the original 2007 movie to the award-winning stage production that enchanted audiences on Broadway and in London’s West End, it has cemented its place in the canon of Western musicals.
Now, under the stewardship of Lambert Jackson Productions and the direction of Dean Johnson, “Once” is set to hit the Tokyu Theatre Orb in Shibuya this summer, as “Once – In Concert.”
Johnson, a 30-year-old from Northern Ireland who will be making his international directorial debut in Tokyo, knew “Once” was a genuine work of art from the moment he first set eyes on it.
“What struck me about the heart of the story, as it’s told through the film, is the simplicity of it,” he says, “and through that simplicity it feels so real, so universal.”
“Once” is the right-place, wrong-time love story of two nameless protagonists, known only as Guy and Girl, whose paths cross on the streets of Dublin. Guy is a busker playing poignant love songs on his acoustic guitar for pocket change. Girl is a Czech immigrant, selling Big Issue magazines and roses to passersby. A shared love of music and a blossoming attraction to one another binds these two lost souls, sending them on a journey at turns heart-warming and quietly devastating.
The movie’s meteoric success — winning an Oscar for best original song, titled “Falling Slowly,” at the 2008 Academy Awards — is magnified by its rough-hewn texture. “Once” was shot on a pair of Handycams over the course of three weeks with a central cast that had limited acting experience and all on a budget of around $150,000. This was at a time when the average Hollywood film production cost in the region of $60 million.
The success of the film translated to the original stage production based on the book adaptation by Enda Walsh. It went on to win eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and to date, it’s the only show to have won an Academy Award, a Grammy Award, an Olivier Award and a Tony Award for its music.
A show about amateur musicians in Dublin and Japanese audiences may feel like an awkward coupling, but it’s apt for a story that harnesses the power of music and love to transcend cultural boundaries.
“Music has no regional language — neither does love,” says Johnson. “They exist across the world as shared experiences. And I believe that message can translate anywhere.”
While he’s confident the themes of “Once” will resonate in Tokyo, Johnson admits it will be interesting to see how the show’s trademark dry Irish wit lands with audiences. But rather than localize the performance, he’s keen to let it stand on its own merits.
“Japan is an amazing country with an amazing culture and brilliant and intelligent and empathic people. So we don’t want to patronize our audience,” he says. “I feel that the story and the music are so universal in what they’re saying that we just want to let the authenticity land. “Once,” as a film, has been popular across the globe, and not just with a particular demographic. I think that’s proof in the pudding that this is a story that can work anywhere.”
“Once – In Concert,” which had a limited, sell-out run at the London Palladium in March, explores this timeless tale from a new perspective. Though the narrative beats and diegetic music performances — occurring within the context of the story and heard by the characters — will be familiar, the concert staging utilizes pools of light rather than literal set changes to shift between songs and dialog.
“This particular approach to the production has allowed us to really think about the musical element. We wanted to celebrate the score and then just let the text speak for itself,” Johnson says. “It allows us to focus on these two people, Guy and Girl, and how music brings them together.”
He also wanted to strip back the staging in a way that honored the film. This might sound as though it would be better suited to a smaller, more intimate theater, but Johnson believes you have to embrace the scale of a large auditorium. Both the Palladium and the Orb have seating capacities of around 2,000, which he says lends itself to the “two planes passing” feel of the story.
“Having a contained space inside a large structure allows us to create this idea that there’s a whole world around the two characters and they just happen to have met here,” he says, crediting the production team who have “utilized the architecture of the space in interesting ways.”
After rehearsals in London, the cast and crew of “Once – In Concert” will travel to Tokyo for two weeks, performing 13 shows between Aug. 4 and 13.
Johnson admits it’s a big undertaking bringing the entire production to Japan. Joining him are musical director Adam Hoskins, production manager Jonny Dickie, lighting designer Joseph Ed Thomas and stage manager Laura Alexander Smith.
Then there’s a 13-strong cast, which Johnson describes as “a real zinger,” headlined by seasoned West End performers David Hunter (“Kinky Boots,” “Waitress”) and Cassidy Janson (“& Juliet,” “Wicked”). The production also includes a handful of actors making their first foray into the international theater scene.
“It really speaks to the process we had in casting about finding the right community of people,” he says. “It’s going to be really exciting, not just to do the show, but for this team of actors to meet Tokyo, and see what it brings in terms of its own charm and its own character and its own story.”
He also sees a healthy partnership between the Orb, the largest venue of its type in Japan, and Lambert Jackson, one of the U.K.’s most accomplished and innovative musical production houses, as one that could bear more fruit in years to come.
On a more personal level, Johnson acknowledges the Japan staging as a big step in his own career. Having trained at the prestigious Guildford School of Acting, he quickly found more comfort in the director’s chair. His resume now includes U.K.-based productions of “LIFT,” “Dogfight,” “Spring Awakening,” “In The Heights,” and “Godspell,” the last of which earned him a BroadwayWorld nomination for best director.
And “Once,” it seems, was destined to be part of the journey: The original stage production was the first West End show Johnson saw with his now-wife, actress Thea Butler, and “Falling Slowly” was a song they listened to on one of their first dates.
“This being a story to explore again 10 years later, just after we’ve got married, is really fun,” he says. “As an artist, you’re always drawing a little bit from personal experience... And ‘Once’ really opens up some interesting ideas about the timing of love.”
"Once" will be performed in English with Japanese subtitles. For more information on booking, visit theatre-orb.com.