"Once," the beautiful Broadway musical based on the 2007 movie starring Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, finally arrives in Chicago next week; the stand at the Oriental Theatre is the first big-city stop for the first national tour, which is working out its kinks this week at the Providence Performing Arts Center in Providence, R.I.
You will have to move quickly. Some Tony Award-winning Broadway musicals play this city for months or even years. Some Broadway musicals that are a long way from deserving such an honor stick around forever. But "Once," which is an exquisite show very much in sync with a city that buoyed John Carney's original movie, is here for just three weeks.
There is fear that its fragility, its indie sensibility, won't translate well to the rigors of the touring circuit. This is lamentable. "Once" is a beautiful piece. It's even set in an Irish bar, and Chicago most certainly is the right town for that.
I've been talking up "Once" ever since I first saw the piece at the New York Theatre Workshop (a space not so different from the Broadway Playhouse, where I wish this show were playing for the next year).
But, although I've yet to see the touring cast, which is a cause for trepidation, I'm not fearful of the bigger venue. Of all the big venues downtown, the Oriental is the one that best combines scale and a sense of artistic community. When "Once" was increased in size for Broadway, the show only got better. I have my fingers crossed for a similar transformation in Chicago. Why such advance words of love? Well, it is partly to do with the show's mastery of the fiendishly tricky business of adapting a screenplay to the stage and partly with the way it takes an individualistic love story and makes it applicable to anyone and everyone.
How was this achieved?
I asked the writer, Enda Walsh. "I think we started with the question of how we unlock something from the movie that is fundamentally a theater experience," he said. "As playwrights, we don't deal in the same way with the story or the plot. It's not our bag. We offer more of an itchy, subtextual storytelling. And so 'Once' became more about community, about building a disparate bunch of characters and letting that community form out of them."
In other words, Walsh set up the possibility of creating an ensemble of live actors whom the audience could watch form and then, life being life, watch inevitably break into many different pieces.
"It's like we're shining a light on something," he said, "but we know there is only so much power in the bulb. It's going to go. So there is a melancholy straight away. It comes from the music and from this slightly inarticulate bunch of people."
And I asked John Tiffany, the director (a director, by the way, who says he can smell out a Chicago actor as soon as he or she walks into the room).
"The film revels in its filmery," he said, after pausing for a thought. "There's a documentary fragility to it, very much in the Ken Loach or Mike Leigh tradition. We've tried to find our own tradition of theatricality. I know theatricality can lead to bombast and showiness, and I was very aware of that from the off — that if we fell into that, we'd suffocate the thing from birth. I wanted to distill the essence of what made the story of that music work — to take it from its film home and put it in a theatrical world, take it to the home of myth and fairy tale."
Theater, Walsh said, needs an engine. A catalyst. A rhythm.
"All we're really doing in the theater," he said, "is charging the air, so that a thousand people are telling their own stories."
At the Oriental, that should be closer to 2,000, if there is any justice in the world. But with this "Once," the more stories unleashed the better.
Wednesday through Oct. 27 at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St.; $27-$95 at 800-775-2000 and broadwayinchicago.com