An unusual musical cherished more than 'Once'

In portraying a Czech pixie pianist in the Broadway musical "Once," Dani de Waal has a hard task: playing piano onstage.

She has played the instrument for years but never in front of a live audience. Though she found the element particularly challenging, de Waal said it's the show's music she favors most.

"It's a great story to tell," the English-born actress said.

The Tony-winning musical based on John Carney's 2006 indie film has opened to glowing reviews and garnered fervent followers.

Since its premiere on Broadway in 2012, "Once" has won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Direction of a Musical, Best Book and Best Orchestrations.

The touring production, which opened at the Hollywood Pantages, arrives at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts on Aug. 19, bringing to Costa Mesa a romantic and quirky show based on the Irish movie about a connection between two musicians known only as Guy (Stuart Ward) and Girl (de Waal).

Guy is a street singer-songwriter in Dublin who earns money as a vacuum repairman. Girl is a Czech immigrant who earns money selling flowers in order to support herself and her family. The two embark on a transformative journey, with music as the catalyst.

"I saw this production in New York City, and it is one of my favorite musicals ever, said Segerstrom President Terry Dwyer. "It's got great music, a wonderful cast and a beautiful story."

Director John Tiffany hadn't seen the film before coming on board for the musical. And before being approached about "Once," he had never thought about adapting a film for the stage. "That's not the way I work," he said in a news release.

But one of his friends told him he'd love the music, and after downloading the soundtrack — written mostly by the movie's stars, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova — he realized that his friend was right.

"I'd never heard music like that, and the music is the reason why I wanted to do the show," he said. "Not just the music itself, but the fact that it's a story about creating music, a story about the healing power of music."

Tiffany had an immediate thought about the show's direction. He wanted the actors to double as musicians, playing their own instruments in front of the audience.

"Actors have played instruments onstage for years, but not always in a show about making music," he said.

For de Waal, it was the music that drew her to "Once." After watching the film, she was moved by the music's sentimentality. "It was different to anything I had seen before," she said.

Enda Walsh, the Irish playwright who wrote the book, scoffed at the idea of making a musical based on the film. "There's no tradition of musical theater in Ireland, so I rubbished the idea," he said.

After hearing Tiffany was attached to the project and spending two days together reading the screenplay and listening to the songs, Walsh was convinced he wanted to do the show.

He also wanted to do something for his homeland, which was hurt in the recession. "I thought it would be sweet to do a little love letter to Dublin," he said.

In addition to his tribute to Ireland, Walsh wanted the show to be communal. And what better way than having a working bar on stage minutes before curtain?

Before the start of the show, lucky patrons can come onstage, pay for a drink and mingle with the cast. The actors, playing Irish and Czech music, want theatergoers to imagine being in a pub.

"We wanted the audience to own the experience," Walsh said. "We needed to be sure that there are all these other love stories in the air. Each person is riffing off a love that's been lost, that got away. That was the key, for the audience to feel part of the experience, and also to look at the people on the stage and go, 'They're us.'"

Tiffany said it's the story's realistic romance, in which two people fall in love but do not live happily ever after together, that has made the film and stage musical successful.

"I think what's very moving about the piece is how sometimes we meet people who we don't necessarily stay with forever, but they give us the resources to move on to the next part of our life," he said.

"People have said to me, 'When I was sitting in the theater watching "Once," I felt like I was watching it with everyone I've ever loved, whether or not they're still in my life.'"

If You Go

What: "Once"

Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, Aug. 19 through Aug. 31

Cost: Tickets start at $25

Information: (714) 556-2787 or

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