Big-bucks movies -- "Sister Act," "Ghost," "Flashdance," "Dirty Dancing," to name a few -- get turned into stage musicals with some frequency. Indie films form a smaller screen-to-boards subset. Of these, "Once," based on the minuscule-budget, shot-in-17-days Irish film written and directed by John Carney, may be the most distinctive.
With its eight Tony Awards in 2012, including best music, "Once" continues to win fans and strong reviews on the road. The national touring production, which arrives Tuesday to open the Hippodrome Theatre's Broadway Across America season, launched a year ago and will keep traveling at least through next summer.
Not bad for a show that might be summed up as a boy-meets-girl, boy-fixes-vacuum-cleaner, boy-doesn't-get-girl story. Musicals without conventional happy endings are still on the risky side (unless written by Stephen Sondheim), but "Once" makes it work. A bunch of cool songs helps.
Those songs are by the two stars of the 2007 film, a surprise, global hit: Glen Hansard, who played Guy, a Dublin street musician, and Marketa Irglova, who co-starred as Girl, the piano-playing Czech immigrant who stops to hear him sing. One of the songs, "Falling Slowly," garnered an Academy Award.
"I didn't see the film when it came out," said Irish playwright Enda Walsh, who wrote the book for the musical. "I think very few people saw it in Ireland. It found its life at the Sundance Festival. It was Americans who found it. That's why we knew we wanted to do the show in America first."
Walsh did not initially embrace the prospect of adapting the movie for the stage. He dismissed it as "a stupid idea" when first approached. But with a longtime friend, John Tiffany, on board as director, Walsh gradually warmed to the task.
Developed in 2011 at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., "Once" debuted on Broadway the next year.
"It was strange," Walsh said. "We were from the non-commercial side of theater. The Broadway, [London] West End, huge commercial industry that is theater is still a world we don't know very well. But we went at it from the point of view that it was only going to be for us and if the workshop in Cambridge falls on its face, fine. At least we will have spent time together."
That time was well spent.
Walsh, whose theater career was launched in 1995 with the edgy play "Disco Pigs" (later made into a film), did not attempt to re-create the movie.
"I could see that the songs were all in the right place emotionally; they built to something," Walsh said. "But the movie was a two-hander [a two-character work]. For the stage, it needed to be more. I thought, let's make it an ensemble piece. Yeah, it's a love story between two people, but it needs to be about community as well."
The result is a musical that essentially takes place in an Irish pub, where the action can unfold with minimal set changes and props. More than a dozen cast members, including the two leads, play their own instruments during the show.
Most strikingly, the perform a jam session well before the musical starts; the audience is allowed to get in on the action during this warm-up.
Tiffany proposed that participatory aspect.
"It seemed like a gimmick to me," Walsh said. "You're going to invite people onstage who are not really a part of it, and then sit them back down. John said, 'Let's just try.'
He was around music a lot growing up and knew what it's like to enter a room where everyone is playing music, the communal feeling of that. I was just kicking against the idea, but I completely accept it now."
Dani de Waal, who plays Girl in the tour cast, also embraces the pub concept.
"You get people in the right frame and it transports them to Ireland, if you will," de Wall said. "It draws you in and tells the audience that you are going on a journey together."
That journey is bittersweet. Girl and Guy, the busker whose dark, brooding songs catch her ear and heart, find themselves in a tricky emotional place, thanks to other relationships in their lives.
"Girl has her own baggage, if not more than Guy," de Waal said. "But music is the shining light that gets her through life. She wants to see what Guy's going through, what the pain is in his music. They change each other in a very short period of time. I think they end up in a better place. It is a modern day love story. It does not need a happy ending."
"We all know what it is to be in a situation where you realize you cannot be with someone," he said. "In the audience for this show, you can feel so many love stories thrown into the air, all that yearning."
One small change was made for the stage. At the end of the movie, Guy decides to seek out his former girlfriend who has moved to London. The musical places her in New York.
"People commute from Ireland to London all the time by plane," Walsh said. "These characters needed more distance. There had to be an ocean between them. Not only that, but from an Irish perspective, there is still this dream of America. It may seem ridiculous to say, but when you're looking West [from Ireland], there is still this sense of a journey that needs to be made."