Once is a powerful love story told through music

The music of Once is powerful. It has the special quality of leaving you feeling transformed, uplifted, and inspired when you leave the theatre, and although that may sound like an exaggeration, I have experienced it first-hand twice. With a unique on-stage bar open before the show and at intermission, this production made a cavernous theatre feel intimate and a single soft voice emanating from the stage feel immensely important.

I’m always surprised by the number of people who haven’t heard of Once. Released in 2006, the film that this musical is based on is a heart-wrenching love story  set in Dublin between an unnamed heartbroken Irish musician (Glen Hansard) and a younger Czech immigrant (Marketa Irglova). Before making the film, the two were making music together as The Swell Season, and gradually fell in love despite their age difference (Hansard was 37, and Irglova 19).

The couple wrote and composed all of the songs in the film, and their song “Falling Slowly” won an Oscar in 2007. It’s a real-life love story captured on film, put to song, and now produced as a touring musical.  

Their relationship has since ended, but they continue to make music on their own, and they are two of my favourite musicians. It’s hard to watch Once the Musical without comparing the performers to Hansard and Irglova, especially having seen them both live, but the musical is its own entity, with a slightly changed plot and a life of its own.

The heart of the story — the songs — are what carry the show, so of course whoever plays the two unnamed leads must also be musically gifted. The “Guy” is played by Liverpudlian Stuart Ward, and his passionate strumming of the guitar made it clear that he is a talented musician in his own right. The “Girl,” played by Dani de Waal, is much more comical in this performance than in the film, and overall the plot incorporates a bit more slapstick and humour, but Waal’s voice adeptly carried the lilting, emotional ballads she performed alone on stage with the piano.

The ensemble was brilliant, dancing around the stage with their banjos, accordion, violin, and bass. And the set was stunning: a beautiful semi-circle of wood-paneled walls lined with a collage of variously sized mirrors.  

While this Broadway Across Canada production was moving and poignant, it was not quite up to the standard of the production I saw at the Phoenix Theatre in London in 2013. Perhaps the experience of seeing it in a smaller space enhanced its power, but overall, that show seemed to embody more of the magic of the story. Despite that, I highly recommend this show, and the music of both Hansard and Irglova. I guarantee you will get something out of it.

Once is presented by Broadway Across Canada from November 17 to 22 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. Tickets start at $40. For more information, visit vancouver.broadway.com.