Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti in a scene from the...

Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti in a scene from the Broadway musical "Once." Directed by John Tiffany at the New York Theatre Workshop. Credit: Joan Marcus

At the heart of the Academy Award-winning indie film "Once" is the love story between an Irish street singer and a Czech pianist.

That relationship is also crucial to the theatrical adaptation, which opens on Broadway Sunday at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. But there is another, arguably deeper, relationship in the Broadway production -- the characters' love affair with music.

Without that shift, "Once," one of the most anticipated Broadway openings of the season, probably never would have happened.

"If you watch the film, it's not the most natural fit for a Broadway musical -- quite the opposite," says John Tiffany, who eventually signed on to direct "Once," the musical, taking it from an idea, built around the music of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, to a Broadway debut in only 18 months. "For this to work, I knew it would be like catching a butterfly. I needed to grow a theatrical language, a way to communicate to a Broadway house, while keeping to the fundamental story and not turning it into a big, bloated pastiche."

Steve Kazee remembers reading an item about plans to turn "Once" -- a movie he loves and has seen "a thousand times" -- into a Broadway musical and thinking, "Oh, that's a terrible idea."

Kazee, the actor best known for his work in "Monty Python's Spamalot" and as Audra McDonald's love interest in "110 in the Shade," and his co-star Cristin Milioti share a laugh at the recollection, as they sit in the lower lobby of the Jacobs Theatre, where they will re-create the movie's central couple in its musical incarnation. He admits it wasn't until the show reached the workshop stage that he felt sure the musical wasn't going to do the film a disservice. "It wasn't until the workshops that I felt this is going to be something completely its own, that it's going to be artistic and it's going to have merit," Kazee says.

"The movie had such a profound effect on me," he adds. "It devastated me in a way that few other films have ever done. . . . I'm a hopeless romantic, always have been, no matter how I try to deny it."

Kazee says the broader theme about the importance of music in people's lives helps translate the film's specific story into something more universal. "Music is the heartbeat of everything that happens on a daily basis," he says. "It's the love affair between two people and their music, the city and its music. One of my favorite lines in the play now is 'You can't have a city without music.' I sat on my balcony overlooking Manhattan the other night and thought, 'That is so unbelievably true.' . . . Enda Walsh, who wrote the book for us, is a master. He's taken this story and made it theatrical."

As unlikely as a Broadway production of "Once" may be, Tiffany took steps to make the entire experience feel even more unconventional.

The stage is wide open and made to look like a working Irish pub. (Before the show and during intermission, the audience can even buy drinks at the onstage bar.) There is no opening announcement or raising of the curtain. Much of the cast begins playing music in character about 15 minutes before the scheduled start of the show and Kazee joins them for the final three songs, including the show's actual opening number.

"I wanted to create the kind of atmosphere when the audience comes in where they could connect to each other, where they could mingle in the same space as the actors, where they could feel music as a healing force," Tiffany says. "It's something immersive for the audience. It feels organic. But there's a lot of challenges. When I said that I wanted to do it on Broadway, people thought I was mental."

Milioti, who starts the show in the audience and doesn't take part in the preshow songs, says she enjoys the unusual start. "It's like a warm welcome into a private room," she says. "It allows you into this world."

However, Milioti's placement in the audience does give her some unique issues. "A lot of people come up to me with their tickets and I have no idea what to do -- should I answer them in an accent?" says Milioti, who adopts a Czech accent in the show. "I had to pick my way through a fight over seats one night."

Another unconventional aspect of "Once" is the choreography created by Steven Hoggett, who also developed the memorable movements of "American Idiot."

There are only a handful of subtly choreographed songs in "Once," but the dreamlike movements make them memorable. "He creates these stellar moments out of nothingness," Kazee says. "The simplest things become the grandest moments in the show. The turn of a wrist, the flick of a finger, the tilt of a head -- it's not like choreography that we know."

Milioti quickly adds, "He works with what you have and that's how he creates it. It's almost like it's tailor-made. With 'Say It to Me Now' in the bank, he had us sit and asked us, 'What would you do if you were really bored?' It comes from what you bring into it instead of being forced into doing steps."

The dreamlike quality of the "Once" musical even extends to Kazee's performance.

"I never even remotely believed I'd be doing this," he says. "It still catches me off guard that I'm playing 'Falling Slowly' in front of a thousand people, and I just sang 'Say It to Me Now.' It's a very surreal, out-of-body experience."

He says he can relate to the feeling of the audience -- he can often hear them recognizing the award-winning "Falling Slowly" during the show. "You can hear them whisper, 'This is the Academy Award song. This won the Oscar.' "

"It used to freak me out," Milioti says. "But now, I'm like, 'Yeah, it is!' Not in a cocky way, but in a way like, 'Yeah, we're going to sing it and we're all about to have a really good time.' "


'Once' was not enough for them



For most of America, the first (and only) time they saw Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova was when they won the best song Academy Award in 2008 for "Falling Slowly." They charmed the audience with Hansard's call of "Make art!" And then, after host Jon Stewart returned Irglova to the stage after her speech was cut off, she claimed the prize for all independent artists, saying, "No matter how far out your dreams are, it's possible."

However, the duo hasn't slowed down since their work on "Once." Here's a look at what they've been up to:

THE SWELL SEASON Hansard and Irglova's band, The Swell Season, released "Strict Joy" (Anti-) in 2009, featuring the same raw vocals that marked the "Once" soundtrack, but in a far lusher musical setting, especially in "Low Rising" and "Feeling the Pull."

GLEN HANSARD He is working on a solo album, which will be released this year, and is touring America as a solo artist, performing songs from his solo albums, his work with Irish rockers The Frames, as well as The Swell Season. Hansard recently toured with Eddie Vedder and is featured on Vedder's solo album.

MARKETA IRGLOVA After touring as a singer with Iron and Wine, she released her solo album "Anar" (Anti-), featuring piano ballads and her gorgeous voice, in October. She plays the 92YTribeca Thursday.

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