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‘Once’ upon a stage: The making of a musical

The national touring producti'Once' features Stuart Ward Dani de
Waal. | Pho (c) Joan Marcus

The national touring production of "Once" features Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal. | Photo (c) Joan Marcus

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‘ONCE’

When: Oct. 9-27

Where: Oriental Theatre,
24 W. Randolph

Tickets : $27-$95

Info: (800) 775-2000; BroadwayInChicago.com

How do you transform a poignant, low-budget (yet surprisingly successful) film that chronicled an intimate, offbeat love story involving two musicians (a Dublin singer-songwriter and a Czech immigrant who just happens to be a gifted pianist and composer) into a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical?

And, given the current expectations about musicals as grand-scale spectacles, how do you retain the humorous, heartbreaking quality of a tale about two people who are “otherwise attached,” yet manage to forge a unique bond in ways both humorous and heartbreaking?

These were among the many challenges facing the creative team behind “Once” as they began work on the 2012 musical inspired by the 2006 film of the same name. Adding to these challenges was the distinctive nature of the film’s leading performers, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, who also co-wrote the score, including its Academy Award-winning song, “Falling Slowly.”

Ironically enough, the musical’s producers decided to turn to director John Tiffany and “movement director” Steven Hoggett, who is quite different from a traditional “choreographer.” These two gifted artists, both in their early 40s, share roots in the industrial town of Huddersfield, England; have been friends since the age of 15, and won major acclaim for their work on “Black Watch,” the stunningly visceral National Theatre of Scotland production about a regiment serving in Iraq.

That powerhouse war story shouldn’t have made them the automatic choice for a love story, right? Wrong. As those who saw “Black Watch” in either of its two memorable visits to Chicago’s Broadway Armory already know, Tiffany and Hoggett possess a unique gift for making a story connect with an audience in the most visceral ways, drawing us into the lives of the characters through action as well as words. They can turn a script into “dance” in ways that have nothing to do with the usual Broadway numbers. The touring production of “Once” that opens this week at the Oriental Theatre will offer further evidence.

“With its love story and folk music score, ‘Once’ was quite a leap,” said Tiffany, whose latest Broadway effort is a spare take on “The Glass Menagerie,” starring Cherry Jones. “But I think there was something about our use of music and movement in ‘Black Watch,’ and the simplicity of our approach to storytelling, that seemed right.

“What was most important was to find a way to make theater out of this low-fi film, with its delicate, beautiful story. And I found the solution in something from my childhood. My dad was an engineer, but he played in brass band competitions in Yorkshire, where each band took its turn. I thought I could create a similar environment for ‘Once,’ with a sort of house party in a pub, where everyone plays music. They’re already playing as the audience takes its seats, so the theater becomes a unified environment.”

In fact, the entire cast of “Once” serves as the orchestra, and when these actor-musicians are not part of a scene they sit at the side of the stage and play from there. In addition, just as almost everyone in the cast plays an instrument (and so far, enough multi-talented performers have been found for productions running in New York, London and on tour), they also must be adept at picking up Hoggett’s unique gestural language.

Hoggett (who also created the movement for Broadway’s “Peter and the Starcatcher” and “American Idiot,” and who is working on a musical by Tori Amos, “The Light Princess,” opening at London’s National Theatre this month), has never taken a formal dance class.

“I was an English literature major at Swansea University in Wales,” said Hoggett. “And that has been a great help to me, because I’m always looking for ways to enhance the emotional narrative, and glean information from the text [the book for “Once” is the work of Irish playwright Enda Walsh] or the song lyrics. It’s all about creating an internal response from the performers. And nothing is presentational or played to the front. Everyone must feel they are in the pub rather than voyeurs.”

Although Tiffany and Hoggett both sang in a youth choir in Huddersfield, Hoggett’s exposure to theater came rather late.

“A friend took me to a university production of ‘Medea’ that had just four actors and was very dark, loud, punishing and garish,” recalled Hogget. “And a light bulb switched on in me. I went on to found Frantic Assembly, a physical theater company based in Wales.”

“None of this was a life plan,” he admitted. “It was just instinct. And I’ve stood on the shoulders of giants — influenced by Robert Lepage, Pina Bausch [the German choreographer], and DV8 [a British physical theater company], as well as by the very sophisticated MTV videos with which I came of age. More recently I’ve been taken with the work of Hofesh Shechter [an Israeli-born, London-based choreographer].”

Next up for Tiffany and Hoggett is “Let the Right One In,” a play based on a Scandinavian novel (the inspiration for two films) about a lonely, bullied teenage boy and the centuries-old vampire who befriends him. It will open at London’s Royal Court in November. Hoggett will then begin work on Sting’s new musical, “The Last Ship,” set for its pre-Broadway debut in Chicago next year.

Email: hweiss@suntimes.com

Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic



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