When Once first appeared in cinemas thirteen years ago, a low-budget Irish independent film shot with just $160k, it was one of the more modest premieres of the season. But the story, of a Dublin street busker and a Czech musician whose passion for music sparks a unique love story, quickly took hold of audiences and hasn’t let go since. It received widespread critical acclaim and its stars, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, who composed and performed all the film’s original songs, went on to win an Academy Award for the song Falling Slowly.
Steven Spielberg has been quoted as saying “a little movie called Once gave me enough inspiration to last the rest of the year.”
Five years after the film’s success, Once was adapted for the stage and opened on Broadway to a slew of Tony, Drama Desk and Grammy Awards. The spellbinding story, which follows two musicians simply known as ‘Guy’ and ‘Girl’ across five short days, took on a new life on stage, and productions opened all over the world including in London’s West End. By 2020, as Once now embarks on its first UK Tour, it has become one of the most celebrated new musicals of the century.
The iconic roles of ‘Guy’ and ‘Girl’ portrayed on screen by Hansard and Irglová, are taken on in this new tour by actor-musicians Daniel Healy and Emma Lucia.
Daniel is no stranger to the musical having had the opportunity to perform in the West End production. A few years later and now Daniel is taking on the role full time. “I’ve had the chance to see a few different guys play this role and every one of them had their own take on it. That’s what’s beautiful about this role, I think. He’s the Everyman and could be any man. I can bring so many aspects of my own life to the role and have loved the process of making this my own.”
Emma first fell in love with the film, before discovering the musical. “I was quite young at the time but remember falling head over heels in love with the characters and the music. I then saw the show in the West End a few years later and it blew my mind! I had no idea that musical instruments could be used on stage like that – like they were just an extension of the actor’s feelings and emotions. I remember telling my Mum that I’d found my dream role, so I’ll never forget the phone call telling me I had the part – those phone calls are the best.”
The tour is directed by Peter Rowe (Artistic Director of Ipswich’s New Wolsey Theatre), with long-time collaborator, Ben Goddard (MD for the New Wolsey Theatre Actor-Muso company) as the show’s Musical Supervisor. As a team, the pair have brought countless actor-muso shows to the stage. In addition, Ben Goddard’s performing credits include playing Jerry Lee Lewis in the West End production (and US tour) of Million Dollar Quartet.
Speaking about this particular show, Peter tells me: “It’s one of the few shows we know of that was written specifically for actor-musicians. A lot of the time we are adapting classic musical titles for an actor-musician ensemble instead of having a pit band. However, this show absolutely requires a group of actor-musicians, which makes it quite special in itself.”
The musical skills required to perform in a show like this are extremely high, as Ben explains: “Rose Bruford, Guildford School of Acting, Mountview, PPA all do specific actor-musicianship courses, and they’re right to, because the skill-set is growing. The demands are so high to get into one of these shows now – you can’t just be an actor who ‘plays a bit’. That’s not going to wash anymore. You have to be shit-hot… in every department! An actor-musician will normally play around three instruments, and swap about during a show.”
Once has been celebrated all over the world, and Daniel and Emma are clearly thrilled to be leading this first UK tour. “It’s a dream come true”, Daniel enthuses. “I’m just so blessed to be able to tell such a beautiful story with gorgeous music and to be surrounded by a stellar cast”. “I feel so incredibly lucky”, Emma adds. “To be given the chance to put my own stamp on this character is so exciting.”
Since the film first hit screens thirteen years ago, the characters of ‘Guy’ and ‘Girl’ have left a lasting impression on audiences. “As an actor it’s so interesting to play a character who has this beautiful upside-down arc,” Daniel says of ‘Guy’. “He starts completely emotionally broken, hollow and has given up on life. Then an angel – armed with a hoover – begins to inspire him to rediscover who he really is.”
“She is a beautiful example of someone who has experienced a huge amount of pain in their past but refuses to let it taint their outlook on life”, Emma says of ‘Girl’. “She quite literally laughs in the face of cynicism and she is constantly trying her best to uplift and inspire other people – despite her own inner struggle. What she chooses to show on the outside doesn’t always reflect how she really feels on the inside and it’s so refreshing to play a character who is three-dimensional like that.”
From the film to the stage adaptation, music is at the heart of Once’s enduring appeal. The original score is celebrated for its melodic and lyrical vibrance, and on stage it is performed live by the entire cast. “Playing the piano has always been a kind of outlet for me”, says Emma. “A way to express things that I couldn’t quite put into words, in the same way that theatre always has – so to combine the two is really special. Nothing is pre-recorded and the music is played by the people who are actively telling the story, so you can really feel the emotion.”
For Daniel Once is also a meeting of his two biggest passions, theatre and music. Off-stage Daniel is a successful writer, having penned several songs for Ronan Keating. “Ronan is someone I consider a great friend,” says Daniel. “We met on Once (West End) and I wrote six songs on his last album. It was the most amazing experience creating that music and the album has opened up a lot of doors in the song writing world.”
When it comes to the music of Once, Daniel and Emma both talk about Falling Slowly being a standout moment. It won the Oscar for Best Original Song, and they perform it together each night. “I think the song is so special because it’s the first time ‘Guy’ and ‘Girl’ realise that they understand each other”, says Emma. “Music has always and will always connect people in a way words sometimes can’t. It’s definitely one of my favourite moments in the whole show, it gives me goose bumps every time”. Daniel agrees; “It starts hesitantly then builds into this beautiful crescendo. Lyrically it’s very clever and to a certain extent it is open, ambiguous and up for interpretation. Songs like that seep into our subconscious. It can mean something to everyone. That’s what I love about it and I think that’s what most people, even if they don’t realise it, love about it.”
So what is it about the story of Once, and the unlikely love story at its centre, that continues to resonate with audiences? “It’s real… it’s no fairy tale”, Daniel muses. “We’ve all had that once-in-a-lifetime moment when we met someone who turned on the light in our eyes. Did we fall in love and sail off into the sunset? Or was it just for that moment in time? You’ll have some questions for yourself after you see the show. I think that’s why people keep coming back.”
“I think the show resonates with so many people because it’s a story of love and friendship that isn’t overly romanticised,” Emma adds. “Once is truthful and bare, which I think is what so many people love about it.”
Daniel and Emma are excited to share the show with new audiences as it tours the UK for the first time. “It really is the most relatable musical I have ever come across,” says Emma. “So many of my friends and family have come to watch – from my eighty-year-old granny who loves classical music to my seventeen-year-old brother who only listens to heavy metal – and everyone has loved it. Anyone seeing the show for the first time can expect to laugh, cry and listen to some of the most heart-wrenching music they’ll ever hear played live.”
Daniel adds; “Once isn’t just a big emotional love story – it’s also hilarious. For a night out at the theatre it has everything you could ever ask for. Great music, beautiful story, comedy, emotion and drama. I felt this from the very first time I saw the show in the West End sitting in the audience and wishing that one day I’d get to be in it. Dreams, eh…”