The musical “Once” plays the Fox Theatre on March 4-9.


oncelogoWhen the indie film Once made it to the United States in 2007, you’d have been hard-pressed to imagine it as the stuff of Broadway musicals. 

The movie, which tells the story of an Irish musician and a Czech immigrant drawn together by their love of music, was shot on a budget of only $160,000. It was written and directed by a relative newcomer, John Carney (best known then as the one-time bassist for the Irish band the Frames). It starred Frames’ frontman Glen Hansard and Czech singer-songwriter Markéta Irglová. Neither had any professional acting experience. And the story was extremely intimate, partially improvised and lacked the large-scale production numbers or happy endings found in most musicals.

Still, the movie was a stunning international success. It won the Audience Award at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, the Academy Award for best original song (“Falling Slowly”) and, ultimately, grossed more $20 million at the box office. So how did such a simple little movie become such a huge international success? In a word: chemistry.


ONCE TELLS THE STORY OF A 30-SOMETHING BUSKER who falls for a young Czech immigrant selling flowers on the streets of Dublin. Hansard and Irglová actually met for the first time when she was 13; her father organized a Czech music festival in which the Frames played. Afterward, Hansard was invited to the family’s home, where he saw a piano and asked who played it.

IN THE FILM VERSION of "Once," Glen Hansard and  Markéta Irglová played themselves.
IN THE FILM VERSION of “Once,” Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová played themselves.

“So I played him a song,” Irglová recalled in an interview with Radio Prague, “and he said, ‘Do you write your own material?’ I said, ‘No.’ I was really surprised by the question, because the thought had never occurred to me before. He said, ‘You should! It’s fun, and I’m sure you’d be good at it if you play an instrument and sing. Next time I see you, you can play it for me.’ ”

With Hansard’s encouragement and mentorship, the teenager began writing her own songs. By 2006 they’d developed a partnership, forming a band that was eventually called the Swell Season.

The project began with the recording of “Falling Slowly,” written for the Czech film Beauty in Trouble.  During those sessions they recorded many of the songs that would make the Swell Season’s 2006 debut album and the movie Once — “When Your Mind’s Made Up,” “Lies” and “Leave,” among them.

Hansard ultimately convinced bandmate Carney to cast Irglová as the unnamed Girl in Once, and by the third day of shooting the director was referring to the pair as his Bogart and Bacall, predicting they’d wind up together romantically. In retrospect, the lovelorn feelings depicted in the movie were all too real, as age differences (she was 17, he was 34) kept them from acting on their impulses. But when the movie studio sent them out on a bus tour to promote the film, they became a couple.


ULTIMATELY, THE ROMANTIC RELATIONSHIP didn’t last. They broke up in 2009, and Irglová went on to marry someone else. But the pair still performs together on occasion, and Irglová has said there’s discussion of recording a third Swell Season album at some point.

In the end, perhaps the success of Once — as a film, soundtrack and Broadway musical — has as much to do with how the audience relates to the story as it does with how Hansard and Irglová related to each other. Once suggests thatwhile love is powerful enough to turn our lives (and hearts) inside out and upside down, it’s not always tidy, or convenient or ever-lasting. But it also insists that love, even at its most bittersweet, is a thing of beauty to be treasured.

About Kathy Janich

Kathy Janich is a longtime arts journalist who has been seeing, working in or writing about the performing arts for most of her life. She's a member of the Theatre Communications Group, the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas, Americans for the Arts and the National Arts Marketing Project. Full disclosure: She’s also an artistic associate at Synchronicity Theatre.

View all posts by Kathy Janich