A few years ago, Steve Kazee read a story online that one of his favorite films, Once, was being adapted into a stage musical. He was horrified. “I said to my girlfriend at the time, that’s the worst fucking idea I’ve ever heard in my life! If they do that,” he remembers thinking, “it will ruin everything that movie was.”
Kazee now plays the role of Guy in Broadway’s Once. Not only does the musical not “ruin everything,” but in some ways, it’s better than the 2006 independent film about two soulful Dublin strangers who meet by chance and form a loving bond. When the couple is pulled apart, their bittersweet romance is embodied by the theme song, “Falling Slowly.”
Once enters this weekend’s Tony Awards as the frontrunner in several major categories, including Best Musical. It has 11 nominations, more than any other Broadway show, and last week it clinched four Drama Desk Awards. As Kazee gears up for the Tonys (he’s a Best Actor nominee), he sat down for a conversation with one of his idols, Glen Hansard, the Irish actor who originated his role in the film and co-wrote the film’s original songs.
The two first met several months ago, when Once was in rehearsals in Cambridge, Mass., and Hansard begrudgingly went to see it. During our interview, they discussed the story’s journey from screen to stage. But first, we had to wait for Glen to join us by cell phone from Ireland.
Glen Hansard: Hey, how’s it going? I’m in Dublin, walking in the rain.
What are you doing?
Glen: I’ve just smuggled a lot of cocaine into the Czech Republic and I’m just about to find out if the plane made it into customs. No, I’ve just made a record called Rhythm and Repose, and I’m about head out and do a few gigs.
Steve Kazee: Hi Glen!
Glen: Oh, this is Steve on the phone?! I didn’t know you were going to be on.
Thank you both for joining us. We thought it would be great to get you guys together right before the Tonys to talk about how successful Once has been on Broadway. Were either of you worried when you heard they were going to turn the movie into a stage musical?
Glen: I was so afraid of what might happen to the simplicity of this little thing that we had created, which had this whole life of its own. And so I knew it was going ahead, but it was with great trepidation that I had any real contact with this. I wanted to distance myself from it because I was afraid of what it could be. I’d gone to see a couple of Broadway shows. I was deeply cynical about the whole idea of what Broadway is…so I was very, very wary of that. But I must admit, I walked out of the show opening night, and it was really a handing over. These guys nailed it. And it’s theirs now. That is really my feeling.
Steve: It’s funny because Glen and I shared the same trepidation. I was living in Los Angeles at the time and I had sworn off musicals, because I wasn’t happy with the sort of choices that were out there. When they called and asked me to do it, I initially turned it down because in my brain, all I could see were these horrible Broadway versions of this show with giant vacuums on-stage and huge production numbers. I was worried I would be the person that would ruin Once. I could never live with myself. It would be like ruining your favorite thing in the world.
Glen: It’s funny that you say that, because I’m the guy who turned down [the film’s director] John Carney when he asked me to play Guy in Once, because I had the same feeling. I didn’t want to be the guy to ruin this, because he had put so much effort into the script and I had written the songs.
Were you John’s first choice for the role?
Glen: No. Cillian Murphy was in the part and then for some reason wasn’t and then John was kind of left stranded for a bit.
Steve: It’s strange, because it basically wraps up the same way on stage as it does in the movie. But it is really a lot different from start to finish, and it’s interesting to me, how the two pieces can be different, have the same music in them and still achieve the same result.
Steve, I know you were a big fan of the movie. How many times have you seen it?
Steve: Why do you want to embarrass me? I’ve seen that movie probably 400 times. There was a point in my life where I didn’t have cable and I only had like four movies on DVD. I had The Matrix, The Royal Tenenbaums, Arrested Development, and Once. So I would just watch them over and over and over and over again. The movie itself changed my life in such a profound way, because it was at a point in my life where I had just gotten out of school and I was in the business. And it’s a terrible business to be in and it beats you down on a daily basis. I watched it on a Saturday afternoon, by myself, and I was just a puddle of tears. I was just a mess.
Glen: I think I’ve probably seen the [stage version] 10 or 12 times. I was living around the corner, and I had these nights where I’d say, I wonder how these lads are doing? … I was like, can I come again? I want to go again! Let’s see it again!
Do you think the play is better than the movie?
Glen: I said it to John Carney, and he almost punched me. I can’t say better, because John will kill me, but they managed to tell the tale very succinctly and actually bring it through. The script for Once was definitely bigger than what ended up in the film. John ended up editing out most of the dialogue that was in the movie for the fact that we weren’t actors. And John was like, you guys aren’t really convincing me here so I’m going to edit you out. So what he did was he left in the strongest parts, which was the songs. I think he was doing us a favor. I had acted in one thing. I’m certainly not an actor. I don’t have any training. What you have in the stage version is people who can act and people who can sing.
Steve: It’s so funny, maybe I shouldn’t say this, because it makes me sound like such a terrible, unprofessional actor, but it doesn’t matter how many times I’ve played these songs—I still see the film as I’m singing it! It’s the weirdest thing. You know that opening shot, where the cameras pan in on you? Every night that I sing it, I just have these flashes of you on the street.
Glen, can you talk about writing ”Falling Slowly,” which has become a popular love anthem in the last few years?
Glen: It’s one of those songs that is very, very, very simple and I had the idea knocking around in my head for years. And the “I don’t know ya, but I want ya / all the more for that” line was all I had for the longest time. And I tried to work the frames, it just sounded a bit bored. And then I started playing the music with Marketa [Irglova, his costar in the film.]
Steve: There are two things that I feel about [the song]. I feel the duty to do it right. But on the flip side of that, it has spoken to me. It’s been a tough year for me, especially a tough couple of months. My mother passed away, some other things in my personal life sort of came crashing down. To say, “Take this sinking boat and point it home, we’ve still got time”—it reminds me every night I’m going to be OK. It has saved my life over the last three months, because if I didn’t have this and if I didn’t have Glen’s music right now, I don’t know where I would be, because I’ve just been so low it’s the only thing that lifts me up at night.
Glen: I’m very sorry to hear about your mom. It’s tough to be on stage every night with that in your heart.
Steve: I try to sing it loud enough so she can hear me.
Glen, where do you keep your Oscar?
Glen: My mother has it. Oh, no, no. That’s not actually true. It’s in my house, because my mother’s house [in Ireland] was broken into. They stole all the jewelry, whatever money they could find, they stole fucking everything and they left the Oscar.
Glen: They must have thought it was a fake. But then again, there were fucking pictures of me all over the bleeding walls, holding it.
Steve: Are you going to be at the Tonys?
Glen: Yeah. I’m going to land at about 4 o’clock, something like that. And I’ll jump in a taxi and come over. I don’t know if I got a ticket or not, but it doesn’t matter. I’ll be at the party, that’s where I’ll be.
We have got to get you a ticket!
Glen: I just want to be there to applaud the lads. I’ll be wearing my tux and fucking cheering for you.