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Onstage, ‘Once’ has been transformed

Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal in Broadway in Boston’s production of the musical “Once.”

Joan Marcus

Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal in Broadway in Boston’s production of the musical “Once.”

NEW YORK — When the Tony Award-winning musical “Once” was being developed at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge in the spring of 2011, one of the show’s producers wondered why director John Tiffany and his creative team weren’t re-creating the opening sequence from the charming, micro-budget 2007 musical film. In that scene, the main character, a struggling Irish singer-songwriter, gets his meager stash of busking money stolen by a junkie, leading to a chase through a graveyard.

“He was like, ‘But that’s how it starts.’ And I was like, ‘No, that’s the film. I won’t be doing that. We’re trying to make a piece of theater,’ ” Tiffany said. “And how could you reproduce that film onstage?”

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The slender indie film gem, with its art-imitating-life back story, featured soul-baring folk-pop songs and a loose, improvisatory feel. It centers on an unlikely friendship, which blossoms into a bittersweet love story, between two lost souls — a Dublin street busker and a young Czech immigrant. Musicians Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, both amateur actors, played the on-screen couple and became real-life romantic partners while making the film (they have since split up), and “Once” itself went on to capture the 2008 Oscar for best original song for the swirling ballad “Falling Slowly.”

In creating a stage version now on tour — “Once” comes to the Boston Opera House for a two-week run beginning Tuesday — Tiffany and his team knew they were facing a tall task, so they had to find their way into the adaptation using their own theatrical language.

“The film is so low-fi and laced with humility and a total lack of anything showy, so the second that you put something like that on stage with a showy Broadway energy, you’d be [screwed] 100 percent,” said Tiffany, between sips of Malbec at a Theater District restaurant, ensconced at a table alongside his longtime friend Steven Hoggett, the show’s choreographer.

Hoggett echoes the sentiment that any attempt to re-create the film would fall on its face. “The film was such a delicate enterprise. It’s a gossamer thing. And it’s beautiful for it.”

Still, both men knew the source material provided a unique opportunity. After listening to the film’s soundtrack, Tiffany recalled thinking, “I’ve never heard music like this in a Broadway setting — or onstage even. And the songs seemed to tell stories.”

Despite their reluctance to mess with the quiet perfection of the film, they were intrigued by the challenge. In the end, Tiffany and his creative team ended up pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Their adaptation of “Once,” which began as a developmental workshop at the ART’s Oberon space, premiered at New York Theatre Workshop in the East Village before transferring to Broadway in 2012. It went on to win eight Tony Awards, including best musical and a best director prize for Tiffany.

Tiffany and Hoggett, who needle each other like mischievous schoolboys to gales of affectionate laughter, also collaborated on this year’s revelatory Broadway revival of “The Glass Menagerie,” which began life at the ART last spring, as well as the theatrically inventive Iraq War play “Black Watch.” But where the propulsive “Black Watch” had bomb blasts and bravado, marching and PTSD-afflicted soldiers, “Once” features gentler and more internal, if still melancholic, emotional stakes.

As the initial impulse for the adaptation, Tiffany drew on his and Hoggett’s background. They grew up in the West Yorkshire town of Huddersfield, with memories of rollicking pub singalongs and men pouring their hearts out in song. The duo, now in their early 40s, have been close friends since they were 15.

“We come from a world where that currency of sharing your song and singing your story is very, very familiar to us,” Tiffany said. “Particularly for working-class men, who find it hard to communicate through words sometimes, and yet will put all their emotion into a song — especially after a drink or three.”

Inspired by a house party scene from the film, in which characters sing around a big dining table, Tiffany envisioned a group of actor-musicians performing onstage as the audience arrives.

“There’s some big session happening onstage and a sharing of traditional Irish songs and traditional Czech songs — out of which comes one of our songs from ‘Once,’ ” Tiffany said. “And so the whole story becomes like a song sung in a pub.”

The straightforward set features a long wooden bar at the center of the stage with a mirror running above it. The show’s two wayward souls, called Guy (played by Stuart Ward) and Girl (Dani De Waal), connect over a broken vacuum cleaner and the heartsick romantic yearnings of Guy’s folk-pop songs. She’s idiosyncratic, headstrong, and bluntly honest; he’s brooding and a little bitter with a decided lack of self-confidence.

“It’s a play about the healing power of music and about people creating music,” Tiffany said. “So, to my mind, the audience had to see that music being created in front of them.”

Hoggett and Tiffany knew that any movement in the piece shouldn’t distract from or undermine the lovelorn, heartwrenching songs. Some, including “Falling Slowly,” are performed unadorned, with Guy strumming the guitar and Girl at the piano. For others, Hoggett created simple yet moving choreography that would underline or quietly heighten the oft-unspoken emotional yearnings.

In “Say It to Me Now,” as Guy seeks a loan to make his record, the bank tellers come to life with an expressive ballet of hand gestures and fluid physical movement. In “If You Want Me,” three headphone-wearing women move in mirror image with each other, suggesting a yearning for emotional connection. In “Gold,” as Guy sings from on top of the bar, the ensemble of musician-actors rise from their chairs and begin dancing and stomping in unison while playing their instruments.

“Choreographers do sometimes over-fuss and over-choreograph, and we don’t leave a tender moment alone,” said Hoggett. “ ‘Once’ has got some absolutely killer moments, and they are killer because they’re very still and very quiet and incredibly simple. If you throw too much at it choreographically, you will kill it.” Hoggett also created the energetic movement for Green Day’s “American Idiot” and is devising the fight sequences for the musical adaptation of “Rocky,” set to open on Broadway this winter.

The award-winning Irish playwright Enda Walsh, who wrote the book for the musical, said that the key to unlocking the adaptation was deciding to make it a story about “a community of people coming together and sharing something and then moving on.”

The magic of the show also relies on what goes unspoken. “A lot of the piece was in the silence, which is unusual for a musical,” Walsh said, in a phone interview, from his home in London. “It really grips your heart. You get lured into it by the openness of it and by the humor of it and the innocence of it and the naivete of it.”

For Walsh, the characters were a departure from his usual creations: garrulous social outcasts trapped inside cloistered worlds of their own making, retelling soul-scarring events from their past. Though Guy, too, is stuck — clinging to a relationship with an ex-girlfriend who has fled to the States.

“If you think about this character, he’s like the simplest [expletive] thing. He’s going for a job interview and he doesn’t get it. The scale of this stuff, I’ve never even thought about doing before,” Walsh said. “It was such a joy to pitch from a side of me that is unashamedly romantic. This piece, it was all just heart, and it was real.”

While Tiffany is now associate director of the Royal Court Theatre and Hoggett cofounded the physical theater company Frantic Assembly in Wales in the 1990s, they both consider themselves outsiders to the medium. Neither studied theater at university and both took nontraditional routes to their careers. Because of those backgrounds, they insist that experimentation is always the name of the game.

“We’re very promiscuous as theater makers, and I think we’ll stay that way,” Hoggett said. “The nature of our taste, it’s that pop kid mentality. We’re not theater purists. And our lack of studiousness about theater is probably the saving grace of our inquisitiveness about it. Nobody told us how to do it. Nobody gave us the guidelines.”

Says Tiffany, “We hardly saw any theater for our first 18 years, really.”

Instead, they bonded as teenagers over their mutual love of Prince, Kate Bush, and Janet Jackson music videos (after first meeting in a youth choir). While the duo remained close friends over the years, they took divergent paths into theater and did not team up together until 2003, when Tiffany asked Hoggett to help him on “The Straits,” a play by Gregory Burke, who went on to write “Black Watch.” Since then, they’ve been frequent collaborators — and have managed to fashion careers out of doing something they love.

“Having jobs that are about making theater and telling stories is just unheard of where we come from,” Tiffany says. “My mom did community theater, and my dad played in a brass band. But you do it as a hobby.”

Hoggett marvels at their luck, “I still can’t quite believe that all this happened and we ended up with jobs like this. We get paid to have big imaginations.”

Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@gmail.com.
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