Once … upon a time: meet Ann Hodges, director of the cult film-turned-musical that launches the Citadel season

Once, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson for Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Once … upon a time there was a winsomely offbeat 2007 indie Irish film, about the unlikely friendship between a Dublin street musician and a Czech immigrant. It was made for a dime (well, $150,000), shot in 17 days, full of folk-rock Celtic-flavoured songs written by its two stars (Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová).

And Once … upon a time, an eccentric confluence of talents fashioned a heart-stealing irresistibly odd stage musical from this low-fi low-budget source. And it went to Broadway and won eight Tony Awards, a bona fide Broadway fairy tale.  

That’s the 2012 musical that launches the Citadel mainstage season Thursday. And Winnipeg-based director Ann Hodges, whose career has embraced a spectrum of plays, musicals, and operas across the country, is happy to talk about how far Once lives outside the musical theatre mainstream.

Ann Hodges, director of Once, Citadel Theatre. Photo supplied.

She starts with the book, written for the stage, improbably enough, by the fierce Irish playwright Enda Walsh (Disco Pigs, The Walworth Farce, The New Electric Ballroom). An artist of the dark and gritty persuasion, Walsh is an unlikely match for the delicate love story at the centre of Once. He wryly conceded as much in a 2013 interview with the Guardian, that a friend of his was “particularly appalled…. He said it was like someone giving Charles Manson the rights to adapt It’s A Wonderful Life.”

Guy is on the point of giving up his dream when he meets Girl. He fixes her vacuum cleaner. She re-charges his creative engines, so to speak, by making music with him for a week. And they fall in love, tentatively, sort of.

“The scenes themselves are incredibly efficient, and also deep and dense,” says Hodges. “Within a line or two you know who these people are, what they desperately want, what’s underneath! This piece is incredibly well crafted…. What I get from Walsh’s writing is that he really understands people.”

The songs themselves don’t have the musical theatre vibe, or drive, or even function, Hodges thinks. “They’re often oblique; they’re poetic. They’re expressing what’s going on internally with the characters, whatever the characters’ moment is. They don’t necessarily propel the story forward….” With Once, it’s never a case of “stop, and sing.”

Or “stop and dance,” for that matter. The choreography (by Julie Tomaino) doesn’t aim for high-stepping Broadway razzle-dazzle. “What we’re trying for is illumination rather than fancy steps,” says Hodges,  whose cast of a dozen (led by Lawrence Libor as Guy and Emily Dallas as Girl) has gathered half from here, half from the rest of the country, Vancouver to Halifax. 

Once, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson for Epic Photography.

“The whole cast is onstage the whole time, all involved in telling the story of Guy and Girl, witnessing it, underscoring it.” And the actors play all the instruments. In fact, a lot of the time they move while playing them. Which, as you know if you’ve danced with your cello recently, can be a challenge.

So, in a piece about “the transformative power of music, you actually see that happening onstage: each character transformed by the act of making music,” Hodges says. “You have the excitement of this live music-making, music created right in front of you! (Even) in the transitions and studio sessions, music explodes off the stage!”

Once isn’t the first time Hodges has directed a musical in which the actors are the musicians. At Persephone Theatre in Saskatoon, she directed Dear Johnnie Deere, a jukebox musical inspired by the songs of Fred Eaglesmith. And the much-travelled director, who’s spent at least half the year already working away from her Winnipeg home base, arrives at the Citadel from directing Stories From The Red Dirt Road, an adaptation of P.E.I stories,” in Charlottetown. “It’s a good warm-up for this,” she says, “for figuring out how the instrument trade-offs should work, whether that guitar needs to be over there for the next scene….” 

Once is Hodges’ first time directing theatre in Edmonton. Opera has brought her here before. Not only does she direct operas (most recently, Tosca in Newfoundland for Opera on the Avalon), she is herself a librettist. Witness original Hodges adaptations of Cenerentola, Hansel and Gretel, The Barber of SevilleHer 45-minute  adaptation of the latter, re-titled for every city where it plays (here, The Barber of Barrhead), was remounted across Canada.

The National Theatre School directing grad “fell in love with theatre in high school”; by age 15 Hodges knew she wanted to direct, not act. “In retrospect I enjoyed the competitive aspect of getting a part way more than having it and doing it onstage.”

Music has always figured prominently in her career. As a kid she studied piano and singing, and remembers borrowing scripts and songbooks from the Winnipeg Public Library to play and sing — Harold Arlen, the Gershwins, Cole Porter. “It was my connections in the opera world that brought me back to musical theatre….”  With a play, you’re given the content, and it’s up to you to find the form. With music, you have a form and you need to find the content.”

Thoughts like these she applies to the songs of Once, unusually elliptical and poetic for a Broadway musical. “When our hearts are broken, we express ourselves in a way that’s not straightforward. Once gets to your heart in a way you don’t expect.”

Emily Dallas and Lawrence Libor in Once, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson for Epic Photography.

“All the characters, including Guy and Girl, are stopped in life in some way. Music, and making music together, gets them unstuck. By the end all of them have moved forward.… It’s not your traditional musical. It’s a beautiful, tender love story about people who meet through music, transform through music, and learn so much about love from each other.”

The original Broadway production, and its touring spin-offs like the Broadway Across Canada production that played the Jube here in 2015, were physically set in a mirror-lined Irish pub — “a bold creative choice” as Hodges says of the original design by Bob Crowley. Only two of the 16 scenes, though, are actually set in a pub; the rest happen in a variety of locations including a music shop, a vacuum cleaner repair establishment, a bedroom, a bank, an Irish hilltop. “The original creators insisted that new productions come up with new ideas” for the stage setting. “Our production looks very different!” says Hodges, delighted with Cory Sincennes’ design.  

There’s still a rollicking pub party, though. Before every performance the lobby of the Shoctor Theatre is reborn as a Dublin street, with a bar and buskers. And you can take drinks into the theatre and onto the stage before the show starts, to hang out with the musicians. As Hodges says, “it’s a show about making music. And it’s an opportunity to witness music-making up close!”

PREVIEW

Once

Theatre: Citadel

Written by: Enda Walsh from the John Carney film, music by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová

Directed by: Ann Hodges

Starring: Emily Dallas, Lawrence Libor, Ruth Alexander, Julien Arnold, Benjamin Camenzull, Christina Cuglietta, Oscar Derkx, Stephen Guy-McGrath, Richard Lam, Karen Lizotte, Larissa Pohoreski, John Ullyatt, Alex Zhang

Running: through Oct. 14

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com 

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