Cinematic Theatre: ‘Once’ and Film to Stage Adaptations

once musical filmThere is a tendency to think of the flow of adaptation as going only one way, to think of film as sucking up all the narratives it can get its hands on from novels, comic books, and stage productions in order to turn them into films. Recently, however, the exchange has increasingly gone the other way, with films serving as the basis for Broadway stage adaptations. Tony Perucci relies on the financial and cultural forces that are often cited to explain film’s tendency toward adaptation, that the familiarity of the adapted work can help sell tickets, since the “stage adaptation of a film can borrow the cultural capital of its source film, just as film and stage adaptations” of literary works make similar use of their sources.

If screen to stage adaptations rely on an appeal to the familiarity of the stories and styles of their sources, then some measure of fidelity becomes a major selling point in trying to encourage audiences to see the stage version by promising to recreate something of the experience of the film. Because of the different strengths and weaknesses of each medium, however, delivering on that promise can lead to as many stylistic and formal difficulties as when the flow of adaptation goes the other way.

Disney is perhaps the best known producer of film to stage adaptations, having launched stage versions of The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Little Mermaid. While film adaptations of stage productions can greatly widen the scope of their originals by opening up the narrative to more and larger spaces, the challenge for Disney was precisely the opposite: paring down the even wider conceptual scope allowed by animation to bring it in line with the limitations of the stage while still offering the feeling of the original films. In many cases this resulted in elaborate, large-scale productions, using stagecraft ingenuity to deliver something of Disney’s patented sense of wonder.

Lion King MusicalSome of Disney’s stage productions were praised for their efforts at translation, at the attempt to retell the narratives of their source films using the limits and resources of the stage, rather than trying to reshape those limits and resources in order to recreate the experience of the films. In his review of The Lion King, for example, Ben Brantley praised the theatrical production for not following the example set by Disney’s Beauty and the Beast stage show, with its “literal-minded” approach to adaptation that did little more than turn its “cinematic model into three dimensions.” Ultimately, however, he felt that in attempting to capture some of the spectacle of the animated film, the show’s elaborate design work made it difficult for the stage production to evoke the emotions that the film was able to trigger in its audience. There is an underlying logic in reviews like Brantley’s, that just as film cannot and should not try to be theatrical, the stage cannot and should not try to be cinematic.

The stage adaptation of director John Carney’s 2007 Irish musical film Once wasn’t faced with the same expansive narrative spaces as the African savannah of The Lion King, or the massive enchanted castle in Beauty and the Beast.

The film focuses on the impact a young Czech immigrant has on the life of a thirty-something singer-songwriter she meets busking on the streets of Dublin. Carney’s camera follows the unnamed Guy and Girl through the city’s streets and into the cramped spaces of its stores, Girl’s small flat, and Guy’s bedroom above his father’s vacuum cleaner repair shop. The film’s budget and the stylistic choices made by Carney give it a low-budget, pared down aesthetic that, while not needing tremendously costly stagecraft to emulate, is just as difficult to adapt to the stage as Disney’s grandeur. Yet the stage production is able to adopt some of those stylistic choices while translating them to the stage’s different mode of storytelling so that they seem suited to the theatre while still retaining a strangely cinematic quality.

The film was shot on a miniscule budget – €180, 000 – over a very short period of time – 17 days – with a crew of only 12 using just 2 small digital cameras that are often moved freely about the space with shaky, handheld cinematography. The size of the crew, and the sparsity of equipment required to shoot in this way, Once Dublin streetsallows the film to unobtrusively insert itself into the real spaces of Dublin’s streets. As Dióg O’Connell argues, in eschewing the “services of many of the roles defined by the studio system” the small size of the production meant that the crew “did not have to shut down streets and redirect traffic to capture a scene,” since they weren’t restricted by the “big trucks, trailers, complex layers of bureaucracy and expanded crews” necessary for 35 mm production. The resultant “absence of ‘gloss’” is enhanced by the film’s tendency to make use of whatever is at hand in the locations in which it shoots, with “passers-by becoming unwitting performers” and with natural light or artificial sources from streetlamps and storefronts lighting the scenes.

While the use of documentary style cinematography in recognizable Dublin locations suggests the film is dedicated to some measure of authenticity, Carney’s camera deliberately excludes as much of modern Dublin as it reveals. As Tony Tracy argues, there is “something willfully anachronistic” about the film, as Carney not only avoids including cappuccino shops, cell phones, and ipods in his shots, but also has Guy play his music for Girl on cassette tapes, has the couple shop in vintage clothing stores, and has Girl live in an old, Georgian style building.

Once musical stageThe musical adopts a similar aesthetic of anachronism. The entire action is restricted to a single set resembling an old pub, with a worn linoleum floor, walls covered in antiqued mirrors and lined with an assortment of spindly wooden chairs, all lit with exposed, old-fashioned light bulbs. But because the musical can’t explore the real space of the city, this exclusion of modernity means that the show feels completely untethered to any actual period of time, rather than displaying the non-contemporaneous contemporaneity of the film. As a result, both the film and the musical feel slightly fantastic, but in the film this sense of unreality within the patent realism of the setting seems like a deliberate attempt to render a specific vision of Dublin, whereas in the musical the fantasy underlying the action is something more germane to the stage, which always begins with an inherent fictionality on which it has to build the impression of a real space.

Yet, this need to build a sense of a fully-realised space on stage, rather than simply shooting in an existing location, is used by the show to adopt some of the glossless aesthetic created by the film’s use of real spaces and its tendency to pull from the resources those locations readily provide. The set itself never changes throughout the course of the show, but the performers use the chairs, several small tables, and their instruments to create the different spaces required by the narrative. In addition to playing several named roles, the chorus – almost always present on stage – also serves as extras to help create an impression of each space. During the scene in which Guy and Girl visit the bank in the hopes of procuring a loan to rent time in a recording studio, for example, they arrange themselves behind the small tables lined up to one side of the stage in the posture of worn down employees.

Once musical piano
The music shop set composed almost entirely of one piano.

The show also makes use of dialogue to describe spaces for the audience which are then sketched out using the minimal props. When Girl tells Guy that she will take him to the music store where the owner allows her to play the unsold pianos after she promises to pay for his vacuum repair services with music, the scene suddenly shifts to the store, with Girl simply saying “This is the shop. And this is the man” as the chorus swiftly clears away the previous space and moves a piano into center stage to signal the new one.

While this minimalist use of props and sets allows the musical to give an impression of a small scale production similar to the film by using the limitations of a theatrical space to its advantage, that space presents the musical with difficulties other than simply giving the audience a sense of different locations despite never being able to freely move through space as in the film. Carney’s hand-held cinematography, his tendency to keep one or both of the main characters in frame throughout the film and to move freely around them, creates a focused sense of intimacy; we always seem to be close to the characters without actually encroaching on their space. In a theatre, however, while the audience is always in the same physical space as the characters, they are nevertheless also at a physical remove from the space they inhabit. We aren’t allowed the same freedom to move with them that the camera provides, so that it becomes difficult to create the same dynamic of inclusion and exclusion that Carney suggests through his cinematography.

Once on stage experience
Audience members explore the stage and the house lights stay up once they leave it and Guy enters.

The solution the musical comes to it both inherently theatrical and yet also cinematic. Before the show begins, the audience is invited up on to the stage, where they can purchase a drink from the on-stage bar while “immersing themselves in Irish pub culture, and mingling with members of the cast” who sing and play as the crowd files on and off. The chorus is soon joined by Guy, and they continue performing as the audience is ushered off the stage, but even once everyone has retaken their seats the house lights stay up. When Guy starts singing his first solo number, “Leave,” Girl enters silently from the back of the house, and as she proceeds down the aisle toward the stage, the house lights come down slowly behind her, finally darkening the stage as well, so that Guy is the only one brightly illuminated. The effect is like a live-action iris, with the image narrowing in on Guy.

The point of bringing down the house lights in any stage production is to mark the space the audience occupies off from the stage, so that the narrative seems to take place in its own enclosed space which is entirely off-limits to the audience. The stage becomes its own world, despite actually sharing space with the real world of the audience. By inviting theatregoers on stage before the show, Once opens that space up to the audience, and keeps it open as the narrative begins by not immediately bringing the lights down. Gradually letting the house lights fade as Girl enters closes the imaginary space of the stage off again, but the barrier between the audience and the stage is never complete, because the space was once available to us, and therefore could be again. The transition from shared space to separate spaces, and from participants to observers, is therefore both more marked and more fluid, suggesting some of the same dynamic of inclusion and exclusion evident in the film.

Once Say it to me now
The camera movement prevents us from seeing Girl approach until she is right in front of Guy.

Bringing the lights down as Girl enters also mirrors her introduction in the film, in which she suddenly appears unseen from the outside of the frame as the camera focuses in on Guy performing “Say it to me now,” moving in from a wide shot taken from across the street on which he’s playing to a close framing that prevents us from seeing her approach until she is right in front of him.

In addition to playing a host of minor roles and helping to create the musical’s different settings, the chorus also serves to create a distinction between two types of music in a more complex way than most onstage musicals, aligning it with a similar play with the status of the songs in the film. Like its use of real but de-modernised locations, the film is at once dedicated to creating a sense of authenticity in its musical performances while also recognizing them as performances. The film moves from strictly diegetic performances (originating from the story world), in which Guy, Girl, and the other musicians sing and play the entirety of their songs onscreen, to nondiegetic music (from outside the story world) that has no source in the on-screen action, to semi-diegetic numbers which either include both onscreen performance and offscreen score, or that transition between the two.

once busking
Guy sings on screen and the song continues even as the camera captures him singing something else.

“Say it to me now,” for example, is performed in its entirety on screen in a single shot, with only Guy’s voice and guitar – as well as some ambient noise – audible on the soundtrack. Once back at home, Guy sings and plays in his room, and again he and his guitar dominate the soundtrack, but then the film shifts to a montage of scenes depicting Guy’s daily life and the song becomes something more akin to non-diegetic score, as he calls his ex-girlfriend, asks his Da what he wants for dinner on his way out of the shop, and then returns to busk on the street, performing a different song on the image track than the one still playing on the soundtrack. The song slowly fades out once Girl arrives with her broken vacuum cleaner.

Some of the film’s songs – most notably “Falling slowly” – are performed diegetically and then are rendered partially nondiegetic when reprised on the soundtrack. Others are performed onscreen, but with nondiegetic accompaniment, Once If you want meas when Girl sings her own lyrics to Guy’s guitar track playing on her portable CD player, only to be supported by Guy’s voice on the chorus, even though he has never heard the complete version of the song; as “If you want me” continues on the soundtrack, the film cuts away from Girl singing to her working as a maid, and the song transitions from diegetic, to semi-diegetic, to nondiegetic.

The diegetic status of the songs is also complicated by shifts in sound quality, with some clearly recorded live while the camera was rolling, even once it has broken away from the performer, while others seem to be performed onscreen but sound more polished and thus pre-recorded.

Once GoldIn on stage musicals all the performances are inherently present and live, but often there is still a distinction made between diegetic and nondiegetic music, marked by its source either on stage or in the orchestra pit, with the accompaniment provided by the pit musicians corresponding to the score in film musicals. In the Once adaptation, however, all the music is performed directly on stage. In addition to Guy’s guitar and Girl’s piano, the chorus takes up various instruments throughout the show, but despite the fact that they are almost always playing on stage the show is still able to draw a distinction between diegetic and nondiegetic music.

Once falling slowly
Just visible in the shadows at the edge of the stage, the chorus accompanies Guy and Girl performing “Falling slowly.”

When the chorus isn’t performing outright with Guy and Girl, they take up positions on the margins of the stage and play, filling out the sound from the couple’s voices and instruments. We can see the chorus performing in the shadows on the edges of the stage, but the sound they’re producing can’t be located in the world of the story despite the fact that it originates from the same space. The use of the chorus and that liminal space on the margins of the stage but not in the story world make the distinction between diegetic and nondiegetic music more fluid than it would have been if the accompanying performers were relegated to an entirely separate space in the pit, and therefore more akin to the fluidity in the diegetic status of the music in the film.

The stage musical makes a number of changes in adapting the film that range from insignificant – Guy’s girlfriend has moved to New York rather than London – to larger shifts in the story’s tone and characterization – the musical is much more focused on generating laughs than the film, and gives most of the narrative agency to Girl, compared to the more balanced distribution in the film – but in its use of a minimalist stage, and the fluidity it creates between audience and stage space, and between diegetic and nondiegetic sound, it manages to translate some of the cinematic qualities of the film to the theatre. What’s remarkable is that it does so using the resources and limitations of one medium to gesture to the qualities created by the completely different resources and limitations of another, suggesting that adaptations across media can successfully capture their sources without trying to force one medium to mimic another. Cinematic theatre is not an impossibility, and Once proves that the stage can bring something of film into the theatre by harnessing the affective power of what happens behind the proscenium.


Ben Brantley, “The Lion King Cub Comes of Age: A Twice-Told Tale,” The New York Times, November 14, 1997.

Dióg O’Connell, New Irish Storytellers: Narrative Strategies in Film (Chicago: Intellect, 2010).

Tony Perucci, “‘Pretty, isn’t it?’ Adapting Film Noir to the Stage,” in Performing Adaptation: Essays and Conversations on the Theory and Practice of Adaptation, Michelle MacArthur, Lydia Wilkinson, and Keren Zaiontz ed. (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009): 73-86.

Tony Tracy, review of Once, Estudios Irlandeses 2 (2007): 269-271.


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