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From screen to stage, enchanting musical “Once” stays big by going small

Stuart Ward stars in the touring production of the smash Broadway musical "Once," now playing at Seattle's Paramount Theater.

The musical movie “Once”, a little love story about an aspiring Irish guitar player and his brief connection with a Czech piano player, was a surprise success despite its tiny budget, garnering critical acclaim and an Oscar for best song. So when the inspiration came to turn it into a play, the creators did the unexpected.

“We took something little and made it littler,” laughs Stuart Ward, the musician and actor who stars in the lead role in the new production of “Once” now playing at Seattle’s Paramount Theater.

“The kind of secret to this show is it’s the bare bones of story telling. A lot of people on Broadway are huge and big and it’s about ‘I can no longer talk so I must sing’ and there’s big flying sets and people flying all over the place,” he says in an interview with KIRO Radio’s Seattle Sounds.

Much like the movie, the play became a smash-hit on Broadway, winning eight Tony Awards including best musical.

Ward took on the lead role – named only “Guy” – for the U.S. tour after serving as understudy in London’s West End. He admits it’s a delicate balancing act bringing his own take to the role without completely abandoning the character played by Glen Hansard in the film.

“I’m a big Glen Hansard fan, there are a lot of people going to come see the show that are Glen Hansard fans. You can’t just completely flip it on its head and do all kinds of weird stuff,” he says. “You still have to put your own slant on it as the character because I’m the person who has supposed to have written these songs.”

Ward and the rest of the cast perform all the music in the show, which includes many of the powerful songs from the film along with several numbers written for theatrical production.

The show tests all of his chops, but Ward has plenty. A guitar player since he was 12 who has toured the world playing with British great Sir Cliff Richard and studied at Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Academy of Performing Arts, Ward says the role has pushed him as a musician and actor.

“This isn’t the kind of show that you can fake. You need to have a serious musical background because they’re [the songs] quite tricky and especially a lot of the timings as well and the rhythms are quite tricky too.”

Despite performing the show over 200 times and traveling across the country since last fall, Ward found the time earlier this year to record and put out an EP of his own music, “Pictures.” He did it by enlisting the help of his fellow musicians from the show and racing to get it done during his off time through a several week run in Toronto over the winter.

“It was extremely stressful. I did it in the middle of the festive calendar, so we had all these extra shows,” he says.

While he’d love to do more with his own music, Ward says for now his focus is on “Once” as the tour continues throughout the United States and perhaps beyond. And he cherishes every moment of what he calls a simple celebration of life and love.

“We found ourselves with a little gem, a little secret if you like, without realizing what you need to do these days is just strip everything back.”

“Once” runs through June 8 at the Paramount Theater in Seattle.

Stuart Ward and other cast members from the show will join Seattle singer/songwriter Shelby Earl, Sean Nelson and others for a benefit concert Sunday night June 1st at Neumos in Seattle to benefit VH1 Save the Music and Keys for Kids. You can learn more and buy tickets here.

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