Enda Walsh is not exactly what you would call a romantic.
His plays tend to deal with the darker side of human nature and his protagonists typically have dark intentions to match. Some of Walsh’s most memorable characters include a disturbed teen who encourages his online friends to commit suicide in his play “Chatroom” and, in “Disco Pigs,” a pair of star-crossed friends whose tortured relationship comes to a violent end.
So it surprised Walsh when he was recruited, along with English director John Tiffany, to translate the indie romantic film “Once” from screen to stage. His adaptation of the movie opens Tuesday in Shea’s Performing Arts Center.
There’s very little pessimistic or off-color about the quiet Irish movie about a brief friendship between two musicians in Dublin. The film was produced on a shoestring budget in 2006 and became a surprise international hit.
“We’ve all made really dark work, so it was so peculiar for us to make a tiny, tiny love story,” Walsh said in a phone interview, referring to Tiffany and choreographer Stephen Hoggert, who collaborated on the dark Iraq War play “Black Watch.” “I said, ‘I think they’re talking to the wrong person.’ ”
After getting over his initial snobbery about the prospect of writing a Broadway show and following his wife’s advice to take a breather from his more serious projects, Walsh gave it a shot.
To say his decision paid off – “Once” won eight 2012 Tony Awards, including best musical – would be a vast understatement.
And in his writing process, Walsh said, understatement was the name of the game.
In adapting “Once” for the theater, Walsh had to amplify the film’s subtle and low-decibel plot and characters – played by musicians Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová – just enough to work on a Broadway stage.
“It needed to be populated a little bit more, but also the language needed a little bit more muscle. It needed a driving force and it needed a little bit, sort of a spark,” Walsh said. “Once that got going, then you just sort of let the thing write itself ... It was incredibly sort of sweet and really, really easy because what I was doing was just under-writing everything.”
That subtle and small-scale approach puts “Once” in direct opposition to many big-budget Broadway musicals, which employ opulent sets, huge dance numbers and grandiose orchestrations to hold the attention of theatergoers.
“There’s a real need from the stage to sort of go, ‘Watch us, watch us! Are you still watching?’ They’re sort of screaming at you,” Walsh said of Broadway’s in-your-face ethos. “We were into this notion of watching people on stage playing instruments, who look sort of misshapen. There’s no gloss on them at all. They just look like me and you and the person on the street and the person working in the shop. They just looked like they were hand-picked and just thrown on the stage. It’s refreshing to see people like that.”
Though Walsh never expected this bright spot to appear on his dark resume, he said he’s pleasantly surprised with the way it turned out.
“I was just doing all the yap, and the songs were doing all the soliloquies. They were the real sort of soul of the piece,” he said.
His job “was making sure that they were in an order so that they added up to a real opening of the heart and all that sort of stuff,” he said. “It’s actually a perfect bittersweet love story that has this really quiet tragedy in it. Being able to tell a love story, it’s very beautiful, very nourishing.”