Stuart Ward, shown with the “Once” tour company, hails from Liverpool, England, but must switch to a Dublin accent onstage. The show plays the Fox Theatre March 4-9. CONTRIBUTED BY JOAN MARCUS
Photo: JOAN MARCUS
Photo: JOAN MARCUS

‘Once’ a story of destiny for lead ‘Guy’

It’s almost instinctual to roll your eyes when an actor starts talking about how he was “destined” for a role.

But Stuart Ward might be an exception.

The British thespian-musician is in the midst of a yearlong U.S. tour as “Guy,” the unnamed lead in the Tony-winning musical “Once” based on the sweet-natured 2007 Irish-indie film of the same name. The show swings through the Fox Theatre with a March 4-9 run.

It was 2008 when Ward first saw the film, which won an Academy Award for the tender Glen Hansard/Markéta Irglová ballad “Falling Slowly.” He was in England — he hails from Liverpool — rehearsing his own music with a girl who played piano. That already sounds familiar to fans of the movie.

“I went to her house and she was in a terrible mood, so we ended up watching this film she had just gotten on DVD — ‘Once’ — instead of rehearsing. It became a bit of an obsession after that,” the charming Ward said last week from a tour stop in Fort Myers, Fla. “When I found out it was becoming a musical, I felt like (‘Guy’) was my role.”

Ward, 30, auditioned for the West End production of “Once,” which opened in London last March, a year after winning eight Tonys, including Best Musical, on Broadway. Ward didn’t know at the time that the role of “Guy,” the insecure street performer who eventually falls in love with “Girl,” had already been cast.

So he was offered the understudy role for the character while simultaneously being recruited to play guitar on tour with Sir Cliff Richard. Ward worked out his schedule to do both and admits that, “It’s very hard being an understudy. It’s very frustrating being backstage when you want to be onstage.”

But Ward felt in his gut that he was, yes, destined to play “Guy.”

One night, he got tapped to go on, and the next day received a call asking if he wanted to portray the Irish singer-guitarist on the U.S. tour.

“I was gobsmacked,” Ward said, “so I packed up my life and moved to America.”

As a songwriter and musician himself — he hopes to have a CD of original material for sale at the merchandise stands midway through the Atlanta run — Ward already identified with “Guy,” even though he has to modify his Liverpudlian accent to a Dublin one onstage.

“’Guy’ just has this fear of someone telling him he’s not good enough, so rather than face that, he just doesn’t show his music to anyone. I’ve been there,” Ward said.

All of the actors in “Once” play their own instruments — there is no additional orchestra — and the fourth wall is nonexistent from the moment patrons enter the theater and set eyes on the publike set.

“The cast is already playing music onstage, lots of Irish folk songs, and the audience is invited onstage as well to clap along … hopefully in time,” Ward said with a laugh. “We have a functioning bar onstage, and people can come up and get a drink. We invite people to come into our world straight away so we’ve already kind of connected. I think that’s one of the secrets to this show’s success.”

Considering the small scale of “Once,” the movie, and that the musical plays to 1,100 people at Broadway’s Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre and slightly more than 1,000 at the Phoenix Theatre in the West End, it might seem daunting trying to fill a 4,600-capacity building such as the Fox (and other similar-size venues on the tour) with such an intimate story.

Ward acknowledged that it was initially a concern, but since the show opened at the 3,000-capacity Providence Performing Arts Center last year, the cast adapted quickly.

“We’re in a place now that we know, depending upon the size of the house, how to tell the story,” he said. “Sometimes the audience is miles away, and you have to adapt as a performer, but I think we connect well.”

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