When the Broadway revival of Once on This Island sweeps into Circle in the Square November 9, it will bring with it an all-new sound.
Conceived by director Michael Arden, who ushered the acclaimed revival of Spring Awakening back to Broadway in a collaboration with Deaf West Theatre, this acoustic production melds Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s calypso-infused score with the storytelling traditions inherent in its deeply affecting story about the power of the human spirit.
The 1990 musical unfolds as a group of storytellers—caught in the midst of an unrelenting storm—recount the tale of Ti Moune, a Caribbean island country girl in love with an aristocrat. Amplifying the message are a powerful group of theatrical storytellers who have gathered for the revival, including Lea Salonga, Phillip Boykin, Merle Dandridge, Quentin Earl Darrington, Alysha Deslorieux, David Jennings, Kenita R. Miller, Alex Newell, Isaac Powell, and newcomer Hailey Kilgore.
Arden, along with his musical collaborators—original orchestrator Michael Starobin and vocal arranger AnnMarie Milazzo—boil the tale down to its essence, one that resonates deeply for today’s audiences, who are all too familiar with the devastating impact hurricanes have on a community.
“We are taking a look at disaster, and how that can be a metaphor for how we all rebuild,” Arden says.
“We asked ourselves, ‘Do they play instruments?’” Starobin adds. “And we began to talk about the physical production, and how this Once on This Island is set after a hurricane, in the midst of disaster. And I thought, ‘What if we play the garbage that ends up strewn everywhere after a disaster?’”
To that end, the show’s musical team have rebuilt Once on This Island’s score by creating a new sonic palette colored with instruments made out of found objects, including trash bins, flexible piping, and more.
While musicians are still integral to the production, Milazzo has re-conceived the orchestrations as multi-layered vocal arrangements that ebb and flow as part of the musical storytelling.
“It’s simple. There’s just people onstage and they are telling a story to a frightened little girl, and they are telling the story so they aren’t frightened, as well,” Milazzo says. “And they are picking up garbage and they need to tell this story, so they start to create beauty with just themselves. You can’t rely on a string player, you have to become the string player.”
“It’s such an inclusive show and there’s a message of reconciliation of race and people coming together with vast differences… it seems rather timely,” Ahrens says of the musical’s return. Flaherty adds, “It’s such a positive energy show and it’s about unity and people coming together and I think that’s really important now.”
The musical’s timeliness is a driving factor for the musical team. “It’s about asking, ‘What can humans do?,’” Milazzo says. “In the middle of devastation and destruction, they seem to always find the strength to rebuild.”