Just as he did with 2015’s revival of Spring Awakening, director Michael Arden has completely re-imagined another beloved musical with Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s Once On This Island, which opened December 3 to rave reviews.
Arden and his company and co-creators joined Playbill on the opening-night red carpet live stream on Playbill’s Facebook to talk about the new production of a show that seemingly had been “waiting for (new) life.” In fact, Ahrens shared how the current production came to be:
“We did a Ragtime concert at Avery Fisher Hall—he played younger brother,” said librettist Ahrens of Arden. At the end of the concert, Arden handed her an envelope—which she assumed was a thank-you note. “It was a tape of four of the songs from Once On This Island all performed a cappella with vocal orchestrations by AnneMarie Milazzo, and he wrote a note and said he wanted to do the show. We thought this will never work a cappella. Four years later he came back to us again with a commercial producer, Michael Starobin for orchestrations, AnneMarie Milazzo, Dane Laffrey for sets—he had set models. He had really, in those four years, figured it out, and we were blown away and we said, ‘Go with the gods.’”
In a story much like Romeo & Juliet, the dark-skinned peasant girl Ti Moune falls for the aristocratic pale-skinned Daniel—“two different worlds, never meant to meet.” Guided on a journey by the gods—and tested by them, as well—the celebration of love and breaking down barriers invites audiences into the story—set in the round, no less. When you step into the theatre, Dane Laffrey’s scenic design plops you smack on the island where the story takes place.
During the live stream, Arden spoke of his vision for the show—where he got the idea to transform Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre, how he initially thought he might put the show up in a parking lot, and why he connects so viscerally to creating revivals.
Tony winner Lea Salonga spoke about the secret relationship between her Erzulie, Goddess of Love, and Quentin Earl Darrington’s Agwe, God of Water. Alex Newell, who wows as Asaka, Mother of Earth, shared how his performance of “Mama Will Provide” changes every single show. Merle Dandridge, who plays Papa Ge, Demon of Death, revealed one of her most meaningful moments in the show and how to catch it when you see the production.
Choreographer Camille A. Brown, making her Broadway debut, explained the story behind the most iconic dance in the show (“Ti Moune’s Dance”) and the research she did to create authentic Afro-Haitian and Afro-Cuban movement for the show set in the French Antilles.
Isaac Powell, who makes his Broadway debut as Daniel, broke down some of his dance moments in the show to describe what goes through his mind each performance and how his training best serves him onstage. Newcomer Hailey Kilgore, who was discovered in an international casting search, spoke about making her performance as authentic and joyful as possible—and what she has learned from her veteran co-stars. “A star in the making,” as Salonga called her, Kilgore’s insight into Ti Moune was apparent as she glowed on opening night.