It’s been a pleasure to write this track-by-track analysis of our new Once On This Island Broadway cast recording, now available.
We produced the CD together with Elliot Scheiner for Broadway Records, and by the end of the recording sessions, we were elated. It seemed to us that we’d somehow exploded out of the recording studio and into the real world, capturing the live immediacy and humanity of the performances that happen every night at Circe in the Square.
Using found objects, home-made instruments, improvised costumes, and powerful human voices and bodies, director Michael Arden and his design team have created an immersive world of magical gods and star-crossed lovers. And just as the physical production has been completely re-imagined, the story, too, is suddenly asking new questions for our times.
How can a community come together after a tragedy? How can we create beauty out of destruction? How can we turn the things that befall us into stories that will help us understand one another?
In today’s brave new world, fraught with divisions of race and class, subject to natural and man-made disasters, the story of Once On This Island seems to matter now more than ever.
LA: This opening number grew directly out of a handful of notes that Stephen wrote in his head, on the subway. When he played the simple melody line for me on the piano, I immediately heard prayers: “Asaka, grow me a garden.” “Please, Agwe, don’t flood my garden.” “Erzulie, who will my love be?” “Papa Ge, don't come around me.” Those first notes and words led to an opening number that accomplishes a lot: It introduces a cast of storytellers, telling their story to a young child frightened by thunder; it sets up a world in which the gods rule and the forces of nature influence everything; it lets you know that the language of the characters will be simple, direct and poetic; and it introduces “two different worlds” separated by culture and color. The great Marilyn Bergman once said, “The words are on the tips of the notes,” and for me, it was all on the tips of those first few notes.
SF: The first song in the show and on this recording was also the first song we wrote. I initially created an eight-note phrase with variations. This leitmotiv (“Asaka, grow me a garden”) is used both vocally and instrumentally throughout the score, as the gods are omnipresent in the peasants’ lives. The first sound you hear on this track, by the way, is plastic tubing, which is manipulated by two actors in a swinging motion, causing air to form a “pitch.” Michael Starobin, our original orchestrator and the orchestrator for this revival, built on the idea of “junk instruments” in this new orchestration. These unconventional instruments (created by John Bertles of “Bash The Trash”) are played by our actors, our storytellers, in tandem with our four on-stage instrumentalists. Michael’s co-orchestrator, AnnMarie Milazzo, also creates new “vocal orchestrations” that are present on the very first downbeat of this track and virtually through the entire recording.
“One Small Girl”
LA: Here’s the complete backstory of our lead character. We follow Little Ti Moune from the safety of a tree after the storm into the loving arms of her adoptive parents; she grows up mischievous and questioning; and thanks to a lovely bit of stagecraft, we see her transform in a split second into a young adult, a breathtaking entrance for 19-year-old Tony nominee Hailey Kilgore, making her Broadway debut. The show’s themes of community, parenting, and growing up are all seeded in this number, and will come full circle by the end of the show.
SF: “The Story Of Ti Moune” is told by our storytellers, who accompany the narrative with their handmade instruments. The musical theme, in a rhythmic 3/4 time, is brought back at the end of the next song (“Waiting For Life”) and also used in several other places in the score. The moment at 5:01 when Little Ti Moune “turns into” the adult Ti Moune is such a magical moment in the theatre each night. Nothing like hearing the collective gasp of an audience!
“Waiting for Life”
LA: Our first draft of this song didn’t quite work. My knee-jerk reaction—a bad one—is often to say, “Let’s just write something else” (probably because I enjoy writing so much). Luckily, Stephen suggested that before we cut it, we analyze what didn’t feel right. It turned out to be the bridge. We decided to bring back the musical motif of the verse at the top of the song, “the stranger in white” as he drives past for a second time in his imaginary car. Notice that by this point, the lyric now has her calling him, “My stranger!”
SF: This song, Ti Moune’s “I want” song, was almost cut from the show. The original bridge just wasn’t quite working and its music didn’t soar enough. When we replaced it with the current bridge (“A stranger racing down the beach…”) everything seemed to snap into place and the audience fell in love with our character (and leading lady) when she sang “We’ll drive!”
“And the Gods Heard Her Prayer/Rain”
LA: The Gods are like four kids in the playground, looking for mischief. Asaka suggests dropping a mango on Ti Moune’s head to teach her a lesson—that’s how childish they are. But when they decide to make Ti Moune the subject of a wager, their specific powers become a darker catalyst for what’s to come. “Rain” is performed by Quentin Earl Darrington, whose voice is indeed a force of nature. As the God of Water, he begins her journey by bringing Ti Moune and Daniel together on a dark, rain-slicked road, in a cataclysmic meeting. In keeping with the creative concept of the production, Daniel’s car is formed by dancers carrying a torn screen door, shutters, old car parts and other detritus—a striking example of the collaboration between choreography, set design, and direction.
SF: “Rain” was the last song Lynn and I wrote for the score. It replaced a song from the Playwrights Horizons workshop called “Daughter of the Sea,” which had a much more languid, sensual feel. The powerful driving rhythm of “Rain” seemed much more dynamic and made Agwe a much more commanding god. AnnMarie Milazzo’s vocal parts in this number are one of this album’s highlights for me—imaginative, vocally thrilling, and vibrant.
LA: The first song we wrote for this moment was a comedic number called “Leave Him on the Road,” as the villagers find the injured Daniel after his car crash. But playwright Alfred Uhry gave us some words of wisdom: “Let the show tell you what it needs,” and we subsequently followed our instincts to a much more dramatic place. This complex number covers a great deal of ground: Ti Moune cares for the unconscious Daniel; her mother tries to intervene; the villagers pray and sacrifice to the gods; Tonton makes his way to the gates of Daniel’s home, where he is assaulted by the guard; and Death stalks the village as a storm threatens to destroy them all. The driving percussion binds it all together.
SF: I love how this sequence contains so much of the action and story and yet uses very minimal musical materials. It was thrilling creating a nearly seven-minute sequence with very few musical ingredients, a real challenge to see how much story could be told through the music. I’d be neglectful if I didn’t give a shout out to Darlesia Cearcy for that wild voodoo vocal improv at 5:31 and Alex Newell for his intense “Pray” vocal wind-up at 6:35 (singing in the original key no less!).
LA: This was never intended to be your standard love ballad. There is an eerie, minor-key quality to the music, so even as Ti Moune imagines an idyllic love, something tells you that there’s trouble ahead. Sure enough, the song turns on a dime with the sudden appearance of Papa Ge, who forces Ti Moune to promise her own life in exchange for allowing Daniel to live. Merle Dandridge was cast as the God of Death—it’s the first time we know of that a woman has played this role, and she made it her own, creating a fierce character straight out of nightmares.
SF: This might be the song in the score with the most surprises. It begins as a moody, minor-key love song then morphs into a love duet (in a major key) between Ti Moune and Daniel. However, with the arrival at 2:42 of Papa Ge, it again morphs into an aggressive 7/4 driving meter with percussive jabs as the Demon of Death coerces Ti Moune into a pact. This song, which originally seemed to me one of the most daunting to write, wound up being one of the most fun to write. Oh, and that’s an electric sitar accompanying Papa Ge!
“The Sad Tale of the Beauxhommes”
LA: As a mainstay writer of the animated series Schoolhouse Rock, I learned how to tell a history lesson in a compact, entertaining form, and it came in handy here. This number is not only a musical palate-cleanser after a dramatic sequence, but it also informs the audience about the colonial history of Haiti. While it starts out whimsically, it doesn’t sugar-coat the idea of colorism, and it gradually leads to an unexpectedly angry conclusion.
SF: This song, led by storytellers Rodrick Covington, Darlesia Cearcy, and David Jennings, is a narrative history of the island. It definitely was a “lyrics-first” song. But those lyrics, which tell so much backstory with such economy, inspired a musical theme that surprised me. The music is intended to sound of “another world,” and is a French-inspired, modal waltz. I bring this music back later in the score when we enter the world of the Beauxhommes in “The Ball.”
LA: If “Once On This Island” had an intermission, the curtain would come down right after this song, as Ti Moune’s parents allow their beloved daughter to follow her dreams into a dangerous and unknown world. Kenita Miller and Philip Boykin’s voices are rich, emotional instruments, and although I’m pretty hard-nosed when it comes to my own work, when I hear them sing, I inevitably well up. Along with Hailey, they capture this universal moment for parents and children with perfect and heartbreaking commitment.
SF: This song will always be a highlight for me and it goes straight to my heart every time, especially as performed by these three gifted actors. The writing of the music for its bridge surprised me—I wasn’t expecting the places where it went harmonically and had no idea how I would get the melody to harmonically join when returning to the “A” sections. But somehow I did! Must’ve been the gods.
“Mama Will Provide”
LA: “But on this island, the earth sings / As soon as a storm ends.” And in this musical, a comic song happens as soon as the drama ends! It was a lot of fun creating this fantastical number for birds, frogs, trees, and breezes, the natural minions of Asaka, Mother of the Earth. As for Asaka herself, all we had to do was turn Alex Newell loose with a fan and a big skirt made out of a tablecloth. With his supple, powerful voice and unfettered personality, his performance is open-hearted and hilarious. But Asaka is not entirely kindly—the god also provides Ti Moune with “mosquitos,” just to remind us of the trouble nature can wreak.
SF: The gods have blessed us with many Diva Asakas over the years, from the original powerhouse Asaka of Kecia Lewis to Lillias White (who sang this song on the 1991 Tony Awards) to London’s Sharon D. Clarke (who was nominated for an Olivier Award), and now the wonder that is Alex Newell. He truly makes this song his own and rips the roof off our theater eight times a week. Work that tablecloth, Alex!
LA: This song solved a central problem we had with the underlying novel, My Love My Love, by Rosa Guy. For the middle third of the book, we couldn’t figure out how to musicalize the disparate events that befell Ti Moune on her way to the city. It finally occurred to us to skim over it all by making this a song about surmise—maybe this happened, maybe that happened. This device carries us all the way from the start of Ti Moune’s journey to the moment when she enters Daniel’s bedroom, leaving it to the imagination to say what really happened on the way.
SF: This song, with its contagious bass line, contains one of the most striking scenic reveals on Broadway today, made all the more striking since it is entirely actor-driven. (Since it is impossible to include this reveal on this recording, you’ll just have to come see the show at Circle in the Square!).
LA: You might call this song “liftable” as it contains no specific plot points, and yet it somehow feels specific to the moment, as two young people become part of the continuum of lovers, with all their courage and innocence, failures and foolishness. With Lea Salonga’s ethereal beauty, dignity, and silken voice, she seems to embody the lyric, “This is the gift I give. Through your love, you’ll live forever.” That lyric foreshadows the ending.
SF: The goddess Erzulie (the sublime goddess Lea Salonga) blesses our young lovers. The track begins with a vocalise of the “prayer” theme from “We Dance.” How can you not fall in love when you hear Lea sing this?
LA: Actors who have played villagers up until this moment now transform into the upper class, whispering about the shocking liaison between the wealthy Daniel and the peasant Ti Moune. The lyrics become somewhat more brittle, sophisticated, and educated, even as the music reprises the peasant rhythms in “Pray”—two sides of the island aligned by their common music, but separated by their language and prejudices.
SF: Since this sequence uses musical material from the song “Pray” we originally called this track “Pray Reprise” on both the first Broadway recording and on the London recording as well. What always bothered me was that the word “pray” is never sung or spoken anywhere in this sequence! So Lynn and I opted for a title change on this disc. Sometimes it takes 27 years to get it right.
LA: Alone with Ti Moune in a romantic setting, Daniel pledges his love for her, even as we see another beautiful young woman getting dressed in an elegant gown and servants rolling up carpets and preparing for a gathering. Isaac Powell’s beautiful voice seduces us down the path of romance as he tells Ti Moune, “Some girls you marry, some you love,” but she only hears what she wants to hear.
SF: In addition to Isaac Powell’s terrific interpretation of this lyrical solo, there’s also a new, gossamer arrangement by Michael Starobin that features Hidayat Honari on acoustic guitar and our music director, Alvin Hough, on keyboard. Multi-talented cast member Cassondra James plays the lovely flute part on this track (and elsewhere on this recording).
LA: From European-style waltz music to magnificent jewels and gowns, this moment is meant to suggest a world of privilege and prejudice, far from Ti Moune’s experience. Daniel dances with Andrea Devereaux, the beautiful young woman we saw earlier, and she questions him about Ti Moune, clearly jealous. Ti Moune enters, a beautiful flame in a red ball gown, and Andrea asks her to dance for all assembled.
SF: A dance variation of the “Beauxhomme” theme and “Some Girls,” this music, which precedes the very different music of “Ti Moune’s Dance,” allows us to hear the “two different worlds” of the island in high relief.
“Ti Moune’s Dance”
LA: A simple melody reminds Ti Moune of her people, and she begins to dance, at first shyly but then with spirit and abandon, drawing the straight-laced Beauxhommes into her dance and allowing them to celebrate their own roots. Ti Moune’s dance is a triumph, not only for her, but for choreographer Camille A. Brown, who created this show-stopping tour de force for Hailey Kilgore and the company.
SF: in the original production Ti Moune hears the voices of Mama Euralie, Tonton, and her younger self sing the theme of “We Dance” at the top, which inspires Ti Moune to embrace her identity and gives her the courage to dance. In this production the four gods now sing this music, led by Erzulie. The new percussive dance music was created by our inspired percussionist and beat-master, Javier Diaz.
“When We Are Wed”
LA: Andrea Devereaux (played by the aptly named Alysha Deslorieux) is hurt by Daniel’s passion for Ti Moune, but it nevertheless falls to her to tell Ti Moune of her own impending marriage to Daniel. The delicate music leaves emotional space for the actor and all that’s been “left unsaid.” Even in such a short, conversational moment, the character manages to convey both honesty and compassion, making us feel for her almost as much as we feel for Ti Moune. Both are victims of their cultures.
SF: The music invokes the themes of “And The Gods Heard Her Prayer,” “Pray,” and “The Sad Tale of the Beauxhommes” in a simple, conversational way, before segueing as one into the next track.
“Forever Yours (Reprise)”
LA: Some reprises seem inevitable, and this is one. Left alone in shock and disbelief, Ti Moune calls on the gods for help. But out of the darkness, Papa Ge materializes. The only way she can save herself now is to kill Daniel. As Ti Moune approaches Daniel with a raised knife, Erzulie appears and challenges Papa Ge for the girl’s soul. Will Ti Moune kill Daniel and save herself?
SF: This track combines Papa Ge’s music from “Forever Yours” with Erzulie’s “The Human Heart” sung in counterpoint, as the gods of Love and Death battle it out. Cue that electric sitar!
“A Part of Us”
LA: This moment begins in silence and its power is in the a capella singing, allowing the raw emotions of the moment to be heard and also felt. Mama Euralie, Tonton Julian, and the Little Girl mourn Ti Moune, and they and the storytellers describe how the gods reward Ti Moune for her perseverance and love.
SF: Led by Kenita Miller, this is one of my favorite tracks on this recording. Yes, I regularly lose it right around 1:45 (“Erzulie took her by the hand…”). I love the ritualistic quality of this section supported by those heavenly vocals.
“Why We Tell the Story”
LA: The actors transform back into storytellers, and all celebrate Ti Moune’s eternal power. The storm is over, and the Little Girl begins to repeat the story back to the adults. ”Why We Tell the Story” explicates why the power of storytelling is cathartic and necessary for us all; and as the audience gathers together in a circle every night at Circle in the Square, it feels as if our story has found its perfect home.
SF: To create the music for these final two songs, I referenced the music used in the funerals of New Orleans—starting with slow music that supports intense grieving, which then shifts gears dramatically into an up-tempo, rhythmic celebration of life. This final song also contains one of Lynn’s most beautiful lyrics: “For out of what we live and we believe, our lives become the stories that we weave.”