Tony-nominated director Michael Arden (Spring Awakening) conceived this compelling new approach to the musical that emphasizes the storytelling traditions at the heart of Once On This Island’s deeply affecting message about the power of the human spirit.
Once On This Island 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 who is sent on a transformative journey by the gods.
The cast of storytellers who transform into gods, peasants, and wealthy island dwellers is led by Miss Saigon Tony Award winner Lea Salonga as Erzulie, Goddess of Love; Glee groundbreaker Alex Newell as Asaka, Mother of the Earth; Merle Dandridge (Greenleaf) as Papa Ge, Demon of Death; and Quentin Earl Darrington (Cats) as Agwe, God of Water. Broadway newcomer Hailey Kilgore stars in the breakout role of Ti Moune.
Playbill asked Salonga, Newell, Dandridge, Darrington, and Kilgore about their own unique connection to Once On This Island, and to share why they “tell the story.”
What was it about this production that you immediately connected with and made you say “yes” to this revival of Once on This Island?
Merle Dandridge: Once On This Island was the first show in which I saw myself represented on the stage. It was also one of the first musicals I’d ever seen live. This piece was a great inspiration in my deciding on this career path. The chance to bring it back to Broadway was a no-brainer.
Quentin Earl Darrington: Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty are among the greatest musical theatre writers and theatre practitioners in history. I regard them, not only for their brilliance and excellence within the craft, yet also for their continued empathy, pursuit of understanding, and active love for people and detailing an authentic human experience.
Alex Newell: The fact that our social climate really needs to hear a story like this. It made me want to say yes!
Lea Salonga: I had previously seen a production in Manila that starred a bunch of my friends. One of them, Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo who played Erzulie, then asked me to help her with the Ti Mounes, and I said yes. Doing so meant getting intimately acquainted with the score as it was originally created, and falling in love with the story of this peasant girl. I ended up seeing the show a gajillion times, which etched the score into my head. So learning this incarnation with all the brand new orchestrations was such a treat. A challenge for sure, but so fantastic. Also, Michael Arden called and very nicely asked. Hee hee!
Hailey Kilgore: The story is absolutely timeless. When I first heard about how the production would be done and how authentically the story would be portrayed, I was STUCK to the show.
What drew you to playing this particular character?
Kilgore: For me, this was an opportunity to tell the story of a strong, young, [black] female who is just a fun-loving and adventurous character.
Darrington: The fact that this show highlights the divine. It provides a glimpse into the supernatural or spiritual relationships between that which is human and that which is spirit. This is a very important aspect of my personal, day to day life; my relationship with God.
Dandridge: I’d always felt there was a little more story to tell with Papa Ge… a bit more juice to be squeezed. Changing the gender automatically released me to make it my own and come at it differently. It’s also a different battle when Erzulie has to battle another woman instead of a man. It’s delicious storytelling!
Salonga: I have no idea! The funny thing is, whenever I told any of my friends that I was doing the show, without fail all of them said, “Erzulie!” Maybe they know something I don’t.
Newell: [Asaka] is the most fun to play and there are different things that I find in her that I didn’t see in the performance before, so she’s constantly changing.
How are you seeing Once On This Island resonate with audiences today?
Newell: It’s a story about love winning and how strong it is. We get too wrapped up in ourselves that we forget to just take the time to love and care!
Darrington: It provides the listener a door to consider forgiveness, and offers hope in the ability to start again.
Dandridge: I can feel hearts opening. Our culture is so fractured and bleeding right now, it’s a privilege to bring a message of hope.
Salonga: Because our cast feels like an actual community and family, perhaps that energy will transfer to the audience at every performance. Doing the show is immersive not just for the audience, but also for us. It never feels like we’re onstage, and that the audience is in a separate area. It feels like one shared space, which makes for a truly communal experience.
Kilgore: The issues that the characters face in the story are everything that we are facing right now. People, who are the same as you and me, are given a certain amount of power over others. They can use it and abuse it as they please. But acts of kindness and love can make a change in everyone.