The director first made his Broadway debut as a performer in Deaf West’s production of Big River as Tom Sawyer, and it’s that same production company with whom he made his Broadway directorial debut with the 2015 revival of Spring Awakening, for which he earned his first Tony nod.
Arden aims to completely re-imagine the physical production of the shows he chooses to revive, and this season’s Once on This Island is no exception. He, along with scenic designer and longtime friend Dane Laffrey, transformed the Circle in the Square Theatre to an immersive island setting, filled with six tons of sand, a flowing water installation, and a real aid truck filled with “supplies” to conjure the true post-disaster Haiti.
On the surface, Arden might not seem like he has a lot in common with the young black girl at the center of the story—a fact he puts forth and one of the reasons he ensured his creative team brought diverse perspectives with costume designer Clint Ramos and choreographer Camille A. Brown. But Arden shares a history with the orphan Ti Moune. “Michael Arden, director, was taken in at an early age by his grandparents,‘” he reads from his Playbill bio. “‘They loved him as their own, accepted him despite not understanding him and allowed and afforded him to follow his heart and dreams. This production is dedicated to their memory and all those who give shelter to those they find in trees.’
“They supported me in every endeavor,” he says.
To date, his works give voice to underdogs in the way his grandparents encouraged him, as with Spring Awakening. “Being able to give these young people—these deaf performers—an opportunity to be rock stars and to sign autographs at the stage door and to be able to share their culture with people who might never get to see it otherwise,” was a landmark achievement for him.
“There’s a pioneering, groundbreaking spirit about him,” said Tony winner Lea Salonga, who plays Once on this Island's Erzulie, the Goddess of Love.
Fueled by his grandparents’ love, Arden said if he could deliver one message to them, it would be: “We don't ever realize how precious life is while we're living it and I will try in everything I do to honor the love that you gave me.”
To hear more about Arden’s inspiration behind Once on This Island, watch him speak to Playbill during the show’s post-opening celebration: