One of the most beloved musicals of the 1990s, Once On This Island came roaring back to Broadway in the critically acclaimed revival now playing at the Circle in the Square Theatre. Directed by Michael Arden, the Lynn Ahrens-Stephen Flaherty Caribbean-infused musical about star-crossed lovers Ti Moune and Daniel is staged in the round, with the set and costumes composed of found materials, partly inspired by a trip to Haiti that Arden and designer Dane Laffrey took before the show began rehearsals.
“From the first time I thought I wanted to tackle the show, my idea was always to do it in the round,” Arden says. “Initially, when I was dreaming it up with AnnMarie Milazzo, the idea was to do it in an empty parking lot or alleyway. I want the audience to feel like an extension of the primal drum circle and to be immediately part of this democratic community telling and being told the story of Ti Moune. We didn’t end up on a parking lot, but I am not complaining…”
For Laffrey, a show in the round “creates a strong sense of community. Every audience that we welcome into the space shares in that, which is really wonderful. It’s almost impossible for me to imagine now what the show would look or feel like in any other Broadway theatre, but it would most certainly be very different.”
But performing a musical surrounded on four sides by audience members brings with it a singular set of challenges. First and foremost, there is the proximity. But there are also more technical details, such as singers having to trust themselves. “Because we’re all scattered on the sand, we can’t always hear a fellow soprano, for example,” says Tony winner Lea Salonga, Erzulie in the show. “I have to trust that what I’m doing is right. As for music direction, we’re each taught our parts, rehearse them as much as we can, and hope for the best. Alvin Hough Jr., our musical director, does a great job maintaining the show, keeping things tight and clean.”
As Arden points out, “Usually there are traditional monitors from above and the sides, but because we had no traditional upstage and downstage, we had to circle the company with speakers hidden in the sand and props around the stage. There is also no way to see a conductor, and this is a very musically intricate show. The company has to listen to and watch each other for this, forcing them to always be tuned in to their castmates. This group and company dynamic is something that is truly beautiful to experience.”
And everyone involved agrees that Once On This Island rewards repeat attendance. “It’s impossible for any audience member who sees the show only once to take in the entire design,” Laffrey says. “[We’ve created] tiny details all over the space that most people will never see. I guess you could consider that a negative, but I don’t. I think the fact you can’t really see the edges adds to the sense that you’re walking into a different world, and we couldn’t be prouder of that.”
For tickets and more information, visit OnceOnThisIsland.com.