Alex Newell and Hailey Kilgore in Once On This Island
Alex Newell and Hailey Kilgore in Once On This Island

It’s been almost 30 years since the musical Once On This Island first debuted on Broadway. Now it’s back on the boards in an exciting, immersive way, courtesy of director Michael Arden. The eight-times Tony-nominated revival is based on the novel My Love, My Love and was written for the stage by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. NY1 Entertainment Reporter Frank DiLella recently caught up with the Tony-winning duo to discuss reimagining Once On This Island for 2018.

Let’s go back to the very beginning: Where did the idea of Once On This Island come from?

LYNN AHRENS: We had just finished doing Lucky Stiff at Playwrights Horizons and we were looking for our next project. And I was browsing around in an old Barnes & Noble, and I came across this little colorful novel that was on the shelf of used books, and I opened it to the first page and the words just leapt off the page at me. “There is an island where rivers run deep.” It was this very evocative language. So I bought it for $1.50. I read it in about an hour, got in a cab, and went over to Stephen’s apartment and said, “We just found our next musical!”

When did you know you had something special on your hands? When the show opened on Broadway back in 1990, it received eight Tony nominations.

LYNN: We started to feel that this show was special and unusual because, early on in rehearsals, watching [director and choreographer] Graciela Daniele with her brilliant vision, it suddenly began to emerge as this through-sung very emotional story that moved us and everyone in the room.

STEPHEN FLAHERTY: On the first day of rehearsal, there was something magical about the piece itself. And that original cast brought so much of themselves to the table. And after the first day of rehearsal, I said to Graciela, “This is really special — this doesn’t happen every day.” And she just smiled and said, “Yes.” We all felt that. The process of creating the show improved all of our lives. This was the height of the AIDS epidemic, so a lot of us were caregivers, we were falling in love, we were helping our friends heal. And there was a lot of positive energy circling our show.

Talk about crafting the sound for this show.

STEPHEN: I was fortunate, because during that period of time, I was listening to a lot of world music just for my own pleasure. And when Lynn found the book, it got me thinking: Using world music sounds and combining them in a theatrical way could be the basis for a theater score. The idea of the piece informed the content of the musical style.

LYNN: As for me, I was doing a lot of research into the customs, culture, and religion of the Caribbean, Haiti, Trinidad, that whole part of the world. And it just seemed to bring on this language that was very visual and almost simple, but very poetic. That’s how it came out.

Lynn, you once told me that Once On This Island is the only show of yours where you wouldn’t change a thing.

LYNN: Yes. We changed one tiny little thing at Michael Arden’s request for this revival. It’s when our main character, Ti Moune, has made it to the other side of the island and she goes into her love interest’s bedroom. We musicalized a little bit of dialogue. But other than that, every time I see the show I just sit there thinking, “There’s not a thing that I could do better.”

STEPHEN: In a certain way, it’s a perfect show. It’s a perfectly formed 90-minute show. And Lynn — if you know her — she tends to love to revise. So the fact that she’s pleased with this, it’s a huge statement.

You both made your Broadway debuts with this musical. Take me back to the show’s opening night.

LYNN: It was at the Marriott Marquis and it poured rain, and we said, “Oh, the gods are saying hello!” It was one of those joyous opening nights. The original company paraded in in all African garb; it was a line of kings and queens! It was one of those opening nights where we had already been reviewed glowingly Off-Broadway, so we assumed it would pretty much be the same, so there was not a lot of stress in the room.

You put Broadway favorite and Tony winner LaChanze on the map with the original Once On This Island. Now you’re giving that chance to 2018 Tony nominee Hailey Kilgore. Why was Hailey the right choice for Ti Moune?

LYNN: It was so obvious when LaChanze walked into the room: She radiated with star quality. And the same thing happened with Hailey. And you don’t see that very often. She walked in confidently and joyously.

STEPHEN: I thought Hailey was an absolutely amazing raw talent. And when she came in the room, she had an amazing passion about herself. She was an extraordinary actress for someone so young. She danced very well. She reminded me of a young LaChanze.

How did Michael Arden sell you on his concept for Once On This Island? This immersive world with water, sand, and fire!

STEPHEN: With a lot of determination. [Laughs.]

LYNN: Michael started out wanting to do an a cappella version of this show, and we were not into that. We said this show needs a kickin’ band! It needs drums and percussion! And he went away, and a year later he came back with all of these visuals — he had a lot of research laid out for us. He really did his homework, and we were so impressed by how he had taken the original idea and rethought it into this amazing new form. We were enthralled and impressed with him. And during the first week of tech rehearsals, I had no idea what was happening — I was like, “There’s a sand pit … and a goat … and there are costumes made out of old T-shirts!” And little by little I began to see how utterly imaginative it all was.

With this production, there are fewer musical instruments in the pit compared to the original, but the sound still works.

STEPHEN: It’s because we trusted the original material, which let us be free with a lot of experimentation. Orchestrator Michael Starobin pushed this idea off of Michael Arden’s idea: What if everything was taken from you; how would you create art? How would you create beauty? And Michael Arden said, “What if all the instruments were trash? Stuff to make music with?” And Michael has a friend from his college days who has an organization called Bash the Trash, and it was all exciting! We didn’t know, honestly, if any of these ideas would lead to anything, so we had a series of workshops, trying musical ideas and vocal parts. And it was a wonderful experience for all of us.

You play with gender in this revival — specifically with the characters of the gods. Glee alum Alex Newell plays Asaka, Mother of Earth and American Idol alum Tamyra Gray is Papa Ge, Demon of Death.

LYNN: We had a lot of discussions about that. We talked about, should it be an interracial cast? What’s the way to make this show feel of-the-moment? And we opened the door of casting to whoever would walk through it. These are gods, after all: They’re imaginary beings. And in through the door walked Alex Newell — it was obvious he should play the role of Asaka. And with Merle Dandridge [the original Papa Ge], the same thing happened. They were two stunning actors who found the emotional core of the gods. In the case of Asaka, the mother love, Mother Earth quality — Alex has all of that, plus his godlike voice. And Merle embodies a fierce, powerful kind of damaged god, and that was her concept. That storyteller who was going to play that god had a damaged history and was an angry god and a revengeful god. So they both had these innate qualities. So when I think of them, I don’t think gender: I think of them as gods.

STEPHEN: It was exciting because Michael wanted everyone in the audience to see themselves as a god.

With your revival, you’re essentially telling a fairy tale but in a rather realistic setting.

LYNN: When you walk into Circle in the Square, you are instantly transported into a different world. There are people walking around in bare feet and ordinary kind of old clothing, like the kind of clothing you would get at a tag sale after a hurricane. The stage is covered in sand and littered with the things you would find after a storm — old bottles and broken chandeliers and upside-down chairs and the wreckage that’s left behind. But there are very happy and jovial individuals cleaning up the mess. There’s a Doctors Without Borders person giving out shots as you do when the water is suddenly messed up after a hurricane. And there’s somebody cooking, and there are people collecting the bottles and doing what you do when a disaster strikes a community. And the production is in the round, so when you sit down in your seat you’re part of it. It’s immersive in feel.

STEPHEN: The original novel is not placed in any one place. It’s a fictitious island and a fable. And that was the setting of the original production. But in this production, in light of current events, Michael felt passionate about setting it in Haiti. And once we agreed to place this production there, it actually had ramifications in the score. Choreographer Camille A. Brown wanted to be specific with honoring the dance rituals of Haiti, so she did a lot of research. She worked with a lot of people to make it authentic.

What does it mean to be telling this story in 2018?

LYNN: In 2018 — what are the lessons we can learn? First, that people need to be helped after natural disasters. That communities can come together and help others through. That no matter what happens to us, to our possessions, to our families, that we can support each other and love one another. And one of the inherent things of the show is the division of classes and the division of races. And I think one of the things about our show that makes it so universal and resonant is that these are things that we can discuss together, and perhaps heal.

STEPHEN: This show is about community. Going through a dark time and finding a way to heal yourself individually and as a community.

If you could have Michael Arden reimagine one of your other shows, what would it be?

STEPHEN: Off the top of my head, Rocky. That’s what I would say.

LYNN: He can have his pick. [Laughs.]

Learn More About Once On This Island