When you enter the Circle in the Square Theatre to see Once On This Island on Broadway, you immediately feel transported into another land just ravaged by a storm. There is not only livestock wandering around — including a goat and chickens on stage — but there is water, garbage, a huge tractor trailer, and sand that blankets the stage. “It has no perceptible edges, and I think that excites the audience,” explains Dane Laffrey, the Tony-nominated scenic designer of the musical. “The world doesn’t end anywhere in here.”
The creative vision for this revival, which opened in December 2017 and has been honored with eight Tony Award nominations, stemmed from a three-day trip to Haiti, where Laffrey and the show’s director, Tony Award nominee Michael Arden, captured every unique inch of the Caribbean country that was upended by Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and was still recovering from a massive earthquake in 2010. “It was a really beautiful, symbiotic experience where we were conspiring to make this world,” explains Laffrey of the process of gathering research to bring back as the focal point of the production. Says Arden, “The disparity in class and economic standing is really unbelievable, and that’s what this play is about: these two worlds.”
The story of Once On This Island centers on Ti Moune, a fearless peasant girl in search of her place in the world, and she’s ready to risk it all for love. She sets out on a journey to reunite with the man who has captured her heart, and she’s guided along the way by the mighty island gods (played by Tony Award winner Lea Salonga, Glee’s Alex Newell, American Idol’s Tamyra Gray, and Cats’s Quentin Earl Darrington).
Arden started envisioning the show years ago as a cappella, in the round, and set in a parking lot. He had to ask the musical’s composers, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, several times to let him mount this production until he “finally wore them down enough” before they agreed. Once given the green light, he brought Laffrey on board as the scenic designer. The two were former roommates at Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan and worked on Spring Awakening on Broadway together.
Getting it into the theatre of Arden’s dreams was by the grace of God — pun intended. “It was always my hope it would be in the Circle in the Square, and sometimes miracles happen,” he exclaims of Once On This Island’s home. “We were worried it would be unavailable or go to another show, but it happened to be available.”
Bringing the sand inside was a feat on its own. “The idea that the audience and actors share their feet in the sand is the best part about it,” says Laffrey of his innovation that you don’t normally see on a Broadway stage — one that also includes a small body of water. The only way to get the sand inside and down three stories was systematically, in bags on a freight elevator. A lot of time was spent on the color and type of sand (masonry and cinder block) so it wouldn’t turn into dust floating in the air. It also serves as the absorbent for water during one scene when it literally rains on stage. Four or five bags of sand are brought in about every other week as replenishment.
The costumes, created by Clint Ramos, continue the show’s innovative storytelling. They aren’t what you typically see in a musical. The gods construct their costumes out of what’s surrounding them. The garbage scattered on stage during the preshow turns into the actors’ uniforms for the rest of the performance. Lea Salonga, who starts the show as a nurse handing out mosquito netting to poor survivors of the hurricane, then wears the netting as she’s transformed into Erzulie, while wearing a headdress made of USB cables Ramos found at a Goodwill store. Salonga’s stethoscope then becomes her belt. Ramos discovered the pattern for the 40-pound tablecloth Alex Newell (who plays Asaka) wears as a skirt on Amazon. “Part of this journey was working with the actors,” Ramos says of what makes these pieces unique without requiring sequins or fringe to stand out. “The costumes are successful because the actors truly make it work.”
“We only had three weeks to rehearse this show,” admits Arden, who is in awe of his cast for lighting 60 candles on stage by hand at one point during the story. “They are doing everything: moving the set, making the sounds of the orchestra. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. I wanted to create something that showed how the human spirit and human form could be miraculous — and they’ve done it.”