In a Broadway spring packed with revivals that invite fresh perspectives on artistic statements of prior decades, few productions make the case for their own reappraisal in quite the audaciously visual, all-there-on-the-stage way of Once On This Island. We carry our post-Stonewall sensibilities with us to The Boys in the Band, our spoiler-worthy knowledge of medical miracles to Angels in America and our Time’s Up fury to My Fair Lady and Carousel, and we’re welcomed to do so – required, actually – by each of those vital new productions.
But the revival of the Lynn Ahrens-Stephen Flaherty musical Once On This Island, first presented on Broadway back in 1990 and now up for eight Tony Awards including nods for director Michael Arden and costume designer Clint Ramos, plants contemporary, here-and-now markers in plain sight.
A fable-within-a-musical, full of gods, goddesses, fates and furies, Once On This Island is set somewhere in the Caribbean’s French Antilles, a community devastated by a hurricane. At its center is Ti Moune (Broadway newcomer – and Tony nominee – Hailey Kilgore), a young peasant girl orphaned by the storm and adopted by the loving Tonton Julian (Phillip Boykin) and Mama Euralie (Kenita R. Miller) after the adults find her stranded in a tree. Watching her life and plotting her fate are four spirits (each of whom, Wizard of Oz-style, we meet as human characters before the fairy tale proper begins): Agwe (Quentin Earl Darrington), of the water; Asaka (Alex Newell), earth; Erzulie (Lea Solonga), love; and Papa Ge (currently Tamyra Gray, soon Merle Dandridge), death.
While losing none of its fairy tale universality, Arden’s staging (Dane Laffrey did the Tony-nominated scenic design) and Ramos’ costumes make clear reference to real-life catastrophes, pointedly the devastation in Haiti, that as recently as Island‘s first Broadway go-round were the type of happenings quaintly considered once, maybe twice in a lifetime.
Arden, whose staging of the Deaf West Theatre’s Spring Awakening revival, earned him a 2016 Tony nomination, is also an actor, his lengthy roster of credits covering stage (Big River) and TV (Numb3rs, Kings, The Good Wife). Ramos won the 2016 Best Costume Tony for Eclipsed.
These interviews have been edited and condensed for length and clarity. The 72nd Annual Tony Awards, hosted by Sara Bareilles and Josh Groban, will air live from Radio City Music Hall on CBS Sunday, June 10, 8 PM ET/delayed PT.
MICHAEL ARDEN, DIRECTOR
Deadline: I didn’t see the original production. How different was it visually?
Michael Arden: The original was much more story theater, pastoral, sort of flat, in a word. It was done in a proscenium so there was a certain one-dimensionality. It felt a little bit like children’s story theater, and I really wanted to get as far away from that as possible. I mean, there is the play within the play, and they are telling that story to a child, but I didn’t want to use puppets or have people pretending to be frogs and things like that. I wanted to really, really look at how we tell this child a story in a brutally real world.
Deadline: There’s certainly no sense of children’s theater, right from the beginning, when the cast mingles with the audience, pretending to grab a cell phone and toss it into the ocean. One of the actors [jokingly] asked me to run out and get him three Rum & Cokes…
Arden: I wanted the audience to just be an extension of our storytellers. My hope is in creating a circle, that the audience is part of not only being told the story, but ideally feels like they can then go tell the story. It is a democracy of sorts.
We’ve been gathering around fires to tell storis in circles since the beginning of time, so I wanted to honor that tradition, but then also create a world. When you step off a plane into a place like Haiti, you’re just surrounded by overwhelming stimulus. The people selling you things, asking you to engage. I’m not a fan of audience participation per se, but I wanted the cast to make the audience feel like it belongs there, that they aren’t just tourists. And I did not want it to feel like some sort of disaster porn.
Deadline: You visited Haiti for research, yes?
Arden: When we started doing research, we looked at disasters around the world. We looked at downtown New York post-9/11. We looked at Siberia. We looked at Haiti. And then it seemed like more and more disasters began popping up every day.
But we knew that Haiti in terms of its history being colonized by the French and the slave uprising leading to this sort of one and only successful slave rebellion was where this story had to take place. It’s not in the book – it’s sort of generalized but I’m not good with generalization. I wanted it to be a very specific place, and Dane and I knew that it had to be Haiti.
As someone who is not part of that community, it was vital that I go there, and that we really get our feet in the sand. See what it’s really like so that we’re not appropriating it but honoring it, and showing both this sort of ugliness [of the devastation] as well as the beauty of that place, looking at the culture and the tradition of voodoo, and how we could involve that in the show as accurately and carefully as possible, responsibly.
Deadline: When you say ugliness and beauty, it struck me that the production turns one into the other. You take these soda cans, beach litter, and they becomes part of a character’s beautiful outfit.
Arden: [Costume designer] Clint Ramos has a great phrase – he says his job was to turn the discarded into the divine, which I love…In Haiti we visited a group of artists called the Artists of the Resistance, and they built sculptures out of pieces of collapsed buildings, whatever materials they had. They can’t just go to the art store, so they use what they have and it creates a tapestry that honors the past and looks forward, which I find really inspiring.
Deadline: How did the gender-nonspecific casting come about? Was that something you set out to do?
Arden: I wanted to stretch the boundaries of what we thought gods could be. I was thinking, well, who are gods? We only put genders on them so that we can understand them. The first ask I made was to Lea Salonga, which was an interesting choice being she’s Filipino, and the goddess Erzulie in voodoo culture is actually two different goddesses, a black goddess and a white goddess. In the musical it’s one character, and so I thought here’s an opportunity to open up a race question and give an opportunity to someone who might not otherwise be involved.
So that’s where I started, and with that I thought I needed to look at other ethnicities so that I could really show the gods as like a colorful mirror to the island world at large.
And then I met Alex Newell and he said jokingly to me, I want to be the Mother of the Earth, and I thought, Well, why can’t he be? So many gay men are mothers to so many young people, me included. I’ve had gay men who were more mother to me than my own mother ever was. So I really thought, Here’s an opportunity to put that on stage, and to not have a black gay character experiencing duress or any kind of injustice – just living and loving and is deeply fabulous.
Then that led me to Merle Dandridge, who I’d wanted to work with forever. I said to her, Hey, here’s a crazy idea, and I asked if she would put herself on tape [to audition for Papa Ge, god of death]. And she sent a video the next day and I was like, Well, there’s Death, and how great that we can give such a powerful position to a woman? [Editor’s note: Dandridge had to leave the production in January to work on Season 3 of her OWN series Greenleaf, and was replaced by Tamyra Gray; Dandridge returns to Island for a limited run June 18 to August 20, after which Gray will step back in.]
Deadline: How did you find Hailey Kilgore ? I mean, talk about an incredible time in someone’s life…
Arden: I don’t know how she’s doing it. She’s just a 19-year-old girl and she’s going to all these meetings and she’s going down these red carpets and being dressed and nominated for a Tony, getting her picture taken by Annie Leibovitz. It’s incredible. I first saw her because an actor named Rodney Hicks, who was in Come from Away and The Scottsboro Boys, had I guess worked with her a few years ago and sent me a video he had of an audition tape she made when she was 16, singing “Home” from The Wiz in her bedroom with a hairbrush. I fell in love with her instantly.
Deadline: I have to ask you about your Playbill bio. [Instead of the usual roster of credits and thank yous, Arden wrote the following for the Once On This Island program:
Michael Arden, director, was taken in at an early age by his grandparents, Jim and Pat Moore. They had lost both of their own children. Raising another late in life had never been part of their plan, but they loved him as their own, accepted him despite not always understanding him and allowed and afforded him to follow his heart and dreams. They taught him that love is the most powerful force on earth and that our greatest obstacles can prove to be our greatest blessings. This production is dedicated to their memory and to all those who give shelter and love to those they find in trees.]
Arden: I had been asked to write a bio, as everyone is. I was wrestling with listing my credits and something was gnawing at me – the reason why I loved this piece and why I think it’s important and why it was important for me in my life. I think our biography is meant to be the list of things that got us to the point we are today, and for me I owe everything to those two people, Jim and Pat Moore, my grandparents. They are my biography. They are much more important than any play I’ve worked on. They gave me everything and afforded me the opportunity to do this, and not only just in a physical sense but in an emotional sense, too. I understand this play and the Mama and Tonton characters in a way that I never would have. I wish they could be here to see it.
Deadline: They’re not living, I take it?
Arden: No. They were my father’s parents, my paternal grandparents. You know, they took me to (drama) practice and I’m sure they would much rather I be on the football team, but they never said, they never spoke those words too loud.
Deadline: Where was this?
Arden: Midland, Texas.
Deadline: Midland, Texas. So they really would rather you’d played football.
Arden: Oh, definitely. Definitely. But I think eventually they saw that I was doing the work that I was meant to be doing, and they got into it.
Deadline: And your parents?
Arden: My father died when I was very young and my mom was…she had me incredibly early and had a very difficult road of addiction and substance abuse. So I was eventually sort of taken away from her and my grandparents took me in when I was a kid.
Deadline: God bless grandparents.
Arden: It’s true, you know. I’m sure it wasn’t part of their plan but there was…they…they did good in the world.
Deadline: What’s next for you, Michael? Acting? Directing?
Arden: I’m trying to keep all my roads clear, just to see which way the car turns, but I’m directing the Hollywood Bowl’s production of Annie this summer [July 27-29], which is a 3-night special event, and will be really fun. I love the summer musicals at the Bowl.
And then after that I’m really excited to be creating a one-man A Christmas Carol with the great actor Jefferson Mays. [Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is set for a limited run at the Geffen Playhouse’s Gil Cates Theater in L.A. October 30-December 2.]
Deadline: What a great idea. Whose was it?
Arden: Jefferson’s, of course. He had the idea and took it to Matt Shakman, who was a fabulous director and is now the artistic director of the Geffen Playhouse in LA. Matt said, I think Michael should do it with you, and we met and kind of fell in love over our mutual obsession with Dickens. It’s the same design team that did Spring Awakening with me – Dane Laffrey, Ben Stanton [lighting], Lucy MacKinnon [projections]. In fact, I’m heading upstate right now to start our very first work session on it.
We’re really leaning into the ghost story of it all. We’re interested in this idea of making something really kind of spooky, at moments terrifying, that people might not be used to [with Christmas Carol], and to hopefully bring in a new audience – that loves horror movies – for this really profound story about redemption.
Deadline: Hey, when I was a kid the Mr. Magoo version terrified me.
Arden: Well, there you go.
Once On This Island
A 2016 Tony Award winner for Eclipsed starring Lupita Nyong’o, Clint Ramos has a shot at Trophy #2 Sunday when his clever creations for Once On This Island go up against Mean Girls, Carousel, SpongeBob SquarePants and My Fair Lady in the no-weak-links category of Best Costume Design of a Musical.
Ramos spoke to Deadline recently about Once On This Island, its look and how he transformed the tale’s beleaguered beachcombers into gods and goddesses. Here are excerpts of Ramos’ comments:
The musical takes place after a storm. Michael Arden, the director, had this notion…well it’s really not a notion – it’s a fact – that human beings to overcome adversity, tell each other stories of triumph, of love. They get in a circle and tell each other stories, and so I think the whole [production] arose from that.
It’s set in the French Antilles, and so Michael really wanted to set [the look] in modern day Haiti – that nation has been affected by so much natural disaster in the recent past. So we, Michael and Dane Laffrey, the set designer, went to Haiti to take photographs of a nation rebuilding. A lot of our ideas for how [Once On This Island] would look came from those photographs. I took it a little further and looked at the general vicinity of the Caribbean Islands. When we were conceiving the show, the Caribbean was hit, including Puerto Rico, by all those severe storms. So we looked at a lot of the inhabitants of those islands, of these hurricane ravaged societies. We found the musical’s storytellers there, but the challenge then was what happens when we step into the fable within the musical? What happens when the characters telling the story become the characters of the story? One of the things that I was thinking was, Well, maybe it’s just there. Maybe the materials for what the costumes should be are made out of the detritus of the hurricane itself. And that gave me an entry point to how the gods would look.
Ti Moune is sort of abandoned, in a way discarded like detritus. She acquires divinity in the end, so the idea of creating divinity out of the discarded became sort of the theme for the costumes.
Unlike the other figures in the play, Ti Moune only exists in the fable, and so one of the things I wanted to do was take her away from photojournalistic realism and just bump her up a little bit. In other words, what I really wanted to do was have something iconic. She is the Girl in the Red Dress.
In my research, I looked at a lot of the flora of Haiti and the national flower is the red hibiscus, and so her costume is based on the hibiscus form.
The idea is that she is a headstrong character. She’s determined to find her love. She doesn’t really change – she grows and metamorphoses into something very similar to what she already is, in essence.
So that [red] dress that she wears as a little girl just grows up and becomes her teenager dress, and then it becomes a little glamorized in a different fabric when she goes to the ball. When she becomes the goddess in the tree, [her red dress] fills the whole aisle [of the theater]. So really the trajectory was just as simple as she is – the girl in the red dress. No one else is wearing that color. No one else is wearing a plain, unpatterned garment.
Papa Ge is the God of Death, but we had to step back a little bit and think about who she is before she transforms into a god. I think she was somebody who had a thriving life and then the hurricane took everything away, including all of her livestock. And she becomes this homeless person and she leans on the occult to get her through. So when we first encounter her in the pre-show, she’s this sort of homeless person who lives by a truck. She’s dressed in tatters, her hair is matted, and she has a goat, her one lone goat. We see her collecting Coca-Cola cans and other soda cans in the beginning. When she slowly transforms, she begins by painting herself with the motor oil of the truck, she paints herself black, almost soot-like. And then she slaughters the goat, and she uses the horns to adorn her head. She paints her face with the blood of the goat and she creates this sort of reptilian spine out of these Coca-Cola cans.
I used the Coke cans because I needed something red – her color palette really lived in the red and the black. In the hurricane aftermath photographs, you see a lot of garbage, a lot of soda cans. The red Coca-Cola cans I thought would be perfect. And in a very subliminal way it mirrors what really happens in these nations. These multi-nationals come in, they use all the natural resources and then the nations become victims of the capitalism. So in a way Papa Ge is wearing her curse.
In the [research] photographs, people are wearing clothes that are sort of America’s discards. A repository for America’s discards. A lot of missions go there, and so you see all of these people wearing t-shirts that they might have no idea what they really mean. Maybe they just like the color, or perhaps there’s something about the graphic. But you can find a lot of irony in the juxtaposition of what their t-shirts are saying and what happened to them.
For Alex [Newell, who plays Asaka, Mother of the Earth], we conceived of a saga before the transformation into a god. [Asaka] was someone who was a street vendor, a food vendor. So you see Alex cooking in the corner, and you can actually smell that food because it’s real food and it’s really cooking.
Because the way Alex is playing it, really leaning on the feminine, I thought maybe it’d be funny to juxtapose that with something as “masculine” as a sports jersey, an Atlanta Falcons jersey, and then subvert it by cutting the neckline to show the shoulders, hence feminizing the jersey, right?
As he transforms into the god, all the materials around the cooking station factor into the costume. The tablecloth, which is made out of vinyl and plastic and is ubiquitous in third world nations, becomes this big ball skirt. Then the plastic flowers, essentially the junk that’s sort of decorating his food station, becomes his headdress, and then the spices become the makeup for his face. Alex is such a wonderful actor and mover that he just really makes it all work.
I love that costume. I’m from the Philippines but I really consider myself – and I use this term really loosely – a third world boy, and there’s something about that costume that is so familiar to me. It is so makeshift that it’s delightful. It’s also a nod to drag culture, where you just grab something and make it into something fabulous.
Michael Arden said, ‘I’m going to cast Lea Salonga as Erzulie,’ and one of the things we wanted to acknowledge was, How do we see an Asian figure in this Haitian world? Clearly, Lea Salonga is not black, and so we wanted to find an anchor for her existence in that world. In the research photos, we saw a lot of Filipino nurses who were volunteering with Doctors Without Borders, and we found this perfect prototype named Natasha Reyes. She’s a doctor now with Doctors Without Borders. And so everything – the wig, the khakis, and the white polo that Lea wears at the beginning – all of that comes from Natasha Reyes. You see her distribute mosquito netting to prevent malaria. When she transforms into the Goddess of Love, that mosquito netting becomes her gown and the belt for that gown are her stethoscopes and on her head are power cables and USB cables.
He’s a fisherman who has lost a bunch of boats. He has one boat left and it’s the boat that you see on the stage. He’s painting it, or re-painting it, with blue paint after the storm. He’s also collecting all of the plastic out of the ocean, so his costume when he transforms into a god is really composed of two things: the plastic that he collects and the blue paint. He paints himself with the blue paint and he creates this beard out of the plastic. Plastic bags are the main pollutant of our oceans now so I thought we have to acknowledge what we’re doing to the planet. Similar to the Coke cans, slightly political. I wanted Agwe to be a vision of strength suffocated by all of this plastic.