That is not to say that Once on This Island is light, fluffy entertainment. On the contrary, it strikes deep emotional chords with its story of a hopeless love affair orchestrated by the gods, based on a book by Rosa Guy that adapts Hans Christian Andersen's classic "Little Mermaid" story and transplants it to a Caribbean island setting. The musical tells of Ti Moune, a peasant whose wish to marry an aristocrat named Daniel can never come true because they are from two different worlds. After a run at Playwrights Horizons in 1990 in a production directed and choreographed by Graciela Daniele, the show transferred to Broadway and received eight Tony Award nominations. If you missed it back then, you have a chance to see it recreated in concert version with its original cast, headed by La Chanze as Ti Moune and Jerry Dixon as Daniel, for two performances on Sunday, May 12 (Mother's Day). Though the event is a benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, a portion of the proceeds will go to the Cantor Fitzgerald Relief Fund in honor of Calvin Gooding, La Chanze's husband, who was among the thousands killed in the terrorist destruction of the World Trade Center.
Once on This Island is adored for many reasons but most especially for Stephen Flaherty's captivating music and Lynn Ahrens' poetic, humorous, stirring lyrics. TheaterMania recently spoke with Flaherty about details of the reunion concert of a show that holds a special place in the hearts of a great many people.
THEATERMANIA: Gala benefit concert versions of Broadway musicals always seem to create a stir, and that's certainly the case with the Once on This Island reunion.
STEPHEN FLAHERTY: It's something we had talked about doing for a couple of years. In light of how this year went down, it just seemed like this was the time. The idea is that we wanted to bring back the entire original cast and as many of the staff as possible. We're even going to have the original percussionist, who was such an important part of the show; he helped develop the parts when we were way back in workshop and he's flying in from Tel Aviv, if you can believe that. Michael Starobin, the original orchestrator, has created new orchestrations for a little surprise bit that we're going to have as part of the evening. I don't want to say what it is. Really, we're working with almost all of the original folks.
TM: Some beautiful songs that were cut from the show before it opened have been recorded and issued on compilation CDs. Will those be in the concert?
SF: No, we're pretty much trying to do what was on Broadway. That includes the Broadway orchestrations rather than what's on the recording. It's interesting: Once on This Island is done a lot, nationally and across the sea, and we always get letters from people who want to try to put back the cut songs. But they were cut for a reason.
TM: You're saying that the orchestrations on the album are different from those that were heard in the theater?
SF: Well, there are additional players on the record. That's something that's done quite a lot. The record is fun to listen to but it tends to be a little glossier than what was on Broadway. In a way, the Broadway version is purer: It's almost like a little village band playing, and parts of the score sound like they're improvised. Of course, every note is meticulously written out, but it does have that sort of feel.
TM: So, you're doing two performances on Sunday, May 12 at the Winter Garden.
SF: Yes. There's a matinee and then the gala evening performance is at 8pm. We were joking about the fact that Mamma Mia!--the current tenant of the Winter Garden--takes place on a Greek island, and our show takes place on an island. They have lots of wonderful "water" lighting effects for us to use. It's kind of perfect.
TM: Is this going to be a staged concert performance?
SF: Because we're bringing back the original people and pulling them from different cities, including several from Los Angeles, we don't have the luxury of a long rehearsal period. There will be some movement and some parts of the show will be staged, but other parts will be more concert-like. We're going to have a really frantic week when everyone arrives. In my mind, I can already hear people saying: "Now, what did we do when this part came up?"
TM: I've heard that Lillias White is going to have a big moment in the concert. Can you tell me about that?
SF: It wouldn't be a surprise if you knew. You'll have to wait! Lillias did the role of Asaka for quite a long part of the run and we thought it would be great to feature her, but we also wanted to bring back Kecia Lewis-Evans, the original Asaka. So we thought, "We have to find some way to work Lillias into the show without creating a new goddess." She could be the Goddess of the High Belt, maybe! We've come up with something and I think it's going to be wonderful.
TM: Here's a question that you were probably asked a lot when Once on This Island first opened: Did you study Caribbean music before you wrote the show?
SF: This was the second show Lynn and I wrote that was produced in New York, and it was the first that had a Broadway transfer. My background was as a classical player but I grew up listening to every show album I could get my hands on, plus R&B and all different kinds of music. I also worked in Nashville for a while; that's where I got my gospel and country chops. As I was growing up, world music was beginning to enter the popular listening stream, and I was a real fan of that, too. Anyway, Lynn and I were looking for our next project after Lucky Stiff. I remember distinctly a set of reviews for that show that were very encouraging of us as a team, but some of them said things like "Flaherty is incapable of writing a ballad or anything lyrical." Well, Lucky Stiff was a musical farce, and anything that was lyrical or had emotional content just didn't belong in that score. Also, the physical production of the show was difficult and there were many scenes, with very few actors playing very many characters. I said to Lynn, "For our next project, wouldn't it be great if there was really no set, just a bunch of actors creating the entire show out of nothing? And it also would be nice if we could find some vehicle that would let us be a little more emotional." Around that time, Lynn came across a novel by Rosa Guy, a woman from the Caribbean who now lives in New York. It was called My Love, My Love, or The Peasant Girl and it was this tiny little novella that was her take on the Little Mermaid story. Lynn said, "It's really different from anything that we've done and you're going to think I'm crazy for showing it to you, but you have to read this book."
TM: I guess you loved it.
SF: It was one of those magical reads. There was something so evocative about the book that I instantly started getting musical ideas. It had never occurred to me to take my love of world music and to try to use those sounds in a theater score; but I've always felt that if music begins to effortlessly come forth from a piece, especially on a first read, then there's really something there to explore.
TM: Don't you think Once on This Island would make a fabulous movie, either live-action or animated?
SF: There's been interest over the years. A lot of people were nervous about it for different reasons. Frankly, I think the multiple gods issue is something that producers, at first glance, are not sure what to do with. But the themes of the piece are very resonant, especially now. Lynn and I had a great relationship with the animation department at 20th Century Fox--we did Anastasia for them--and there was discussion there for a while. I think it would be a terrific film. There are characters that are people in the village but then they become the gods and goddesses, so it really is a story-within-a-story kind of thing. Visually, it could be very exciting. And, Lord knows, there are so many talented folks out there who would be wonderful in the piece. I'm actually feeling very hopeful these days, with Moulin Rouge being such a phenomenon and giving many people their first exposure to musicals--to the idea of music carrying a dramatic story. Chicago is also coming up, so this could be a renaissance period for film musicals.
TM: Let's hope so. In the meantime, it will be great to see Once on This Island live again, with the original cast.
SF: Everyone is going to be cranking it, I'm sure: "Here I am! I'm back, and I can still hit those notes!" La Chanze is in such amazing voice. And it's going to be wonderful working with Graciela again, because she was very much the mother of the piece. It's really going to feel like a family reunion.