"Once On This Island" : When Emotions Soar

Alan Ash

“I look for a great story with great characters and moments for emotions to soar,” Lynn Ahrens, writer/lyricist of “Once On This Island”, explained.  “When emotions can’t be contained anymore, somebody has to burst into song whether joyous or tragic or angry.”  Like Ti Moune or the Island gods?

I recently caught up with Ms. Ahrens by phone to discuss Once On This Island’s path to Broadway, the current revival, and the show’s emotional impact on audiences and cast members. 

Once On This Island’s journey to Broadway started in early 1990.

“I opened a small colorful book I found on the used bookshelf”, the charming and erudite Ms. Ahrens told me.  She was immediately bewitched by the novel’s first line: “There is an island where rivers run deep/ Where the sea sparkling in the sun earns it/ The name “Jewel of the Antillies.”

“I thought this is the most beautiful poetry”, Ms. Ahrens remembers.  “It just wants to leap to the music.”  Magically, perhaps, it did.

The book cost $1.50 and the musical adaptation of Rosa Guy’s fairy tale novel “Love Me, Love Me”, became Lynn Ahrens and (her composing partner) Steven Flaherty’s first Broadway show, “Once On This Island.”  In some ways, Guy’s novel did leap to the music: It took Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Flaherty (music) just 6 months to write the entire show.

Once On This Island opened at the Booth Theater in October 1990- less than a year after Ahrens discovered Guy’s novel. The original Broadway production ran for 469 performances, earned 8 Tony nominations and made LaChanze (who played Ti Moune) an overnight sensation. It was the first of many Ahrens-Flaherty Broadway musicals, including such hits as “Ragtime”, “Seussical” and (currently on Broadway) “Anastasia.”  

The fairy tale musical is an emotional roller-coaster. Ti Moune is a young peasant woman who seeks meaning and love on a racially divided island. She rescues a young man (Daniel) from a car accident and helps heal him.  While doing so, Ti Moune falls in love with Daniel. One problem: he is an aristocrat from the other side of the island, who harshly rejects her because of her low social status. Devastated, Ti Moune dies from a broken heart, but the island gods take compassion on her. Through Ti Moune’s death, the Island’s racial and class barriers are finally broken.

After enthralling theater audiences worldwide for three decades, Once On This Island was revived on Broadway last December. The revival (now playing at the Circle In The Square Theater) is radically different than the 1990 Broadway production, but still uses the original score.

“We don’t rewrite this particular show”, Ms. Ahrens says proudly.  “There is nothing really that I would want to change. We leave it alone because it just seems to work structurally.”

“In 1990”, Ms. Ahrens said, “the show was a joyous and moving fairy tale; it was a parable for love and for the power of love.” But the revival under Michael Arden’s direction “has become more of a statement about the world as it exists today: Natural disasters that are happening all over, communities trying to rebuild after tragedies, and young people standing up to society and speaking their mind.”

“As the show has grown over the years”, Ms. Ahrens adds, “all sorts of events have happened that you could layer over the show and say ‘oh, it’s about this or that.’”

 Lynn Ahrens and the cast of  Once On This Island

Lynn Ahrens and the cast of Once On This Island

One such event was the Once On This Island reunion concerts held on May 12, 2002.

Less than a year after the September 11 attacks, two Once On This Island reunion concerts were held to support Broadway Cares/Equity Fight AIDS. A portion of the proceeds went to The Cantor Fitzgerald Relief Fund. Many of the original Broadway cast members, including LaChanze, performed.

LaChanze’s husband, Calvin Gooding, perished in the World Trade Center attack. At the time, he was a trader with Cantor Fitzgerald and LaChanze was 8 months pregnant with their second child. 

It was an emotional yet uplifting concert. After LaChanze sang her powerful “Waiting for Life”, the audience erupted in a standing ovation.

But for Ahrens, the most emotional moment of the evening was yet to come.

“LaChanze came out on stage- a year after this disaster had happened and a year after giving birth to her second child; and she sang the final words of the show: ‘It will help you feel the anger and the sorrow…and Forgive.’” When LaChanze sang “Forgive”, Ms. Ahrens remembers, “it was one of the most emotional experiences I ever had.” 

But Ahrens wasn’t the only one moved by LaChanze’s performance. A young actor was also at that concert, sitting behind Ahrens: Michael Arden. “It was just last summer that Michael (Arden) told me about being at that performance.” Arden was so moved by LaChanze’s performance that he vowed he would someday direct the show.

Arden has made the most of the opportunity: his creative production seems likely to receive a Tony nomination for Best Revival.

Should that happen, I don’t think Ahrens would be surprised.

“Every time I hear the songs, I am really happy with my work,” Ms. Ahrens said.  “I say this is pretty good.”