Why Gods Transcend Gender In Broadway’s “Once On This Island”

Director Michael Arden on casting a gay man, "Glee" star Alex Newell, as Mother of the Earth.

Blessed with a bold new revival of Once on This Island, Broadway has been beat for the gods.

Set against the backdrop of a storm-threatened Caribbean island ruled by four deities, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s Tony-nominated 1990 musical tells the inspiring tale of Ti Moune, a peasant girl who proves the transformative power of love after falling for a wealthy boy. Glee star and recording artist Alex Newell makes his Broadway debut as Asaka, Mother of the Earth.

Director Michael Arden, a Tony nominee for his direction of Deaf West’s inclusive 2015 revival of Spring Awakening, discusses the divine casting.

Michael Arden/Luke Fontana

When did you discover Once on This Island?

I’d heard the cast recording when I was in high school and loved the music, but I’d never seen the show. Then, shortly after 9/11, I saw a reunion benefit concert at the Winter Garden, and it blew me away. New York was a grieving, wounded city, and experiencing that story of strength and survival was so life-affirming.

Why were you the right person to tackle a revival?

I just felt like it had it to be me. I wanted to do something different—I didn’t want it to be pastoral. My designer, Dane Laffrey, and I wanted to take an unflinching look at how people rebuild after a disaster.

You also share something in common with Ti Moune, an orphan taken in by strangers. In your Playbill bio, you dedicate the production to your grandparents, who raised you from an early age.

Yeah, I get choked up talking about it. I love what this show has to say about selflessness and taking responsibility when we don’t necessarily have to.

Regarding Torch Song, Harvey Fierstein recently said, “Even the most faithful stage recreations are tinted by the moment in which they are experienced.” How is Once on This Island tinted by this moment?

Well, everyone is in a state of trauma—political or from disasters around the world. It’s a scary time and we’re living in fear. This show is about the importance of doing good without hoping to receive anything in return, because that good can last longer than we do. What Ti Moune does echoes long after her death. You may think that your one voice won’t matter, that you alone can’t make a difference, but we have no idea what change we may affect after we leave this world.

Once on This Island/Joan Marcus

The show also explores social inequality. There’s literally a gate onstage that separates the rich from the poor.

It couldn’t be more timely. Trump and his wall were impossible to ignore when that gate was being designed. I wanted to create a show kids could see, but I also wanted adults to see their world reflected back. I hope we inspire the tearing down of walls and not the building of them.

Tell me about the decision to disregard gender constraints when casting your gods, specifically Alex Newell as Asaka, Mother of the Earth.

That came together organically. First we cast Lea Salonga as Erzulie, Goddess of Love. Lea is not black, of course, so that opened us up to more unconventional casting. I’d met Alex, and he said, “I’d love to play that Lillias White part,” meaning Asaka. I sort of laughed, but then I thought, well, who am I to define gods by their genitalia? And so many gay men do take on a motherly role, taking care of others, so why shouldn’t we depict that in an honest way?

You also cast Greenleaf’s Merle Dandridge as Papa Ge, Demon of Death.

It just made sense to have a woman play this incredibly strong figure. Why should we be bound by convention there as well?

In an Instagram video, Alex specifically invited the LGBT community to come see Once on This Island. Why is it an important show for the LGBT audience?

We have a traditionally female goddess played without remark by a gay man, and our negligence to comment on it hopefully speaks volumes. It’s important that LGBT people see themselves portrayed in non-traumatic ways. Asaka’s not being persecuted or dying—he’s a role model, a god, just living his truth.

Who is @thealexnewell inviting to come see #OnceOnThisIsland? Listen to find out!

A post shared by Once on This Island (@onceislandbway) on

It’s inevitable that drag queens will lip-synch Alex’s performance of “Mama Will Provide.”

Oh, yeah. I can’t wait.

You and actor Andy Mientus celebrated your first wedding anniversary this past summer. Did your relationship inform the love story at the heart of this revival?

Of course. He’s half my artistic brain, so there’s a lot of him in this production, whether I realize it or not. He’s an incredible freethinker, and much of the casting was inspired by our conversations, so I owe him a great deal for my courage in putting this show together.

Why is it important for you to share your own love story on social media?

Because it’s important to live an honest life. Like Ti Moune’s story, who knows how much that can inspire? But I believe that the more people live honestly now, the more people will live honestly in the future.
 

Once on This Island opens December 3 at Circle in the Square Theatre in New York.

Celebrity interviewer. Foodie and Broadway buff in Manhattan. Hates writing bios.
@brandonvoss