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Michael Arden, making waves with the little musical that could, 'Once on This Island'

Michael Arden, making waves with the little musical that could, 'Once on This Island'
Michael Arden, photographed a year and a half ago in Beverly Hills. He has his second Tony nomination for directing, this time for the scrappy "Once on This Island." (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

When director Michael Arden suggested to Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty that he helm a revival of their 1990 musical, “Once on This Island,” he said battles had to be waged on multiple fronts.

The original had been a pastoral and sweet telling of a fable set in the French Antilles of Ti Moune, a poor young orphan who tragically falls in love with a rich aristocrat of a lighter skin color. Arden’s vision was “a bit uglier, harsher and risky,” a bustling post-hurricane world created out of the detritus of devastation. To boot, there would be gender fluidity among the gods who make Ti Moune a pawn in their cosmic bet as to whether love is greater than death.

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“They were shocked at first,” Arden said. “It didn’t come without people butting heads. They trusted me, but they were probably nervous right up to opening night.”

Lyricist Ahrens and composer Flaherty, the team behind “Ragtime” and the hit “Anastasia,” needn’t have worried. “Once on This Island” opened to rave notices and has been nominated for eight Tony Awards, including direction. Jesse Green’s review in the New York Times praised the ravishing and chaotic beauty in Arden’s immersive staging, which included a goat in diapers wandering the cluttered and sand-bedecked stage.

Alex Newell, Lea Salonga and Merle Dandridge in "Once on This Island" at the Circle in the Square Theatre, where the audience rings a stage covered in sand.
Alex Newell, Lea Salonga and Merle Dandridge in "Once on This Island" at the Circle in the Square Theatre, where the audience rings a stage covered in sand. (Joan Marcus)

“I’m interested in people’s relationship to objects, so I think a lot of my work is very tactile,” said Arden, 35, who also was nominated for his ebullient 2015 revival of “Spring Awakening.” “I want to create an environment that actors can be really free in.”

Among his many inspirations was a trip to Haiti, still recovering from a 2010 earthquake. He found resilient people determined to live the best lives they could within their circumstances, without self-pity or victimhood.

“I met a group called the Artists of the Resistance that build sculptures and art out of the debris of the Earth,” he said. “I’d have never thought to use rubber tires to create cutouts for a shadow play. Sometimes, disaster can inspire ingenuity.”

As an actor — he starred as Tom Sawyer in the title role of Deaf West’s 2003 revival of “Big River” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’” in 2006 — Arden said he can use a shorthand with his cast. No role was more critical than Ti Moune, and the director was determined to find someone very young. Hailey Kilgore, 18, won him over.

“I could see her heart in the audition,” he recalled. “There was so much honesty and truth, innocence and strength about her. You could imagine her growing from a child into a woman who could forgive and end the cycle of retribution at the heart of this story.”

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘Once on This Island’

Total Tony nominations: 8

Other key races: Musical revival, lead actress in a musical (Hailey Kilgore)

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