'Once on This Island' Director Michael Arden on Tony Nods and the 'Responsibility' of Nontraditional Casting

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Joan Marcus
Director Michael Arden working with the cast of 'Once on This Island.' 

Two-time Tony Award nominee Michael Arden, 35, has quickly established himself as Broadway’s foremost proponent of nontraditional casting. He broke fresh ground by casting a mix of hearing and deaf actors in the 2015 revival of Spring Awakening, his Broadway directorial debut. His new production of Once on This Island similarly defies expectations with a multicultural, gender-fluid cast. (Most notably, Glee veteran Alex Newell makes his Broadway debut in the traditionally female role of Asaka, Mother of the Earth.) The revival of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s 1990 musical has been dazzling audiences at the Circle in the Square Theatre since December, and it recently picked up eight Tony nominations -- included a Best Direction of a Musical nod for Arden. 

Before taking on behind-the-scenes roles, Arden acted on Broadway in 2003’s Big River and 2006’s The Times They Are A-Changin'. He spoke to Billboard about his personal connection to Once on This Island and why he believes nontraditional casting is his “natural responsibility.”   

What’s your personal mission as a director?

I’m attracted to stories that inspire faith. If I’m going to tell a story, it has to really examine the human condition and inspire audiences to be better or make a change in some way. I love stories that are about action and consequence … about the mistakes we make as people and how we can do better next time. What I love most is leaving a theater feeling like I might make even a slight change for the better in my life because of a story I’ve seen. 

Do accolades for your directing work resonate with you differently than they do for your work as an actor?

More than anything, it’s thrilling to look around and see the company I’m recognized in. These are all directors whose work I’ve been moved by. This year, to be nominated alongside Tina Landau, David Cromer, Bartlett Sher and Casey Nicholaw… I feel like, “Who let me in?” It’s more than a personal validation. I feel like I’m part of a community I admire. 

You’ve made nontraditional casting part of your signature as a director, first with Spring Awakening and now with Once On This Island

It’s a natural responsibility I have not only as a citizen of the world, but as a theatermaker. I think we have a responsibility to push the envelope at all times. For me, it’s about giving the best people with the most exciting talent an opportunity that they might not be afforded otherwise. If we can do that on Broadway, we’re setting a great example for the rest of the artistic community. 

Have you received any pushback about wanting to challenge audiences’ expectations with your casting?  

Usually, it’s just about others not being able to envision it. It’s a leap of faith. The writers, I think, were a little confounded and confused when I brought Alex Newell in to audition for Asaka. By the end of the day, they were like, “It’s gotta be him!” It’s been really rewarding to see people’s minds changed. 

You dedicated Once On This Island to your grandparents, who raised you and taught you that “love is the most powerful force on earth.” What about your experience did you see reflected in the musical?

I'm certainly not an orphan girl who washed up on a tree in Haiti. My grandparents empowered me to follow my dreams as an artist when, in Texas, that wasn't a viable option, which is what Ti Moune's parents do. The love is really palpable in that scene [when Ti Moune, played by Tony nominee Hailey Kilgore, decides to find her love], and it certainly was in my story. 

You’re gearing up to direct Annie at the Hollywood Bowl in July. How do you plan to re-imagine that story? 

It’s going to be as simple as I can make it, and it will probably still be complicated because it’s a big musical with kids, dogs, and presidents. The characters all make life and ideological changes because of the optimism of a little girl, who has a horrible life. Ultimately, it’s about a country that’s trying to find its way back to hope. I’m focusing on that. 

Any chance you and your husband, Smash star Andy Mientus, will collaborate on a project in the near future?

I really hope so! We’re always dreaming up projects, and all of the good projects I do are his ideas that I just steal. [Laughs] so I feel like we’re constantly collaborating. We relish getting to work together, because it means we get to be in the same place. He’s always in my mind and heart when I’m directing something, but it would be great to be on the same side of the table with him -- to create something together as associates.