Among the many beloved musicals they’ve written together, including Ragtime and Anastasia, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s Once on This Island is a particular favorite among theater fans for its vibrant score, richly drawn characters and touching story, blending elements of The Little Mermaid and Romeo and Juliet. Originally produced on Broadway in 1991, it’s now back at the Circle in the Square Theater in an inventive new production by the rising young director Michael Arden. Ahrens, along with stars Alex Newell (Glee) and Tamyra Gray (American Idol), stopped by the Billboard on Broadway podcast to talk about the show’s lasting influence, its pop-leaning songs, and why its story resonates so strongly across generations.
For Ahrens and Flaherty, writing music that sounded authentically Caribbean happened “with a very natural flow,” Ahrens says. In the ’90s when they wrote it, Flaherty was particularly interested in what was then called “world music.” “It felt very emotional to us; as we wrote it, we’d burst into tears a lot,” Ahrens remembers. “I’d dance around the living room! I think that’s why it doesn’t sound belabored or phony.”
“The music itself is mind-blowing. There’s such a continuity with it all,” says Newell. “I think I broke my CD of Once on This Island. The orchestration and how it went with the lyrics, the storytelling, getting to do that eight shows a week is a blessing. I appreciate what I’m singing and what I’m doing musically at the same time, which sometimes you don’t get.” “Everybody is the instruments in this show,” Gray adds. “That’s part of the ethereal-ness of the show, that transports you. You’re all in it.”
The show’s deeper themes, about how race and class divisions split communities, ring especially true for the cast, creators and audience. “It’s just as relevant as it ever was,” says Ahrens of the show. “We still have natural disasters and storms, we still have divisions on our island of Manhattan, not to mention our country of America.”
Ahrens, Newell and Gray go on to discuss their personal histories with the show, the challenges of singing the score, and what it’s like to perform in such an intimate space versus onscreen or on a grander Broadway stage. Listen to their chat with host Rebecca Milzoff here.