Michael Arden: How Have You Loved?

by Brent Lambert (@FEELguide)

One of the most memorable encounters I have ever had in my life was with a Ph.D. researcher who had spent years studying the common threads that connect near-death testimonies worldwide. He interviewed hundreds of individuals in over ten countries, and in several languages, and they described to him the exact same four-word question they were each faced with when they finished their ‘Life Review’ with an all-knowing great spirit in the moments just before the afterlife begins. “How have you loved?” was the question they were faced with, and their answers determined whether they would continue onwards, or be sent back to earth to complete their journey. That conversation is one I will never forget, and I still get goosebumps just thinking about it. It was a memory that was brought to the forefront of my mind when I recently interviewed theatre director Michael Arden (Spring Awakening), whose brand new Broadway show, Once On This Island, just opened on Broadway at New York’s 360-degree Circle in the Square Theatre.

The play, which originally premiered on Broadway in 1990, tells the story of Ti Moune, a girl from the slums of an island similar to Haiti, who falls in love with Daniel whom she saves from a car accident. This is a spoiler-free feature, so I will not reveal the astonishing mythological events that transpire next. You will have to see yourself. But Michael Arden’s version of Once On This Island could very well elevate the spirit of the story to an even higher level than its original production seventeen years ago. I had the chance to catch up with Michael in late July as he was busy sculpting every little detail of his passion project which was still in utero at the time.

“It’s a show that I’ve loved forever,” Michael says when recounting the genesis of how his version of Once On This Island came to be. “I had this idea, probably about five years ago, to take a new look at it from a different vantage point and I called a woman named AnnMarie Milazzo whom I had worked on Spring Awakening with — she did all the vocal arrangements for that show — and I said, ‘Hey, AnnMarie, I would love to look at this show; wouldn’t it be cool if we could do it in a parking lot with no electrified instruments; just people’s voices, bodies, and whatever they can carry on their backs.’ Basically, how could we tell this story with nothing? So that led us down a path to look at the score and try to reorchestrate it mainly for the human body and voice.”

The bold idea excited them both, but would the rest of the main team get on board? “We shared the idea with the writers and they were a little reticent at first. Then we started thinking about the fact that it takes place on an island that’s been ravaged by a hurricane, so we started looking at how people rebuild. While talking with the original orchestrator, a guy named Michael Starobin, he had this idea to work with a company called Bash The Trash that builds instruments out of garbage and found objects. And so we started looking at how people rebuild and how they tell stories and how storytelling is such a vital part of rebuilding. Then one thing led to another and now we’re opening on Broadway.”
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The heart of the story deals with how, even in the darkest hour and after the fiercest of storms, the human spirit has a miraculous tendency to find beauty in the barren. These discoveries have, and always will be, the seeds of the most transcendent stories ever told. Humans are storytelling creatures, but post-disaster stories are in a league of their own. To enter the mindspace of these people, Michael and his team studied what happened in the wake in some of the most devastating disasters in recent history.

“We looked at what happened in New York post-9/11,” Michael said. “We looked at what’s happening in Syria, and also what happened in Haiti and New Orleans. What we learned, as far as a common thread that occurred in each community, is how these people find new ways of telling their stories and making their music. I ended up taking my design team to Port-au-Prince in Haiti to see how these people rebuilt after all that they had been through and how their art is now made from repurposed rubble and found objects.”

Large-scale disasters have a tragically unique way of revealing the economic divisions that permeate a society. “For the most part the story does take place on Haiti,” Michael says. “It’s set on an island colonized by the French, which led to an island filled with so many different shades of brown — people that are not only separated by skin tone, but also class. Everything we’ve created really all comes back to Haiti, and has helped us celebrate and honor their culture without appropriating it.” The ways in which the people of Haiti have risen above their impoverished circumstances was hugely inspirational to the team. “It’s so devastating what’s happened there, between the earthquake and the hurricane, but they are continuing to rebuild in such a beautiful way. They are such a proud and vibrant people, and their art is so beautiful. It’s such a great inspiration and it’s exciting to get to bring that to the stage. It allows us to show the heartache as well as the joyfulness of what they’ve been through and what they’re continuing to go through.”
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Without revealing the details of the incredibly powerful ending, one of Michael’s goals is for the audience to leave the theatre fueled by the idea of ‘stronger together’. “I thought it was a really important time for us to tell a story in which getting rid of a wall is our only way forward,” he says. “At the end of the day we need to realize that segregation is not the human condition at its best. Which isn’t to say we need to all be the same. It simply means we need to embrace each other’s differences to help tell our stories together.” He adds, “The story is not just about Ti Moune. It’s also about how she connects people of different backgrounds and brings them together. It’s sort of perfect timing [considering today’s news headlines].”

The arc of Ti Moune’s story is essentially about a young girl’s search for love. So I asked Michael if Ti Moune’s quest for love has any real life resonance with his own discovery of true love — his husband, renowned theatre actor Andy Mientus. “I think Ti Moune thinks that her purpose in life is to love this boy Daniel, but as it unfolds she learns that her purpose in loving is bigger than that,” he says. “The love I have for my husband is intertwined with his, and we are two individuals looking in the same direction — as opposed to staring in each other’s eyes all the time. I often think about what love can inspire in the world, not just in the eyes of the object of your affection. That’s what’s so beautiful about this piece is it’s bigger than a love story. It’s about love inspiring change in the world.”

In its heart, Once On This Island truly is much more than a love story: it’s about the search for purpose. So what can the audience take home with regards to this search? Michal’s ultimate dream would be for all of us to give and receive as much love as humanly possible in our short time in this world. “I would want everyone to love someone in the purest sense of the word — an unconditional love in which you don’t expect anything in return. And especially to love someone whom you think might not have anything in common with, or whom the world tells you you aren’t meant to love. I’m not necessarily talking about romantic love either, moreso a kind and empathetic love. That’s how change is made. That’s how we build a better world for those who come after us.”

Once On This Island explores the idea that the ways in which we cultivate love in our lives (both in giving and receiving) has an immortal impact that endures long after we have each left the physical world. Humans are storytelling creatures, but we are also love-pollinating creatures as well. “How have you loved?” is not just a question we will each face across the veil. It is a question we should be asking ourselves each and every waking moment of our lives.

Once On This Island is at New York’s Circle in the Square Theatre. Visit www.OnceOnThisIsland.com for info and tickets. The New York Times raves about the production, and has rated it as one of their NYTimes Critics Picks.
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About The Author

Brent Lambert
IG: @FEELguide

Brent Lambert is a Los Angeles-based editor, writer, Entertainment Editor for BELLO magazine, as well as the founder and Editor-in-Chief of FEELguide.com. He also has a degree in architecture, is a Photoshop whiz, and in his spare time dabbles in set design and illustration (portfolio: unifiedFEEL.com).

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