By SHARON EBERSON
When composer Stephen Flaherty takes his seat at the Benedum Center Tuesday, before the first notes of his score for Once on This Island begin to play, visions of his earliest days in musical theater may be dancing in his mind.
The Dormont native, 62, whose award-winning musicals includes Ragtime, Seussical, Rocky and Anastasia, was a Pittsburgh CLO intern the summer he turned 17. Once on This Island is a CLO production in this summer of shows produced exclusively for Pittsburgh, and a chance to see a musical after its 2020 national tour was canceled due to COVID.
“It was a wonderful opportunity because it was one of those things as a young person, where you could make either the least or the most of the opportunity. I just went for the most,” Flaherty recalled in a phone conversation before heading to his hometown and the July 25 opening night.
He recalled “coaching singers, playing the luncheons, taking notes at orchestra rehearsal, copying music for an orchestra part into another key … It was thrilling just seeing how a musical rehearsal is run. They even had me painting the posters in front of the old Heinz Hall,” Flaherty said with a laugh, then added, “I think I learned more about musical theater that summer than in my entire first year of college.”
He comes home to Pittsburgh, which has a piece of his heart and where his work continues to be celebrated. He sent a note to the cast of Front Porch Theatricals’ cast when they performed his Man of No Importance in 2022, before the show was revived off-Broadway that year.
Once on This Island, with a book and lyrics by his longtime writing partner, Lynn Ahrens – together, they are members of the Theatre Hall of Fame – was the first and most recent of Flaherty’s works seen on Broadway, where the latter won the 2018 Tony Award as Best Revival of a Musical.
Flaherty and Ahrens are at work on an as yet unnamed project, while their latest musical, Knoxville, adapted and directed by Frank Galati (the original director of Ragtime) and based on James Agee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “A Death in the Family,” has a cast album available. It soon become official that the musical, which premiered at Florida’s Asolo Repertory Theatre, will be seen where the story originated, in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Flaherty will take some time next week to watch an earlier work, performed in his hometown, with a company that helped shape his future.
Pittsburgh CLO’s production of Once on This Island features a cast of Broadway and local performers, including American Idol’s Frenchie Davis as Asaka, Mother of the Earth, Najah Hetsberger as Ti Moune, Darius Harper (CLO’s Kinky Boots) as Papa Ge, Brady D, Patsy as Ton Ton Julian, LaTrea Rembert as Armand, Carnegie Mellon’s Siggy Bijou as Andrea, Melessie Clark as Mama Euralie, Hailey Thomas as Erzulie and Mason Reeves as Daniel. Zephaniah Divine, who portrays Agwe, also will be seen in CLO’s Guys & Dolls and Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812.
Gerry McInyre, who directs for CLO, has a long history with the show, including originating the role of Armand off-Broadway.
Once On This Island is adapted from the 1985 novel My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl by Rosa Guy, which borrows from The Little Mermaid to adapt a Caribbean folk tale. It tells the story of the peasant girl Ti Moune, who saves the life of a handsome stranger who has been gravely injured during a storm. She bargains with the gods for the life of the young man, who turns out to be from a wealthy family, on an island divided by the light-skinned privileged class and dark-skinned peasant class. The gods who preside over the island make a bet over which is stronger, love or death, the stakes being Ti Moune’s life.
It was Ahrens who originally picked up the book and brought it to Flaherty, who at the time was listening “to a lot of world music.”
“It was right around the time that Paul Simon’s Graceland album had come out, and there was something to me that was so thrilling about that recording and his intersection with the music of Africa. And Lynn said, ‘I really want you to read this novel. I think it’s really beautiful. I think it’s exciting, and I think it could be a wonderful musical.’ ”
Flaherty said it took some time for him to “interface” with the music of another culture, while also noting that the story took place on a mythical island. It wasn’t until the 2017 revival that the island was designated specifically as Haiti.
Orchestrations for the show’s 1990 Broadway debut were created by Michael Starobin, who reworked the music for the completely revamped revival that included new vocal arrangements by Flaherty.
Casting a show that specifically calls for dark- and light-skinned people of color took on new meaning for the revival, when gender-bending casting included Alex Newell, a recent Tony-winner for Shucked, as Asaka, and Merle Dandridge as Papa Ge, with Flaherty noting that, traditionally, that “particular character actually is of both sexes.”
When it came to casting in 2017, it was as simple as, “Talent wins the day,” Flaherty said.
Lea Salonga, who played Erzulie, Goddess of Love, hails from the Philippines, and she at first said, “I don’t understand why I am in this show,” Flaherty recalled. “But, historically, a lot of people from the Philippines became healthcare professionals in other countries, and that was [the revival’s] concept, that she was working with, like, Doctors Without Borders in the village … as the person working hard to keep people alive. That aligned with her character, Erzulie, the Goddess of Love, who is trying to beat death. So it made great good sense, you know? But [that casting] had not been done before, so in a quiet way, it was quite revolutionary.”
Working with “the fantastic Alex Newell,’ whose vocal range was known mostly to fans of TV’s Glee before he became a Broadway star, was a delight, Flaherty said.
The composer knew that his background was singing in church, and asked Newell, “Where do they put you vocally, because I know it’s not tenor bass. Is it soprano? Is it alto?”
Newell told Flaherty, “I don’t fit into any of those categories.”
He laughed and said that they agreed Newell’s voice was his “own exotic, one-of-a-kind instrument.”
That is fitting for an Ahrens-Flaherty work, with each new show seeming to cover a completely different culture and musical genre.
Although one of the earliest projects for the writing team, the Caribbean-infused Once on This Island was readied the fastest of any others – it came together in an unheard of six months. Flaherty said the source material by Guy, a founding member of the Harlem Writers Guild, is one reason they were so drawn to creating the musical.
“Lynn had stumbled upon the book and just found the language so beautiful. Actually, the first words in the show are the first words in the novel: ‘There is an island where rivers run deep … ‘ “
The musical, besides launching them as a force on Broadway, is dear to Flaherty for a personal reason. In their 2016 marriage announcement in The New York Times, it was noted that Trevor Hardwick and Flaherty “met on a blind date set up by a mutual friend in January 1991, during the run of Mr. Flaherty’s musical ‘Once on This Island.’ ”
RAGTIME 25th ANNIVERSARY CONCERT
On March 27, Flaherty was on hand as original cast and creative team members from the Broadway production of Ragtime gathered for a one-night-only benefit concert, hosted by the Entertainment Community Fund at the Minskoff Theater in New York City.
Among the dozens of original cast members were six-time Tony-winner Audra McDonald (Sarah), two-time Tony-winner Brian Stokes Mitchell (Coalhouse Walker Jr.) and SAG Award-winner Peter Friedman (Tateh), with Tony-winner Kelli O’Hara (Mother) in the role originally performed by the late Marin Mazzie.
“A lot of us had not seen one another for more than 20 years, and all of a sudden everybody reunited and and we had 52 [people] on the stage, like we did back in the day,” Flaherty said, describing the “thrilling” scene. “There were people coming from as far as Hawaii, Australia … many people had continued in the business, but many people didn’t. And, you know people raised families and had adult children who were in that rehearsal room with us as kids. It was a joy! It was the kind of thing where I wanted to be really present, but at the same time, at every moment, I kept thinking, ‘Oh, I remember when we created that,’ or, ‘I remember the day we were in that rehearsal.’ ”
He recalled locking eyes with a woman in the ensemble who would offer hopeful looks when things weren’t going so well in early Ragtime rehearsals, and there was a percussionist who harked back to the days when he and Flaherty were working together for many years as musicians for Nunsense, the second longest-running show in off-Broadway history.“
I would do a show like Nunsense, and then have my time to go off and do my own show, and then, you know, shows close, and I would be back in that pit,” Flaherty said, laughing at the memory. “That kept me going for quite a while … actually, it kept me going all the way until ‘Once on This Island.’ ”
TICKETS AND DETAILS
Pittsburgh CLO’s production of Once on This Island is at the Benedum Center, Downtown. July 25-30. Visit https://www.pittsburghclo.org/shows/once-on-this-island1 or call 412-456-6666.