Arts & Culture

The Creative Process of Lea Salonga's Once on This Island Director Michael Arden

Here's how he made the hit Broadway musical Once on This Island.

Michael Arden's revival of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s Once on This Island, currently on Broadway, has earned raves since it opened late last year. Based on Rosa Guy's 1985 novel My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl, Once on This Island is a Caribbean retelling of The Little Mermaid mixed with Romeo and Juliet. The musical marks the long-awaited comeback of Tony winner Lea Salonga to Broadway as Erzulie, the Goddess of Love. The show cast also includes Alex Newell, Hailey Kilgore, Phillip Boykin, Quentin Earl Darrington, Kenita R. Miller, and Isaac Powell.

“I begged the writers to let me do it,” Arden says. He goes on to explain that the musical—a love story and fairy tale set in the Caribbean—was the first he saw after September 11, 2001, and it had a lasting effect on him. “The city was still reeling with what it had just gone through, and something about this play awakened a sense of hope and forgiveness,” says Arden, an actor and director who was nominated for a Tony Award for his 2015 revival of Spring Awakening. “Despite the horrible loss, it moved me to more than tears—it moved me to inspiration.” Here, he opens up about his process for our peek inside the habits of a creative mastermind.


How do you prepare yourself to be creative—what’s your ritual?

I would say it involves going to the gym, but it usually doesn’t. I just spend as much time as possible with the material and try to, with my team of collaborators, articulate as well as I can what we’re physically going to be doing or what the intent is. Because the more I articulate it, the better I understand it, and the better I’m able to articulate it to others.

What place is most conducive in which for you to work?

My husband and I bought an old church in upstate New York, and I’ve found that since we've had it, it’s really inspiring—like there’s actually airspace and I’m able to make sounds. I also spend a lot of time at the Met—I try to go once a week. For this particular one, being in the African wing was really inspiring for me, so I try to bring my designers along as much as possible.


Michael Arden

At what time of day do you prefer to work?

I think that at a certain hour of the night I do start to get tired, but I do love the morning—the morning and the afternoon. I hit my stride around 10:30 AM.


What’s your go-to snack?

Usually coffee.

How do you take your coffee?

Black, which is new for me. It’s only in the past year that I’ve gone with the black coffee thing, but it makes it easier for someone to get it for me.

Who’s your favorite collaborator?

My favorite collaborator is Dane Laffrey, who designed the set for Once on This Island, but we’ve worked together since high school when he was my roommate. He designed the costumes and sets for Spring Awakening, and Merrily We Roll Along—and we’ll be doing Annie at the Hollywood Bowl this summer and A Christmas Carolin the fall. We really have a relationship and I’m so proud of that. We’ve done it for so long, and he really inspires me and challenges me.

Mia Williamson, Alex Newell, Hailey Kilgore, and the cast of Once On This Island.

What do you most often do to procrastinate?


What’s your best trick for overcoming a block?

I ask for help. Usually, if there’s some kind of a block, whether it’s someone to my left or someone to my right, I try to realize that I might not have the answer, but that someone else might have an answer that could lead me to the right one.

It’s said that genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. What is that ratio like for you?

It’s pretty close to that, I think the inspiration comes from the material, and my interactions with the world, so I guess that would be about 20-80.

What’s your dream project?

I would love to create a piece of theater that is devised by a company of actors and creators that I’d put together and I’d love for it to be nonverbal so it’s something that someone with any communication ability can enjoy. My dream would be to have 50 people in a show with each person from a different country.


The cast of Once On This Island

What have you learned from a failure?

Probably more than I’ve learned from a success.

What’s your favorite creation thus far?

I would say Once on This Island because it’s the most recent. But, everything that I do when I’m doing it is my favorite—or else I’m in trouble.


What do you hope your creative legacy will be?

I hope that people take away from the show the idea that the good that we do in our lives, though we may not see the result, it is still what we must do. The protest that we go to, or the time that we stand up for someone, or do the right thing, despite its difficulty… We might not see the return of it, but who knows whose lives we can change by doing those things.

This story originally appeared on
* Minor edits have been made by the editors.

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