When “Once On This Island” debuted on Broadway in 1990 — and again when it won a Tony for best revival in 2018 — it explored prejudice within a race through the love story of a peasant girl and the wealthy young man she rescues.
In between, it became somewhat of a staple for community theater and high-school productions — but with a significant change: The erasure of the difference, and significance, between her darker skin and his lighter tone.
Now, Pioneer Theatre Company is presenting “Once On This Island” in its original form for the first time in Utah — with an all-African American cast directed by Gerry McIntyre, who appeared in the show’s original Broadway run and its first national touring company.
McIntyre is acutely aware that his version of the Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty musical will be playing to mostly white audiences in a mostly white city. (Salt Lake City’s population is about 2.4% African American; that's about 1% higher than Utah as a whole.)
“I just recently found out there’s less than 3% African Americans in Salt Lake City, which was daunting to me. It took my breath away,” said McIntyre, who is African American. “But in this version, you’re going to see the real deal. The way it was supposed to be.”
As theater groups and schools have commonly performed the musical, “it’s always with white people,” McIntyre said, referring to the rewritten version that “just made it about class — about rich and poor people. ... It’s still a wonderful show, but it’s different.”
He added: “I’m so glad that we’re getting to tell this story the way Ahrens and Flaherty intended it. They wrote this thing because of colorism — prejudice within the race, which is a true thing.”
Based on the 1985 novel “My Love, My Love” by Rosa Guy (who was born in Trinidad), “Once” is set on an island in the French Antilles where the people are sharply divided by both color and class. And four gods get involved, influencing events and betting among themselves whether love is stronger than death.
It’s the story of Ti Moune, who rescues injured, rich Daniel — and falls in love with him as she nurses him back to health. Despite the fact that he loves her in return, their differences and prejudice from Daniel’s peers mean there’s no happy ending for them.
The musical fable, seen as a retelling of the original “The Little Mermaid,” mixes the joy of newfound love with the heartache that follows. The Caribbean-inspired music includes showstoppers like "Waiting for Life,” “Mama Will Provide” and the rousing finale “Why We Tell the Story.”
Pioneer Theatre Company, determined to mount a production of the original version, reached out to McIntyre to direct, and then looked outside Utah for actors.
The role of Little Girl/young Ti Moune was cast locally; Ava Lynn Smith, an 11-year-old from Lehi who appeared in Hale Centre Theatre’s production of “Matilda” last year, won the part. “There weren’t many [actresses] to choose from, but she was fantastic,” McIntyre said.
The rest of the ensemble — who are all African American — were cast in New York.
The elaborate and immersive island set created for the revival in 2017 caught the imagination of theatergoers, and it became a surprise Tony winner. McIntyre had starred as Armand Beauxhomme, Daniel’s father, in the original — and far simpler — Broadway production.
“There were no sets, no props, no nothing. The actor did all the work,” McIntyre said with a laugh. “And then in the revival, I walked in the theater and there was sand on the whole stage and there was a goat. And chickens. And I was like, ‘Wow! This is going to be a different ride.’”
(The Broadway revival closed in January 2019 after 29 previews and 458 regular performances. A national tour launched last year and continues through July, but it skipped Utah.)
Pioneer’s production is somewhere between the spare original and the lavish revival.
“I kind of wanted to just do what we did originally,” McIntyre said. “And then, after seeing that revival, I decided to make it different and make a statement.”
In the Pioneer version, Little Girl goes up into the attic when a storm starts. She closes the window and then sees her old toy chest.
“She opens a book that’s in the toy chest, and the story comes to life,” McIntyre said. “The characters come from the steamer trunk, from a closet. And the story comes to life that way. Everything takes place in the attic.
“I think it’s a fun ride. Hopefully, it’s a good idea.”
In all versions of the musical, Ti Moune sacrifices herself for love and for Daniel. But McIntyre doesn’t believe the story places her in a lesser or subservient role.
“It’s not anything to do about a woman’s struggle at all. It’s about a love struggle,” he said. “It’s so lovely. ... She’s such a heroine. She’s very strong. She’s empowering for women, I think.”
And he decided to keep the four gods in their respective gender roles — the two females are Mother of Earth and Goddess of Love; the two males are God of Water and Demon of Death.
“Because we can do it with all African American people, I want to keep it the way it was written,” he said.
There are 17 songs (and three reprises), but it’s brief by Broadway standards — 90 minutes, with no intermission.
McIntyre said he’s “very curious to see what the reaction is” in Salt Lake City. He joined the national touring company after the show’s original Broadway run, and “it played so differently everywhere we went,” he said. “In Los Angeles, they didn’t care. But we went to Cleveland, of all places, and they loved it. So you never know.”
“It’s a great piece. It’s one of my favorite things I ever did on Broadway.”
According to a spokeswoman for Pioneer, the theater company is “meeting its goals” for “Once on This Island” ticket sales, which are “going well — but there are good tickets remaining.”
In 2002, at a reunion of the original Broadway production, McIntyre recalled meeting a couple at the stage door who told him they “fell in love with the show and we fell in love with each other through the show.” They had gotten married to the song “The Human Heart,” from the musical.
“I never felt so much love in my life,” he said. “We reached so many people.”
He encouraged theatergoers to “just sit back and relax. … It’s impossible not to be swept up in these 90 minutes. To not feel something.”
‘ONCE ON THIS ISLAND’
Pioneer Theatre Company presents the musical that won a Tony for best revival in 2018.
Where • Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East, University of Utah campus, Salt Lake City.
When • Runs through March 7.
Showtimes • Mondays through Thursdays at 7 p.m., Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 7:30 p.m., no shows on Sundays.
Tickets • $68 for the main floor and loge; $45 for the balcony, at pioneertheatre.org or by calling 801-581-6961.