Following their Off-Broadway debut with LUCKY STIFF, a musical farce, Ahrens and Flaherty knew they wanted to tackle something with greater emotional depth. Browsing for ideas, Ahrens stumbled upon the novel My Love, My Love by Rosa Guy in a used bookstore. She responded instantly to the novel's poetic language and to the simple beauty of the story. Her writing partner, composer Stephen Flaherty, was attracted to the novel's Caribbean setting, which would allow him to create a score that was theatrical, but inflected with the rhythms and sounds of the story's locale. Their long search was over.
In order to obtain the rights from Guy, the duo agreed to present the author with an outline and four song presentation that revealed their take on the material. It was a nerve-wracking experience, especially as they intended to completely change the novel's ending. Thankfully, Guy loved what she heard, and gave her blessing.
Over the next eight months, Ahrens and Flaherty completed the show, writing mostly chronologically and allowing each musical moment to reveal itself. They presented their work to their colleagues at Playwrights Horizons, who immediately fell in love with the show and committed to producing a four-week workshopAhrens and Flaherty's first and only choice for a director/choreographer was Graciela Daniele, who had a reputation for using dance to tell stories. After hearing the score, Daniele agreed to join the team.
The four-week workshop took place in the fall of 1989. Songs were cut and replaced, the story sharpened and focused, and the designers began to envision the physical look of the mythical island and its inhabitants. Playwrights Horizons announced that there would be a full production of the show in the spring.
ONCE ON THIS ISLAND debuted on April 6th, 1990, and the audience and critical response was rapturous. In The New York Times, Frank Rich raved that the lyrics were "simple, direct, and poignant," and that the audience was likely to leave the theater "ready to dance down the street."
The show was quickly transferred to Broadway's Booth Theater where it opened on October 18, 1990, and ran for over a year. The show garnered eight Tony nominations, including Best Musical, Score, and Book. The Broadway run was followed by a national tour, and in 1993, ONCE ON THIS ISLAND opened in London, where it captured the Olivier Award for Best Musical. Since then, ONCE ON THIS ISLAND has been performed thousands of times across the country and around the world.
On May 12, 2002, twelve years after the Broadway production, almost the entire original cast of ONCE ON THIS ISLAND reunited for a special concert performance of the show benefiting Broadway Cares and The Cantor-Fitzgerald Relief Fund. LaChanze, the original TiMoune, lost her husband on 9/11, and the concert was organized to pay tribute to her and the other victims of the tragedy. The resonances were powerful, in lyrics which urged audience and actors alike to "feel the anger and the sorrow, and forgive." It was a magical, emotional evening when all felt the true power of being "part of the human heart."
"A rattling good time! A carnival of swirling rhythm. Delightful." -New York Post
"Explodes with music and motion! The best musical of the season!" -Associated Press
"Rousing, musical theatre! Everyone is likely to emerge from the theatre ready to dance down the street!" -The New York Times