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Theatre / Once on This Island

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"Choose your dreams with care, Ti Moune..."
Asaka, grow me a garden,
Please Agwe, don't flood my garden.
Erzulie, who will my love be?
Papa Ge, don't come around me!

Once On This Island is a musical adaptation of Rosa Guy's book My Love, My Love, or The Peasant Girl. With music by Stephen Flaherty and a book by Lynn Ahrens, the musical debuted on Broadway in 1990, and its first Broadway revival opened in December 2017. The show has been relatively successful, with three official cast recordings.

The story is a loose Caribbean retelling of "The Little Mermaid" tale, though this only becomes more obvious towards the end. On an island in the French Antilles, there is a strong gap between the rich and poor. The peasants, alienated because of their darker skin, labor and pray to the Gods every day, while the Grand Hommes (great men) live a carefree life. The four gods (Asaka, mother of the Earth, Agwe, God of water, Erzulie, Goddess of love, and Papa Ge, demon of death) are temperamental and constantly cruel. However, during one of Agwe's greatest floods, he decides to spare a young orphan girl. She is found and taken in by two peasants - Mama Euralie and Tonton Julian.

Désirée Dieu Donne (known to everyone as Ti Moune) dreams of more than just peasant life, though. Her prayers to the gods are answered when Daniel Beauxhomme, son of one of the wealthiest men on the island, crashes his car in her village (courtesy of Agwe) and she must take care of him. Determined to pursue her sudden love for the boy, she leaves for the world of the rich. But not only did she make a deal with Papa Ge to let Daniel live, she is not welcome in this bright new world.

Most people might be more familiar with the Junior version - Once On This Island Jr. got its own book, with shortened songs and some of the more mature themes edited out. This version is still regularly performed by schools and youth theatre groups throughout the US and the UK.

On July 30, 2020, it was announced that Disney+ would adapt the musical into a film. Jocelyn Bioh will write the screenplay, Wanuri Kahiu will direct, and Marc Platt will produce.

Tropes in this show:

  • Adaptation Name Change: Downplayed. In the book, "Ti Moune" is more of a title or form of address for a young girl/woman, and the main character is usually referred to as Désirée. Andrea's last name is also different.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Ti Moune dies and everyone is devastated, but she is reincarnated as a tree that literally breaks down the walls of the Beauxhomme grounds. Daniel's son will find his eventual true love — a peasant girl — in it, and they will live Happily Ever After. This was changed from the complete Downer Ending of the book.
    • Ti Moune also is consoled by the memories of her parents and childhood, now embracing the heritage she has left behind.
  • Bowdlerise: In order to make the junior version more accessible to middle and high school students, the racial divide between the light-skinned rich and the very dark-skinned poor is completely removed, instead setting it up as an entirely class-based divide (although some more socially-conscious junior productions have been known to cast the show accordingly anyway, leaving the racial divide as an implicit element that savvy viewers will pick up on even though they're not outright saying it out loud). The song relating to the history of Daniel's family is removed from the junior version because of this tension (the progenitor of his family was the result of an affair between a French planter and a peasant woman). However, the "Some Girls" song is also cut, resulting to Daniel having virtually no singing at all.
    • Some Junior productions omit Ti Moune's forced suicide and have the gods simply turn her into a tree, although some do keep it.
  • Borrowin' Samedi: Papa Ge is a death loa, who is mostly seen as a skeleton during the show. His name refers to the Guédé family of loa (the ones who rule over death and fertility), which Baron Samedi is the head of.
  • But Not Too Black: Daniel and the rest of the Grand Homme are light-skinned, compared to the darker peasants that face colorism on account of their skintone. Some productions will actually cast white actors as the Grand Homme instead, to further illustrate the divide between them and the peasants, which gives an odd juxtaposition to the "coffee mixed with cream" line.
  • Cross-Cast Role: Asaka, while still a female character, is portrayed by a male actor in the revival. The idea came about when her actor, then male soprano Alex Newellnote  jokingly told director Michael Arden that they wanted to play the role. After giving it some thought, Arden decided to make it so.
  • Crowd Song: "We Dance", "Pray" and its reprise, "Why We Tell The Story".
  • Cut Song: "Come Down From the Tree", a solo for Mama Euralie, was cut by the time the show premiered in New York, as was "When Daniel Marries".
  • Dark Reprise: "Pray" is in itself something of a dark reprise (it's based in the melody of "We Dance" played in a minor key), and "Forever Yours" and "The Human Heart" both get dark reprises at the end.
    • Arguably, the "Pray" reprise is slightly darker too.
  • Deal with the Devil: Ti Moune's deal with Papa Ge.
  • Determinator: Ti Moune will not let Daniel die. Under any circumstances.
    "The only thing that will save the boy's life is ME."
  • Disposable Fiancé: Inverted with Andrea.
  • Everyone Hates Hades: Papa Ge is portrayed here as a pretty unpleasant guy, to say the least.
  • Evil Laugh: Papa Ge at the end of "Forever Yours."
  • Foreshadowing: Daniel sweetly sings, "Some girls you marry / some you love," implying he loves Ti Moune as a mistress, not a wife.
  • Framing Device: The show is framed as a story that a group of peasants tell to calm a little girl down during a storm. The storytellers take the roles of the characters in the story, and so does the little girl, who plays the part of Ti Moune as a child.
  • Gender Flip: In the 2017 Broadway revival, Papa Ge is portrayed by a woman (she's still credited as Papa Ge, however).
    • Asaka qualifies to a double extent. In actual Haitian belief, Asaka is a male spirit. In the show and book it's based on, the character is gender flipped to be a goddess, and then in the revival, the character is portrayed by a male actor portraying a female.
  • Graceful Loser: Papa Ge, who despite having been cruel and smug throughout the entirety of the story, is specifically mentioned as being "gentle" as he carries Ti Moune's corpse to shore after her suicide, even though he has resoundingly lost his bet with Erzulie.
  • The Grim Reaper: Papa Ge.
  • The Ingenue: Ti Moune.
  • "I Want" Song: "Waiting For Life", and technically "Some Girls" as well.
  • Jerkass Gods: Erzulie messes around with innocent mortals' emotions in order to show up Papa Ge, who is just as eager to prove his superiority by forcing a girl to kill her lover. Agwe has a tendency to cause storms that kill people and ruin livelihoods just because he's in a bad mood. Asaka doesn't do much in the way of jerkassery, but seems perfectly content to take part in the others' petty disputes.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Despite it all, Asaka hears and protects Julian on his journey as well as taking Ti Moune under her wing in "Mama Will Provide", Agwe recognizes and spares Ti Moune due to her prayers in "Rain", Erzulie blesses Ti Moune and Daniel's love in "Human Heart" and is the first to speak up on Ti Moune's behalf during the Gods' quarrel after "Waiting For Life", and all of the Gods, even Papa Ge, are touched and weep for Ti Moune after her sacrifice for Daniel, and work together to spare her that fate.
  • Leitmotif: The theme of the opening prayer to the gods (see page quote) recurs throughout the score in different forms, most memorably in a minor-key version in "Pray."
  • Love at First Sight: Justified, as Erzulie is pulling the strings.
  • Love Goddess: Erzulie is an interesting take on this trope, as she seems genuinely hoping for Ti Moune to succeed in winning Daniel's heart, but it's more to prove a point to Papa Ge-quinessentially, she and Papa Ge are in something of a pissing contest to prove if love or death is the stronger force, and she'll resort to messing with emotions to do so.
  • Making a Splash: Agwe the water god frequently floods the island.
  • Meaningful Appearance: In the revival, all the gods are wearing debris and trash to symbolically honor the hurricane victims in Haiti and the Caribbean. A close eye will spot Asaka wearing a large tablecloth for a dress, Erzulie's crown being made of wires and USB cords and her belt being a stethoscope (a tribute to the volunteer nurses who provide health care for victims), Agwe's beard being made of nets and plastic bags, and Papa Ge's scales are constructed from soda cans.
  • The Mistress: There are implications in the lyrics that Ti Moune and Daniel's relationship was sexual. Ti Moune does not appear to realize that Daniel sees her as this. It's implied that it's when she's locked out the gates does she realize that maybe she would have settled for being a mistress. Also, having peasant mistresses seem to run in the Beauxhomme male bloodline going back from Armand and Daniel's father alludes to having peasant lovers.
  • Pet the Dog: Depending on how Andrea's actor plays it. Despite trying to lure Ti Moune to humiliate herself initially, Andrea does compliment Ti Moune's dancing and thanks her for healing Daniel, and sometimes she might genuinely enjoy Ti Moune's dancing. Some actors portray Andrea as feeling awful and guilty that Ti Moune was not informed of Daniel's engagement and tries to break the news to her in the kindest way.
  • Poor Communication Kills: What breaks Ti Moune's heart. Daniel sincerely does love her, but it's implied he intended to have her as a mistress rather than a wife as he feels he cannot defy his match to Andrea.
  • Prince Charming: Daniel is this in Ti Moune's eyes.
  • Rescue Romance: Daniel and Ti Moune fall for each other after she saves his life.
  • Rich Bitch: Andrea. She spends most of the ball sequence trying to humiliate poor Ti Moune, though subverted that some productions portray her as having remorse and she also tries to kindly explain the situation to Ti Moune.
  • Slobs vs. Snobs: The peasants live in poverty and are constantly at the mercy of the elements, while the Grand Hommes live in luxury and look down on them.
    Now what can he want with a woman like that,
    Blacker than coal and low as dirt?
    He could have the world but takes a peasant!
    Perhaps his brain was hurt!
  • Starbucks Skin Scale: In the song telling of Daniel's family history, Beauxhomme's skin is described as being similar to "coffee mixed with cream."
  • Starcrossed Lovers: Daniel and Ti Moune.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Discussed in "Some Say," where the storytellers admit that "no one knows how the real truth goes" when it comes to the details of the story they're telling.
  • Uptown Guy: Ti Moune, an impoverished peasant girl, is in love with Daniel, the son of a wealthy hotel owner.
  • Villain Song: Papa Ge's verses in "Forever Yours" and its Dark Reprise.
  • Whole-Plot Reference: To The Little Mermaid. There are also minor shout outs to it, such as when Asaka says "A fish has got to learn to swim on land!"
    • There's more. In one scene, Ti Moune has to wear painful shoes (referencing the Little Mermaid constantly feeling as if she is to be stabbed by daggers). Ti Moune is also asked to dance for Daniel and Andrea, referencing the mermaid serving as the prince's dancing slave.
    • There is the penultimate scene, which brings the fairy tale full-circle, where after Daniel betrayed her to marry Andrea, Ti Moune must kill Daniel with a dagger to escape her deal with Papa Ge, and she, of course, refuses, compelling her to drown herself.
    • In the musical, Ti Moune being reborn as a tree is meant to be the counterpart to becoming a "daughter of the air."
  • Woman Scorned: Andrea verges on this, though she is the one Daniel will marry. Averted, of course, with poor Ti Moune.