Some phone calls you never forget.
For Alan Muraoka, it was a call he took this winter from Olney Theatre’s artistic director Jason Loewith, who was interviewing him for the chance to direct Once on This Island, which has long-been a favorite musical of Muraoka’s. When he hung up the phone after the interview, one thought crossed his mind: “I blew it!”
“When I hung up from Jason, it felt like a really bad first date,” Muraoka says. “I really wanted this job and I wasn’t satisfied with the idea of doing the show as-is—I wanted to make it speak to a 2014 audience—but I failed to get that concept through. I knew I needed to do something to set myself apart and make sure I secured the job.”
Muraoka spent the weekend defining how he would make the show more contemporary and outlined his plan in an e-mail to Loewith, basically saying, “I know we had an awful conversation but here’s a new take I want you to consider.”
His plan involved taking the setting from the original script—a hut in a village in Haiti—and using the more modern locale of a Red Cross evacuation center to serve as the meeting point for the characters in the play.
“I started to think of the plot and what the show is really about, and the central thing that starts the action is a hurricane and that made me think of the last few years living in New York and how hurricanes are no longer just this Gulf Coast phenomenon, it affects so many people now,” he says. “To make it more relevant to a 2014-audience, I had the idea to put people in this refuge center at the top of the show, and the people we follow come from different classes and aren’t a community yet.”
Loewith loved the idea and less than an hour after receiving the email, enthusiastically offered Muraoka the job.
For those unfamiliar with the story, Once on This Island is a one-act musical with a book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flahert. The story concerns a peasant girl on a tropical island, who uses the power of love to bring together people of different social classes.
“The idea of the show is a child is crying because of the storm and a group of people from different social classes try to alleviate her fears,” Muraoka says. “The unified thing they share is a story of Ti Moune that they know from childhood, and it becomes the community-bonding event.”
One challenge the director faced with his revised version was that he still wanted to pay proper homage to the original production and needed to find a way to blend both. To do this, a decision was made to use non-conventional items as props that would be in the Red Cross shelter and the hurricane world.
“All our costumes are a mix of traditional fabrics from Haiti with very unconventional material items—sort of like the Project Runway challenge when they have to to make something out of Styrofoam cups of something,” he says. “It is really fun and interesting, and it keeps all the whimsy and heart of what the story is about. We think we’ve done a good job of blending these two worlds while still approaching it in a new way.”
A Broadway veteran of musicals such as Miss Saigon, The King and I and Shogun, Muraoka’s history with Once on This Island dates back 25 years, when he saw the original production on the Great White Way.
“It was 1989 and I was doing a show and on my one night off I snuck into a preview performance and was immediately captivated by it. I think it’s one of Lynn and Stephen’s greatest achievements as a writing team,” he says. “What I was caught up in at the time was that this was the time of the arrival of the mega-musical—lots of characters, lots of barricades, helicopters…and this was the anecdote to that. It was just 11 people on a very simple on-set stage, telling the story.”
Closes May 4, 2014
Olney Theatre Center
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd
Tickets: $32 – $63
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Ever since, Muraoka has dreamed of directing a production, looking forward to utilizing the simplicity of theater and use of imagination to full-effect.
“That is the essence of theater,” he says. “The music was so beautiful and the story had such heart to it. When Jason offered the production to me I jumped at the chance to put my own stamp on it. The cast can see how much the show means to me and have been on board for the ride completely.”
Muraoka has done several performances as an actor at the Kennedy Center (last appearing in Mame) and was the assistant director for Kennedy’s production of Up in the Air.
“I love DC and the theater scene here and I’m thrilled to be in the area again,” he says. “Now that I am directing, I have much less desire to act. When I have to go back to act, I am constantly in my head judging—‘I should have done this differently,’ and I think its much more advantageous when I do direct. I know how actors think, I know their process, I know their language. I know what emotional images to use to help them out of struggles. For me, it’s an asset of being an actor who directs. I can speak to them to pull out things we both want out of a performance.”
Of course, those who have had little ones over the last dozen years will recognize Muraoka from his starring role on Sesame Street, where he just wrapped his 16th season playing the proprietor of Hooper’s Store.
“The show has been an amazing experience,” he says. “We only shoot for four months of the year so it’s the greatest part-time job ever because I have the rest of the year to pursue directing and other acting. I love being there and miss it when it’s gone, but it allows me to take jobs like this, so it’s a win-win.”