Interview with Once on This Island and Glee star Alex Newell

We chat to the hit Broadway revival's Mother of the Earth...

Alex Newell

There's nothing quite like getting a standing ovation on your Broadway debut and "Glee" star Alex Newell has been soaking them in eight times per week at the Circle in the Square Theatre. Director extraordinaire Michael Arden has put together a beautifully organic and stirring revival of Once on This Island, which has received rapturous reviews - including 5 stars from the New York Theatre Guide. It has also enabled Alex to achieve a childhood dream and tread the boards of Broadway. He has been cast as Asaka, Mother of the Earth in the 1990 Tony-nominated Lynn Ahrens/Stephen Flaherty musical and he is raising the roof of the intimate Broadway theater with infectious joy, charisma, and of course, the musical number "Mama Will Provide." We caught up with Alex to chat about life on the island...

Alex Newell, Hailey Kilgore and the Company of Once on This Island
(Photo by Joan Marcus)

  • Having seen your performance as Asaka, Mother of the Earth, Alex, I can safely say that Mama is definitely providing! What do you think you personally provide this production youself?

Absolutely nothing! (Laughs) I have no idea – especially when I work with such amazing actors and performers. It’s astonishing how I get to go to work each and every day and watch someone like our Mama Euralie, Kenita R. Miller, give her heart to the stage, and someone like Merle [Dandridge], who does the exact same thing. I’m just trying to catch up to them and do the same. I think I’m giving something new to the production, but at the same time, I just wouldn’t know what that might be. Honestly, I’m just playing myself.

  • In that case, Asaka and yourself are a remarkably good fit! What’s been the best thing about your Broadway debut so far?

Everyone knew that this is something I have wanted my entire life. I was having a champagne toast recently with a close friend and we were talking about how we used to sit in his house and watch videos on the computer of Titus Burgess and Billy Porter. To see them give us a standing ovation - and just to be there at all to support us – honestly meant the world to me!

Alex Newell as Wade 'Unique' Adams on "Glee"
(Courtesy of FOX)

  • A lot of our readers will know you from your TV role as Unique on “Glee”. Which would you say is harder – working in the TV or Theatre industry?

Well, I think the toughest thing is consistency. We always forget about consistency because on TV, you can change or vary a character hundreds of ways before you’ve actually zoned in and honed in on who that person really is. On stage, you have to do that consistently for eights shows a week and you have to do it fast. For “Glee” we had a year of rehearsal process, but for this, we only had a month. Although you do the same amount of work in a week that you do in a day on television, I would say that stage is harder.

  • You weren’t even born when the musical premiered in 1990, but what do you think makes this 2017 revival so timely?

I think it’s relevant because of the climate we’re going through right now and how a lot of the stuff we’re going through in our own world is based on hate and not love and it’s based on prejudices and skin colors and religion, when, at the end of the day, we’re all the same.

  • How was the casting process for you?

I had a meeting with Michael Arden years prior to all of this. He was slowly coming to the end of Spring Awakening and was looking to do Merrily We Roll Along as his next project at The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Los Angeles. I was like: “Oh, I’d love to do this!” but then it went away and we never talked about it anymore. But then, all of a sudden, I was on a plane coming back from Aspen and I got an email saying: “Hey, we’d love for you to come in and read for the role of Asaka.” So, I came back to New York from Aspen and I went and read for Lynn [Ahrens], Stephen [Flaherty] and Michael [Arden] and somehow walked out with a job! (Laughs)  

  • And the rest is history, as they say! Was Michael Arden aiming for a special significance by casting yourself and Merle Dandridge as gender-fluid gods?

I think he was. We don’t know what a god is. We don’t know if they have a gender or if they don’t have a gender. Maybe society has just put a gender on God to make it more tangible and real. A god isn’t resigned to its gender and that’s what Michael was really going for in this production.

Emerson Davis, Lea Salonga, Alex Newell, Quentin Earl Darrington & Merle Dandridge
(Photo by Joan Marcus)

  • Why are audiences and critics alike connecting so much with this production?

It’s real and it’s jarring. It doesn’t do what you think it’s going to do. It’s a musical, but at the end of the day, something unhappy happens. I won’t give it away for those people that haven’t seen the show. But I think a lot of people are shocked by our ending. It’s thought-provoking as well because you sit there and think about all the little things that you unknowingly have or haven’t done.

  • Well, one of those things I haven’t done – I had never seen a live goat in a diaper before, so I can tick that one off the bucket list now!

(Laughs) You check it all the way off!

  • Well, this production has really been the highlight of the fall for myself and I thank you for your contribution, Alex.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Once on This Island Tickets are available now for performances through to December 30, 2018.