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The Student News Site of Washington International School

International Dateline

The Student News Site of Washington International School

International Dateline

M.S. Musical Remains Unsuitable for WIS

Joan Marcus/Variety

Emma Strauss and Madeleine Gondek, the Middle School Musical directors, recently announced that the spring show will be Once on This Island (“OOTI”) Jr. At first glance, this is a great choice. OOTI Jr. allows for a large cast, with 17 parts, not including the ensemble. The musical takes place in the Carribean and illustrates a poor girl who falls in love with a wealthy boy and her struggles to combat prejudice and hatred. 

Once on This Island explores themes of overcoming discrimination, while additionally teaching students about how socio-economic status impacts the characters socially and romantically. However, the original musical was written for an all-black cast, similarly to The Wiz, a Wizard of Oz adaptation. OOTI contains many underlying themes of racial oppression and power dynamics between races. Having a totally African American cast is crucial and without it, an entire part of the story is getting ignored. 

After examining racial diversity at WIS, it seems that the school does not have the diversity to pull off this musical. However, Strauss confirms that they will perform the show “from the standpoint of socio-economic difference rather than racial difference.” Gondek clarifies that the benefit to the junior version of the musical over the full show is that “MTI [Music Theatre International], the company that we license from,” contains certain edits to the original story so “we’re not changing anything. They edited it for us to keep the integrity of the story but they do flip it in that way of socio-economic [divide]”. 

Gondek is aware that “in the original context [of the musical] the racial element was important”, however, she feels that the junior version’s exclusion of the racial aspect isn’t changing the story or the original intention of the show drastically. Additionally, the full Once on This Island’s “idea of two different worlds does encapsulate socio-economic status and that’s why it’s a nice transition” into the junior version, as they “don’t have to change too much of the story.” 

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Besides the racial aspect, another crucial component of the story is its setting on an island in the Caribbean, which is present in both the full and junior versions of the musical. Part of the intention behind the show’s creation was to celebrate the Caribbean’s vibrant culture. Ahrens and Flaherty, the composers, utilized typical musical styles from the area and ensured that each character had an accurate accent to bring the setting to life. Nonetheless, to avoid offending anybody, Gondek assures that “we’re not using accents. We’re not trying to imitate anything or anyone”. 

Although Gondek and Strauss mean well and hope to do the musical justice, it seems as though a WIS production of it wouldn’t convey the intention behind the piece properly, since two critical elements from the original would be totally removed. While the Junior version of OOTI removes the racial aspect, it still seems inappropriate to try and perform a musical whose roots lie in power dynamics between races, especially since they are effectively removing the cultural aspect as well.

Despite Gondek and Strauss’ clear enthusiasm about directing it, it seems that Once on This Island Jr. isn’t a fitting choice for their MS musical this spring.

By Maia Nehme and Abigail Bown

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