How a Broadway director's art became a true reflection of himself

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Broadway often celebrates people overcoming differences and adversity. Those stories are usually told on the stage. But behind the scenes, CBS News' Jamie Wax found how one director's art became a true reflection of himself.

A biography in a Broadway Playbill is an opportunity for a theater artist to list credits and achievements. For director Michael Arden, Tony-nominated for "Once On This Island," it became an opportunity to do something else – to acknowledge a gift given to both him, and the lead character in the show, a gift that he continues to give to others.

"Once On This Island" is the story of a child found in a tree after a storm … lost, until an older couple adopts her.

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The cast of "Once on This Island," a fable set on a mythical Caribbean island.

"Once On This Island"

It's not just the story behind the hit Broadway musical; for Michael Arden, the show's director, it's the story of his life.

Arden was taken in at an early age by his grandparents. As he writes in his Playbill bio: "They loved him as their own, accepted him, despite not always understanding him. This production is dedicated to their memory and to all those who give shelter and love to those they find in trees."

They found him stuck as a toddler after family tragedy left Arden with no one to raise him.

"My grandparents, Jim and Pat Moore, were an incredible couple. They drove me to the community theater, where I did plays as a kid," Arden said.

The Moores, a traditional couple from Midland, Texas, did their best to understand their grandson.

"I'm also a gay man and that wasn't something their Southern Baptist upbringing had really prepared them for," Arden said. "But those differences never got in the way of never-ending love and support."

He's taken that love and support, and spun it into an acclaimed career -- grabbing two Tony nominations as a director.

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Director Michael Arden in rehearsals for the musical "Once On This Island."

Once On This Island

And he pays it forward, taking risks on people he "finds in trees."

One of those risks was casting a group of deaf actors in a Broadway musical for the revival of "Spring Awakening," "to be able to give these deaf performers, an opportunity to be rock stars and to be able to share their culture with people who might never get to see it otherwise," he said.

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The cast of the 2015 revival of "Spring Awakening," many of whom were deaf, almost all of whom were making their Broadway debuts.

"Spring Awakening"

Treshelle Edmonds was in that cast, and is now on Broadway again in "Children of a Lesser God."

She says Arden changed her life: "Particularly a black, deaf actress? Twice on Broadway? And Michael started it by giving me that opportunity."

And in Arden's current show, two major roles are Broadway debuts: Tony-nominee Hailey Kilgore, whom Arden plucked out of college; and Alex Newell, a male actor in the traditionally female role of Mother Earth.

To hear Alex Newell perform "Mama Will Provide" from "Once On This Island" click on the video player below:

Once On This Island - Mama Will Provide by Once on This Island on YouTube

"How many men in their life get to say they get to play a strong female?" Newell said.

Kilgore told Wax, "To know that every day there's a little girl that comes in and watches the show and goes, 'Oh, I can do that!' – I am so lucky!"

To hear Hailey Kilgore perform "Waiting for Life" from "Once On This Island" click on the video player below:

Once On This Island - Waiting for Life by Once on This Island on YouTube

When asked what it is about Arden that makes him take such risks, seasoned veteran Lea Salonga said, "Maybe there's a pioneering groundbreaking spirit about him."

Arden recognizes that none of the opportunities he's given others would have been possible without the opportunity his grandparents first gave him.

Wax asked, "What would you say if you could talk to your grandparents?"

"I'd say thank you," he replied. "We don't ever realize how precious life is while we're living it. And I will try in everything I do to honor the love that you gave me."

Not only did Arden cast a male actor in a female role in "Once On This Island," he also cast a female actor in the role of the God of Death – traditionally played by a man.

The show is nominated for eight awards at next month's Tonys, which will be broadcast live on CBS on June 10.

       
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