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Telling tales with real appeal

Rosa Guy is not the sort of novelist who disassociates herself from the adaptation of her work into another form. When the musical Once on This Island, based on Guy's novel My Love, My Love, or the Peasant Girl, was playing on Broadway, she saw the show frequently.

"Every time I could, I dashed in," says Guy, speaking by phone last week from her home on Manhattan's Upper West Side. "It made me happy every time. I loved it. It was on Broadway for over a year, and I've seen it about 100 times by now."

Once on This Island, a Caribbean musical, was a hit with critics and theatergoers during its 14-month stay at the Booth Theater in New York. A touring version opens tonight and runs through Sunday at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.

Guy (rhymes with "key") says the creators of Once on This Island, author and librettist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty, were faithful to the spirit of her 1985 novel, which was based on Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid.

"The story is a fable about the life of the peasants on this island I call the Jewel of the Antilles, whose belief in their gods rule their lives. It's the story of a young girl who falls in love with one of the wealthy people of the island. He had an accident in her little village, and she had cured him and now she was in love with him and felt this was her destiny.

"My Love, My Love is about her quest for that love, leaving everything she knew to go to the big city to find him. Basically, it's a love story. It's a doomed love story in the same sense that the little mermaid couldn't marry a prince, the peasant girl could hardly marry an aristocrat."

Guy was born in Trinidad but moved to New York City as a 7-year-old in the 1930s. Orphaned at an early age, she says that experience drew her to The Little Mermaid.

What most impressed her was its "unhappy ending, the hopelessness of the love," Guy says. "With all the other fairy tales, everything was a happy-ever-after ending, and this absolutely was so unhappy that I carried it with me through life, because it was realistic, because it was more like life than the other fairy tales I had read, more meaningful. My life followed a pattern of sadness, so it stayed with me. As a writer, I'm prone to write about the sad tales, the orphans in the streets."

Ironically, the musical has a happy ending. Guy, who served as a consultant to Ahrens and Flaherty, had to be talked into the change, but she likes it now. "They extended the ending, let's say that," she says. "It is not quite as unhappy, and it suits the musical. It leaves you with a happy feeling, and I supported this because musicals are supposed to do that."

Since her first book, Bird at My Window, published in 1966, Guy has written about 20 books, most of them for children or young adults. She probably is best known for a series about two adolescent girls growing into womanhood in Harlem, The Friends, Ruby and Edith Jackson.

My Love, My Love was inspired in part by Guy's impressions of Haiti, where she lived during two different periods in the 1960s and '70s. A book she is working on now also is set there.

"It was really a lovely island, but it was very poor," she says. "I had this love-hate relationship with Haiti. It's an island you can't get out of your mind once you've been there."

Guy, who calls herself "a hemispheric writer," cites the late Trinidadian historian C.L.R. James as an influence on her thinking about the Caribbean.

"I was intrigued with the history of Haiti, which had the only slave revolt that was successful. James had written about the leaders of the revolt most profoundly. The novel I'm finishing is not really based on that, but I'm hoping the consequences of the revolt will come through. Things that have happened in the West Indies are not known in the United States, and I'm trying to bring it in as a part of our history. I mean, people don't know that in Haiti the slaves fought a war with Napoleon's army and won."

Once on

This Island

The musical, with book by Lynn Ahrens and score by Stephen Flaherty, is based on Rosa Guy's novel My Love, My Love, or the Peasant Girl. It opens tonight at 8 and runs through Sunday at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $21-$36; call 221-1045 or (800) 955-1045.