Come From Away is as much the story of how two struggling artists from America created a multi-award winning musical that receives standing ovations at every show, as it is about 9/11. The musical tells the story of the Canadian town of Newfoundland that welcomed 6,579 stranded passengers flying at the time of 9/11. A tale of the best of humanity during the worst.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with a few of the real-life come-from-aways as well as the cast, in the aisles of The Comedy Theatre one Thursday morning.
Two of those real-life people are Nick and Diane Marson, who fell in love in a shelter in Gander and are now happily married. They were in Newfoundland for the 10th anniversary of those life-changing few days filming a documentary when they were approached by writers David Hein and Irene Sankoff. The documentary producers took one look at the young writers and with a laugh said to Nick and Diane “sure you can talk to them” – what followed was hundreds of hours of interviews over skype and in person. That monumental underestimation has solidified David and Irene as two of the best music theatre writers in history. As for Nick and Diane, by the time I chatted to them, they’d seen the show 102 times, over four countries and three continents.
Tom McKeon is a New York native who forms the basis of the character of Bob. When David and Irene reached out to him, initially he had his reservations – his father was a firefighter in the city, and he was a New Yorker after-all. When the Mayor of Appleton, Derm Flynn, who gave Tom a bed to sleep in for those few days, called him and told him to give them a chance, Tom agreed to a half an hour chat. The next thing he knew, he was sitting in a diner in New York with David and Irene and three and a half hours had already passed.
“It came across that they really wanted it to be about the Newfoundlanders and not anything to do with 9/11”, explained Tom.
He still thought it was going to be “melodramatic”. I mean how do you blend 9/11 with jazz hands and kicklines respectfully?
Come From Away is part of a new age of musicals, including Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, that implement colorblind casting, requiring actors to capture the essence of the person they are portraying. To evoke not impersonate.
And that is exactly what they do. The ensemble from Come From Away are a refreshing change from the same music theatre actors that we see over and over again in Australia, and this was no easy feat. Associate Director, Martin Croft, described the extensive casting process, saying it took months to find the right fits. That hard work pays off with an ensemble that work so harmoniously that nobody stands out or falls behind.
Doug Hansell plays Kevin T, based on Kevin Turf, and talked about his process to develop the character. “I wasn’t so much interested in becoming Kevin Turf I was interested in becoming Kevin T…I think what I was more interested in was capturing the essence of this story”. Simon Maiden, who plays town cop Oz described a similar process; “The creative team said you’re not doing an impression – they’re casting me because there’s something that’s similar…and allowing me to tell the story through him which is pretty special”.
The 9/11 phenomenon of people re-evaluating their lives and their decisions, and their situations is clearly depicted in the musical. The writers David and Irene did get engaged just months after 9/11 themselves. Doug Hansell worked extensively to understand this: “Christopher Ashley, the director, was talking about that at length saying that people did have these seismic shifts in their lives”. It was the same seismic shift that caused Kevin Turf to seek out religion after turning his back on the Church years before; “because of the events of 9/11 he found that he wanted that spiritual connection again,” says Doug Hansell.
For Sarah Morrison, who plays town reporter Janice Mosher, her character is a merging of two real life people; Janice Goudie and Brian Mosher. There are lines that have been taken verbatim from both of them – for instance when Brian received a voicemail from Oprah Winfrey because they were the only news organization with any footage of what was happening, or when he was working off a fax machine and asked for toilet paper and the town’s Lions Club was filled floor to ceiling before he could get another fax out to stop it. Sarah said that although the people are quite different, there are so many similarities that come back to the core human condition. “The general feel is the exhaustion of not sleeping for five days, the uncertainty of really where we were in the world at that moment and also the urgency to get the news out”.
Come From Away feels like community theatre – in the best way possible – it doesn’t rely on elaborate sets or costumes, and the choreography and performances are so outstanding that the ensemble create an aeroplane out of 12 actors on mismatched chairs.
A highlight of the score is Me and the Sky – a song written from the book of the same title by Captain Beverley Bass. It tells the story of Bass growing up in the 1950s dreaming of the impossible: becoming a pilot. Bass’ parents would take her to a nearby airport to watch the planes take off and land. In 1986, she became the first female pilot to become captain by American Airlines, and made headlines around the world with an all-female crew. In Come From Away Beverley is portrayed by acclaimed performer; Zoe Gertz.
When she found out she’d gotten the role Zoe said “there was already such a buzz that I knew I had been given something pretty special”. Zoe and the rest of the cast had the privilege of having access to all of the original cast interviews that David and Irene recorded, and Zoe was able to meet Beverley a few times before the rehearsal process began. This wasn’t the only luxury that the cast were granted by the American Creative Team, with a revolve stage being used from the very beginning and time allowed to focus on character development; “from day one we’ve really got the sense of what it is like to do this show on stage, which you never normally have in a rehearsal process”.
Part of the rehearsal process was working with master dialect coach, Joel Goldes to inhabit the gander accent, along with all the other accents depicted. Sarah Morrison grew to love the accent; “the gander accent is actually quite fun”. There are no tricks in Come From Away – everything is visible on stage, from Doug Hansell becoming George Bush in his iconic presidential address that reverberated across TV sets around the world, to the actors sitting on stage making animal noises as the creatures are unloaded from the planes.
I spoke to Ozwald Fudge, the Gander police officer, alongside Australian actor Simon Maiden, who masterfully portrays him in the musical. Their similarities were remarkable; “as my daughter says he’s fake dad number five…so it’s different each one – it’s surreal for me to sit there and watch this”, says Ozwald. In true Newfoundlander style, Ozwald is famous for writing out warning tickets with “STFD” – slow the fuck down, on them when he’d catch people speeding. Simon was lucky enough to receive his very own “STFD” t-shirt from Ozwald’s daughter, welcoming him into the Come From Away family. Ozwald also gave him his police badge, which proudly sits on the wall of Simon’s dressing room.
The score of the show works hand in hand with the dialogue. It is underscored to allow flexibility, an essential in a show so tightly choreographed. For Musical Director, Luke Hunter, this makes it a “really interesting show to conduct”. He’s worked on shows including Rocky Horror Show and Jersey Boys, for which he won a Green Room and Helpmann Award, however Come From Away has been a completely new experience. “As a band we feel so invested in the show because we feel like we’re part of it”, said Luke, even admitting he still gets choked up conducting it. “It’s very different to walking in at 5 to 8 and sitting in the pit and playing and leaving again”.
The band is on stage the entire time and even features in some of the pieces. They have their own costumes and their own choreography. The instruments are mostly traditional Irish– a nod to Newfoundland’s Irish influence. Band member Matthew Horsely plays 18 whistles, two Irish flutes and the Uilleann pipes – “you don’t hire that guy for kinky boots”, says Luke.
This is a show that has received standing ovations every performance. It is distinctly written so that the audience has no time to applaud throughout; “It’s this knot that keeps on tightening and tightening”, says Doug Hansell. The first time they heard the standing ovation Doug described it as being hit by a freight train; “it was profound”.
Ozwald Fudge still doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about; “I had a hard time figuring out why this kind of love should be in everybody, you shouldn’t have to think about giving a person a hug, you shouldn’t have to think about helping a person out…and in newfoundland we were bred, that’s the way we grew up, that was our gift from our ancestors that we helped our neighbor”.
In true Newfoundland style I went into the press day with nothing and left with photos, Nick and Diane’s home phone number and address and an official Gander Pin from Brian Mosher. On paper, Come From Away is 12 actors on a stage with some chairs telling a story, but in reality it is so much more than that. It’s a show that brings out the best in humanity and in a time of growing political uncertainty globally – It is not to be missed.