“Imagine the best Christmases, marriage proposals, lottery winnings, anything that brought you a little bit of ‘Oh that was fun,’ a thousand times over,” said Petrina Bromley.
The actor was describing the feeling of being on stage at the Schoenfeld Theater in New York City performing “Come From Away,” the first time in 14 months that the cast was inside the building.
“Come From Away” is a joyous show to begin with, one that encompasses both laughter and tears, built on a deep faith in the power of human goodness.
It was born out of the tragedy of September 11, 2001, when terrorists attacked the United States in four hijacked planes, killing nearly 3,000 people and injuring thousands more, and destroying the World Trade Center in New York.
When US airspace was closed to prevent further attacks, 38 planes were forced to land in Gander, Newfoundland, with more than 6,500 passengers and crew, more than half the city’s population. “Come From Away” tells the story of how residents of Gander and other communities cared for sad, angry and scared “people on the plane,” creating bonds that endure to this day.
Since Canadians Irene Sankoff and David Hein created the musical in 2011, it has become not only a Broadway hit, but an international, multi-award-winning sensation, with companies in Toronto; London, England and Sydney, Australia, and a North American tour (the Broadway production is scheduled to reopen on September 21 and Toronto on December 7). Now, viewers in more than 100 countries can see what all the accolades are about when a filmed version of the theater show premieres September 10 on Apple TV Plus, just before the 20th anniversary of the attacks.
This is how Bromley and 11 other actors, plus the nine-member band and dozens of crew members, arrived in Schoenfeld last May for the first time since the musical closed on March 12, 2020, along with everyone else. Broadway shows. – due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Actors often feel like they are nothing without an audience and being without one for such a long period of time, and also not knowing for a long period of time if we will ever return, yeah, it really was just joyous and such a celebration of the community that is live theater, ”recalled Bromley, the only Newfoundland in the original Broadway cast, in a Zoom interview.
That sense of community is particularly pronounced for the artists who bring the show to life. They have stayed in touch throughout the shutdown with weekly Zoom calls.
Those trailers included Jenn Colella, who left the musical in November 2019 but returned for the film to play the role that earned her a Tony Award nomination, pilot Beverley Bass. In a phone call, the South Carolina-born actor described how “absolutely extraordinary” it was to be back in the rehearsal room.
The acclaimed Broadway musical about meeting 7,000 complete strangers hits Apple TV + on September 10. Https://apple.co/_ComeFromAway
“For me, that’s where the magic starts to kick in; we went back to each other, we were singing the songs again, we were able to read the script again … (it) felt nothing short of exciting, and then go back to the Schoenfeld stage with those people to create something that had more of a Overall impact was scary and exciting, in equal parts. “
The terror came, in part, from having to rebuild the stamina to do the equivalent of 12 shows in four days of filming.
“I knew it was in my bones, having done it almost 1,200 times, but then there were times when I would turn around and see some chairs and completely blank,” Colella said, referring to the humble furniture that becomes everything. from airplane seats to stairs to a scenic overlook during the musical.
And then there were the cameras capturing his every move.
A couple of times, the director had to remind the cast, “Don’t start acting on television,” Bromley said, as in not performing for the cameras.
Colella struggled at first: the cameras felt like ‘aliens in our faces and on stage with us there was this huge crane that really felt like this other being, and I had to befriend her and imagine she wasn’t there at all times “. one time.”
At least there was a familiar face guiding the action.
Christopher Ashley, who won a Tony Award for directing “Come From Away,” also directed the film, which is slightly longer than the one-hour, 46-minute theatrical version.
“It was very emotional to have people back in their seats,” he said on a Zoom call. “The wave of energy that hit the stage was like nothing I’ve ever experienced.”
Ashley first directed the musical in 2015 at the La Jolla Playhouse in California, where he is artistic director. It was one of several auditions for the show that began as a workshop at Sheridan College’s Canadian Music Theater Project.
Putting “Come From Away” on film was “an incredible opportunity,” he said.
“You really (see) all the little, little choices that actors make in scenes … the camera can suddenly register all those subtleties … When you’re watching the movie, you’re looking at angles that you would never get to see from a seat ( in the theater) “.
Small groups of people were in the audience during the first days of filming, in accordance with COVID-19 restrictions, with the largest possible audience on the last day, including 9/11 survivors and frontline workers.
Those same restrictions meant that writers Sankoff and Hein couldn’t be in the bubble with the cast.
As the film’s executive producers, they were involved every step of the way, watching the tours remotely and talking about everything from camera angles to credits with Ashley. But the closest they could get to the actors was sitting in the audience and waving, “throwing in a lot of air hugs,” Hein said on a Zoom call.
The husband and wife writing team were supposed to be working on a very different film than “Come From Away” with producer eOne when the pandemic struck, a film adaptation they planned to film in Gander. When the border closures delayed those plans, “we thought, ‘OK, well, the world needs the story now … let’s try to capture it (on stage),'” Sankoff said. “That’s another crazy thing to do in COVID times, but it was easier than getting hundreds of people to come to Gander to shoot the movie.”
She and Hein are happy that people who do not have the opportunity to go to the theater can discover the show and that people who love it see it from a new perspective.
Sankoff hopes that viewers “appreciate the theatricality, the magic of the actors coming and going, playing all these different roles and doing different accents, and just the stage art.”
But they, along with Bromley, Colella and Ashley, also feel that the musical’s message about people helping each other through difficult times is as necessary now in the midst of the pandemic as it was when all those passengers got off at Gander 20 years ago. .
“2001 and 2021 are very different in some ways, but both are times when society is being stressed,” Ashley said, “and I think the exit is being shown to us by these Canadians who led with kindness, and it feels like a great story to tell right now as it was to discover in 2001 “.