Tales of 18 months of isolation, simple joys and big anxieties spill out of the actors and creative team of “Come From Away” in rivers of anecdotes — a narrative mosaic of what living through this coronavirus pandemic has been like for all of us. But, especially, for the people who earn their keep in the performing arts and found themselves, most of the time, with no living at all.
The Tony-winning musical, which opened on Broadway on March 12, 2017, and was forced to shut down three years later, to the day, was like so many other shows — a family. The pandemic broke up the family — but it didn’t break it. For now, reassembled, rehearsed and re-energized, the company is bracing for what promises to be the most emotionally charged opening night of their professional lives: the relaunch before a live, theater-starved audience at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on Sept. 21.
“I’ve always known that this is the thing I was put on the Earth to do,” said De’Lon Grant, who plays Bob, a New Yorker marooned in Gander, Newfoundland, in this account of a Canadian town that took care of 7,000 airline passengers stranded there on Sept. 11, 2001. “Being back before an audience is like putting a period on the sentence. I know we’re coming back. But once we’re there, I know I’m going to, like, implode.”
Telling the full story of a hit getting back into fighting trim requires a true communal effort. To bring that effort into focus, over three weeks I conducted separate Zoom interviews with 31 cast, technical and creative team members — actors and stage managers, producers and sound engineers, choreographers and musicians. What I discovered was a cadre of theater folk who found ways to exist without theater, but not without hope. Their musical, by David Hein and Irene Sankoff, a Canadian American husband and wife, embodies that optimism. And in many ways, the spirit of community and mutual support the show engenders seems to have been what spread most potently through everyone.
The show went on enforced hiatus, but it wasn’t entirely dormant: In a sliver of time in April and early May, the cast reunited for a “live capture” of the show that debuted Sept. 10 on Apple TV. And a dozen members of the Broadway and national touring companies, plus even one from the Australian company, went to Washington earlier this month to perform a concert version of “Come From Away” in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, on the eve of the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
These events help to reestablish “Come From Away” in the public consciousness, which could prove to be crucial in the coming months as more than 40 other musicals and plays execute their own Broadway opening plans. Owing to persistent tourist fears about travel and close indoor contact, tickets are not flying out of box offices at the same pace as before the pandemic, according to knowledgeable Broadway hands. So although “Come From Away” returns on a tide of goodwill — and a mandate that ticket holders be vaccinated and masked — it is going to need more than adrenaline to stay afloat.
For lead producers Sue Frost and Randy Adams — who oversee a veritable “Come From Away” empire, with five productions and hundreds of employees — a return was never even remotely in doubt.
“It was always about when we come back. It was never about if,” Frost said. “We always said that in every communication: keeping, keeping, keeping the candle in the window.”
That consistency consoled the cast and crew, who, as the pandemic stretched on, scattered and hibernated from California to Canada, from Britain to Brooklyn. Enormously helpful in maintaining morale, too, was the decision by Adams and Frost to keep everyone on the show’s health plan throughout the pandemic. That certainly meant a lot to Sun, who, along with her husband, became sick with covid-19 just after the shutdown.
“We were sick for three weeks,” she said. “We were fortunate that we didn’t have to go to the hospital, but it was very rough.”
Chris Luessmann, a sound engineer for the show since its premiere in La Jolla, Calif., took a bartending job on the Upper West Side. Julie Reiber, a standby as Beverley and others, got to be a full-time mom at home in New Jersey. Jim Walton, who plays Nick, stayed in his flat, a seven-minute walk from the theater, keeping his voice in shape. Happy McPartlin, who stands by for five characters, worked as an administrator for a New Jersey real estate company. Music director Wendy Cavett broke her elbow and ankle in Upper Manhattan a week after the show closed and spent months getting surgery and physical therapy.
The first week of this month, the company returned to a midtown Manhattan rehearsal studio. For most of them, including five members of the original cast, the process would amount to a jogging of muscle memory. The staging by choreographer Kelly Devine and director Christopher Ashley (who won a Tony for his work) is deceptively straightforward yet dizzyingly complex. The dozen actors, onstage nonstop for 100 minutes, alternate between playing townspeople and “plane people.” The movement of the rudimentary props — a few tables and 14 chairs of specifically variegated designs — is so intricate that the floor is marked out in a rainbow of masking tape, one for each phase of the show.
James Seol, who plays one half of a couple, both named Kevin, on one of the 38 planes diverted to Gander after U.S. airspace was closed, is the only new cast member. The Northern Virginia native auditioned on Zoom, and is making his Broadway debut.
“It’s an interesting challenge to come into a cast as the one person who hasn’t played it before,” he said, adding that he arrived ahead of the other actors to learn the choreography and music. “One of the first things my agent said when I booked this was ‘This is the nicest company,’ ” Seol said, with obvious relief.
The actors spent a couple of days in meetings, learning, among other things, the health and safety protocols. “Come From Away,” like other productions, now has an official covid safety officer; everyone has to be vaccinated; and coronavirus testing is done routinely.
“You have to think of this as a new company,” said associate director Daniel Goldstein, addressing the actors on the first day of up-on-their-feet rehearsing. “And not just doing it again. It’s doing it again — better.”
Caesar Samayoa, the other Kevin, quarantined in Provincetown, Mass., directed a digital musical and sequestered in a trailer for two months to shoot a still-secret project. Arturo Porazzi, the production stage manager, cycled and worked on his house on Staten Island. Emily Walton, who plays Janice, the local TV reporter, (and is castmate Jim Walton’s niece), gave up her apartment and moved back in with her parents. Rachel Tucker, who played Beverley in the London production before signing up for Broadway, came down with covid just as the shutdown began. (Like Pearl Sun, she’s fine now.) Josh Breckenridge, a standby as Bob and others, stayed in an RV in his parents’ San Diego driveway and composed an album.
It’s remarkable, really, how much of the pre-shutdown company has come back together. That may be a reflection of both the nature of the show — and the industry: Jobs are scarce, and few accord theater workers a more stable livelihood than a Broadway hit.
“Our children are the same age, and they were in the same toddler center for a year,” Mickelson said. “We were going to have dinners between shows with our families. Then it never opened.”
The memory compelled Mickelson to reflect on a shaky time in a shaky business. “I mean, I can’t believe how lucky I am. I’m on a show that I love.”
Ricky Hinds, associate choreographer, was sent last fall to Melbourne to open “Come From Away” there, before a coronavirus surge locked down parts of Australia again. Paul Whitty, who plays Oz, celebrated the birth of twins in June in Louisiana, where he and his wife have a home that escaped serious damage from Hurricane Ida. Irene Sankoff and David Hein are planning a move with their 8-year-old daughter back to New York from Canada, where they have been caring for Sankoff’s mother. Astrid Van Wieren, who portrays Beulah, went back to Toronto, lived on savings and earned a bit with some guest teaching. John Jellison, a standby for the mayor, used the down time to learn 90 classical songs. Chris Ashley and Kelly Devine spent some of the pandemic working on the Netflix version of “Diana, the Musical,” which also bows on Broadway this fall.
“Come From Away” is a tearfully sentimental account of generosity and inner strength at a time when people are at their most psychically exhausted. The arc of the piece goes like this: Lives get interrupted and then lives go on. The parallels in the universal ordeal of the past year and a half are unmistakable. And to a person, the members of the “Come From Away” community seem to understand the unusual opportunity their show has — to appeal again to audiences’ better natures.
Near the show’s conclusion, Bonnie — a role that will be resumed on Oct. 8 by Petrina Bromley, who’s finishing up a TV assignment — observes that Gander has changed after the plane people leave. “We all looked the same, but we’re different than we were,” she says.
So, it seems, are the theater people who’ve come back from away.