Prior to landing at the Schoenfeld Theatre in February 2017, Come From Away flew under the radar in terms of Broadway-bound musicals set to make a splash. But after hitting four cities—La Jolla, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Toronto—the original musical earned seven Tony nominations and gave early favorites a run for their money—with director Christopher Ashley shocking himself when he won for Best Direction of a Musical.
Now, Come From Away celebrates one year of Broadway performances February 18—a year in which the show played to over 100 percent audience capacity for all but one week (when it clocked in at a measly 98 percent). And the hit indicates no signs of slowing down through its official anniversary March 12 and beyond.
How has the 12-person, 100-minute musical packed the house for 45 consecutive weeks? The story of the thousands of passengers diverted to Gander, Newfoundland, after the September 11 terrorist attacks endures via an irresistible message about the power of the kindness of strangers. And the four pre-Broadway runs all helped Ashley and his Tony-nominated choreographer Kelly Devine strip down the production to hone in on the story and its presentation.
“From our first performance in La Jolla, it was pretty clear that this was a story that audiences were really invested in, engaging with, hearing about, and experiencing,” says Ashley. But it wasn’t until the next stop in Seattle, when the minimalist aesthetic using 12 actors, 12 chairs, and a couple of tables clicked. “I think that was the first moment we thought, conceptually, this really can work and be effective,” adds Devine.
As the turntables rotate and actors hand off glasses and hats to transform into new characters, Come From Away ticks away like a Swiss watch. Perhaps that’s where the impact of four tryouts is most felt. “The actors’ transformations moment by moment is really part of the joy of watching it,” says Ashley, “and that was really useful for our cast, to get four different cities to refine those. By the time we hit New York, they were really at the top of their game.”
The Come From Away story by David Hein and Irene Sankoff changed little, but “every detail, every nuance, all of the timing specified,” says Ashley. And the perfor-mance of the ensemble, who play both the come from aways and the host Ganderites, continues to tighten as it keeps exact time with the rhythm of the piece. “The cast is still performing as if we just opened,” says Devine. “If anything, they’re more controlled. The show is so quick and you don’t actually have a second to rest or even to think too much about what you have to do next, which lends itself to feeling very fresh.”
But a year on Broadway also lends itself to a deepening of the material, and Ashley and Devine agree they can see the ensemble enabling each other’s performances (“kind of holding each other up,” says Ashley).
The Come From Away cast takes their cues from Ashley and Devine, who have been in the same rehearsal room nonstop for five years—most recently working on the Broadway-bound Jimmy Buffett musical Escape to Margaritaville, which finished its own four-city tour and opens on Broadway March 15. Weaving hits like “Cheeseburger in Paradise” and the title’s “Margaritaville” with new tunes by Buffett, the original production follows a resort bartender and musician whose laissez-faire lifestyle is turned upside down when he meets a career-driven tourist. From city to city, Parrotheads have flocked to bask in the show’s unapologetic joy.
“What [Margaritaville and Come From Away] share is a belief that now is the moment,” says Ashley. “Now is the moment to take care of each other, now is the moment to find love, now is the moment to find joy.”
And both Ashley and Devine relish the gift of time to work as a team to craft the message in these stories. “Some shows find themselves quicker, and some need time to marinate,” says Ashley. But if Come From Away is any indication, Ashley and Devine may have found a recipe for success.