Sit down with the cast of Broadway’s smash Come From Away and you’ll feel like you won a seat at the cool kids’ table. The cast of 12 are playful and vibrant and silly (and sometimes foulmouthed). But they’re also loving and warm and engaged and earnest. A college dorm dynamic.
The cast—made up of Petrina Bromley, Geno Carr, Jenn Colella, Joel Hatch, De’Lon Grant, Alex Finke, Chad Kimball, Jim Walton, Caesar Samayoa, Q. Smith, Astrid Van Wieren, and Sharon Wheatley—bring to life the townfolk of Gander, Newfoundland, and the thousands of passengers on the 38 planes re-routed there after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.
Nine of them are original company members from the 2017 Tony-nominated Best Musical—though this full dozen has been together since November 2018. Half of them have hit the 1,000-performance mark, beginning with the musical from its earliest stages. The show, written by David Hein and Irene Sankoff and directed by Tony Award winner Christopher Ashley, celebrated its two-year anniversary earlier this year, having officially opened March 12, 2017, at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.
We gathered at Treadwell Park West in Midtown Manhattan to grab a pint, play some games, and chat about the crazy backstories to their smaller characters, the stories that have touched them, and their continued impact two years (and 1,000 performances) in:
How many characters do you each play?
Jenn Colella: I have no idea. I tried to count once in the show and I was like, ‘What are you doing? You’re counting, stop doing that!’ I couldn’t concentrate on the show. I would guess seven, as far as playing people in Gander, but I honestly do not know. Does anybody know?
Astrid van Wieren: Same thing. Right in the middle of a show, I was like, ‘How many is this now?’ and I was like ‘You have a show to do, stop it.’
Geno Carr: I have eight named characters. We all play other things like Passenger 7 or Air Traffic Controller 7. As far as named characters, I have the most, but we all play a gazillion people.
Two years in, do any of those tertiary characters have as deep a backstory for you as the main characters that you play?
Petrina Bromley: Some of the on-planes and on-buses characters have developed their own little lives. New relationships have sprung up. Chad and I always have this moment on the “moose bus” [the bus ride to town where they stop for a moose in the middle of the road] where we talk about The Beatles and it morphs into various other conversations about other things that people would just talk about who don’t really know each other. My character on one of the planes, when the stewardess tells us it’s only the carry-on that you go with, I’m concerned because I put myself in the role of being the person who’s in charge of the Bonobos.
Q. Smith: Oh that’s smart.
Geno: That’s like a parfait [because Petrina plays Bonnie who does take care of the Bonobos].
Petrina: "But I have monkeys," is what I say, which is sort of funny but it’s true.
Jenn: "But I have monkeys!" [Laughs]
Sharon Wheatley: That’s all I’m going to listen for tonight.
Petrina: For a little while, I was thinking about maybe I have a cat down there and then it was like dogs...
Jenn: No, monkeys is strong.
Geno: Go big or go home.
Jenn: There’s a moment where Jim and I say the filthiest thing we can possibly think of to each other. It feels important. [Laughs]
Jim Walton: Well, that’s a tradition that preceded me.
Jenn: [Original Nick/Doug] Lee [MacDougall] and I did that and we are now carrying on the legacy.
Jim: I keep a list of dirty terms in my back left pocket of my pants because sometimes I can’t think of anything.
Joel Hatch: My favorite thing is that he has nightmares about leaving the dirty stuff in his pants and Stella in wardrobe finding them. Like a mom finding the dirty words.
Jim: Well, because when they take my pants to the cleaners, it comes back and there’s no dirty…terrible, terrible dirty words.
Jenn: This makes me so happy. You’re welcome.
Sharon: Crystal, who works at Tim Horton’s, well [I decided] she applied for the job of being the reporter for Rogers’ TV and was told that they weren’t hiring, so the way that I find out that someone is hiring is when effin’ Janice walks in to Tim Horton’s and she’s like, ‘It’s my first day’—and she’s also in from Port aux Basques, which my least favorite cousins live there. Also, Crystal has an enormous crush on Garth.
Chad Kimball (who also plays Garth): I don’t need to know this.
What I love about this is that although there are so many true stories being told in this show, there are also the typical actor backstories that you guys all invent.
Jenn: [To Sharon] Do you remember when you told Captain Bass this and she thought that was the truth? She was like, “Crystal went in for the interviewer’s job.” I was like, “No, don’t believe anything Sharon says!”
Sharon: Do you remember when Chris Ashley made me take it all out?
Jenn: ‘Cause you were saying “Janice” like you hated her!
Sharon: I got away with it, though. For several cities.
With all of these people swimming around in your heads, I have to imagine “Welcome to the Rock” is like the drop of the anchor. What is the feeling in that moment?
Astrid: That bodhrán as soon as it starts, that hand drum, it clears the day and we’re unified.
Joel, you feel like the guide of the show because you kick off that opener.
Joel: Well, he bookends the show, my character, but everybody else tells the story from then on. I think that the thing that’s great about that opening number, “Welcome to the Rock,” is that everybody’s unified together as a single unit, which is the whole theme of our storytelling. That makes me real happy.
Does it feel to you guys like the general gathers his troops in that moment?
Jenn: For sure. Joel is our leader. Joel is always the rock. He really, really is. If any of us are not focused or cracking up or even feeling emotion or anything, we can look to Joel—
Joel: And I’ll be crying.
Jenn: No, no, no. No, he’s got it! He’s living in the moment every time and I always look to you as an anchor. A hundred percent. I know that. We all do.
You mentioned the Tim Horton’s. That scene establishes the pace of the show—the names of the townsfolk tossed like tennis balls. Do you remember constructing the dialogue of that scene with Chris Ashley and setting that pace?
Chad: Yes. Chris is really good at pace, it’s his middle name. If something is lagging behind, his answer is, ‘Well, let’s tighten it up, let’s make it clearer, let’s make it concise and tell the story, but not wallow in it.’ As actors, sometimes we like to wallow a little bit, show off our tools. But Chris was the guy we looked to bring us back to telling the story in a way that doesn’t stop, so that we get the idea of what the people of Gander and surrounding areas were going through at the time. They didn’t stop.
Sharon: I don’t know if this is true or not, but I heard that the reason that those names were written like that is because David Hein, the writer, witnessed that happen in a men’s bathroom.
Jenn: I wish that was the scene.
In the urinal? They didn’t want Kelly to have to build urinals out of people.
Joel: The dance would have been awkward.
Caesar Samayoa: But if you guys remember, we repeated that pacing like over and over and over again. That’s just one little couplet of seconds in the show, so you can imagine what it took to construct this when we first started.
There is no room for error on that stage. The transitions, the costume hand-offs. Toni-Leslie James’ costume design blows my mind because with a rubber glove, with a hat, with glasses, we have an entirely new person. Is there transition that really helps you get into the pocket of who that person is in the moment?
De’Lon Grant: It’s a Swiss watch. If you’re not on the train, the train’s going without you. Big ups to Jim Hodun and Allie Dillard, who are our fearless dressers backstage. But what’s cool about the magic of this show and the pacing is when I do put that jacket and hat on [for Captain Bristol], we have an accent, we have the costume, and we automatically just step into it. We don’t know how to say the lines any other way; we don’t know how to be any other way in that character.
Astrid: It would be a fun game to try, but it would be hard. The thing I love about that though is I’ve had so many people, if you give them a tour backstage, they’ll say, ‘You know, when everybody came out to bow I just expected more people.’
Speaking of transitioning between characters with costumes, fittings can be very collaborative. Did any of you say to Toni, “I feel like this is something Annette would wear or Hannah would wear”? And if so, what was it about the costume that evoked the character to you?
Q.: I would always grab a necklace, I felt like she should wear a cross necklace.
Jenn: There are moments in the show when I feel like I am sexier than I am and I’ll look down and see this vest with the faces on it, I’m like, “Oh, right, right, right.” I love it. It’s humbling every time.
Joel: My costume design that she originally did is exactly what I wear. We have not changed one item from her original concept of what I wear, and I think that’s kind of amazing.
I mentioned choreographer Kelly Devine earlier because I am just in awe of her collaboration with Chris.
Everyone: Olivier Award winner!
Through her choreography, you all form the set, you form the plane, you form the buses. You parodied the process in your 2017 Red Bucket Follies number. Talk to me about what it was like to be in the rehearsal room with Kelly.
Caesar: The amazing part about the [formerly named] Gypsy of the Year is that was real. Our first time that we did our choreography rehearsal with Kelly, she left the room like, “Alright, I’m going to go to Version B,” because we couldn’t do the original choreography.
Jenn: She was like, “It’s 5, 6, 7,” We were like, “You said it’s a 5?”
Caesar: We had Joel jumping off the tables, it was insane! Version B was probably like a box step with a turn and we couldn’t do that. Then she had to take a pause, right?
Jenn: She left the room to go have several cigarette breaks in tears. She was like, “What am I going to do with these people and why wasn’t there a dance call?”
Caesar: The amazing thing about it is that it turned into what we have now. It got distilled into the way that we move as human beings, telling this story simply, and she ran with it.
How was it to come into the show as new cast members for Jim and Alex and De’Lon?
Alex Finke: I’ve replaced in shows before and it’s just different because certain tracks you’ll do, there’s inherently a little more breathing room. Certain transitions here I knew point A and I knew point B, and they’d say, “No, no, no, go back, you have to pick it up from here and it has to stay 90 degrees out from your body here and you have to turn around at this number so that you’re not going to hit someone.” It has to move a certain way. Thankfully, that feels very natural. But it was intimidating coming in because it is a Swiss watch and you don’t want to be the one to drop the ball. Throughout the entire 100 minutes there’s no wiggle room.
De’Lon: But the thing about this company is that we have this phrase, ‘Shove with love’, which I didn’t understand until you start getting shoved. Everyone’s there to help you. We’re all kind of just making this thing happen. Thank you Chris and Kelly and you original company members who originally fought through tripping and shoving and slapping each other to get there.
Alex: And then welcoming us without judgment. I remember thinking, in my first week, “I can’t wait to get to a point where I can help if something were to go wrong.”
You were talking about the high stakes of the show technically, but the stakes of the story emotionally are so high. How has that gestated with you over two years? What are the stories, whether it’s a story you play onstage or not, that resonate most with you?
Astrid: I think it was our first preview that we did, or our last dress rehearsal, we had invited the first responders. That just charges the air with an expectation, and yet we were really well prepared by Chris to stay on story as the people in Gander had to stay on task. Feeling people are watching this who not only lived through it but lived every particle of that story...and that they actually respond with such gratitude and grace and took it and received it and felt healed by it on some level. That is just one of the most powerful stories.
Sitting in the audience, the story of the man who says, “I never told anyone I was Jewish, but now it suddenly feels important” struck me. There are little stories that are so poignant.
Petrina: The beauty of all these stories being real—and of so many people coming to see the show—is that I now know that man’s granddaughter. We all see the resonance of the real lives that are represented, continually, which always comes into play when we’re doing the show. Someone outside who happens to say, “I was a plane person, but I was in Halifax” or “I was a plane person but I was in London.” There’s always someone from somewhere who reminds us of the truth of the story. It reinvigorates the story all the time for us.
Joel: There’s a gift that we were given by one of the first responders who came to the show and it was a plant. This first responder arrived at Ground Zero on the day following [the attack]. He was going through what had been the garden area, and he found a plant, still alive, that survived. He has been doing cuttings, reseeding, cuttings, reseeding, and we were given a cutting. That’s a treasure. That’s also a symbol of what the show is in just the smallest, minute detail. Something beautiful can survive from all of that tragedy.
Petrina: And I have that plant and have started a few cuttings from it so eventually we’ll all get one.
De’Lon: I was like, "Can I get a cutting?"
Chad: Every night, one of us will hear someone’s 9/11 story. That is also just one of the reasons why we’re all still here. We, every night, are reminded of what the show can do. Also, as actors, why we got into the business—to affect people and also to possibly help people. It’s a blessing to be able to do this show.
Sharon: One of the things I learned from this show is that even in the midst of tragedy, it’s OK to laugh and have a good time. It’s alright, you don’t have to sit in that terrible tragedy all the time.
Astrid: That’s David and Irene. The way they pace the story and put it together. What they discovered when they were interviewing people from Newfoundland, that if they were telling you a sad story they would switch things up with a joke. The show does that all the time.
De’Lon, when you say Bob’s line, ‘I’m collecting these grills and I’m just thinking I’m gonna get shot,’ that lands, to me, differently in 2019 than it did in 2017. How does it land for you personally? Are audiences reacting differently to it?
De’Lon: David and Irene did such a good job in the constructing of the moment. There’s kind of a microscope on [this issue] more now. What really hit home for me was talking to people outside the theatre—black people in particular—who were like, “I know it was a joke, but thank you for saying that.” As if I wrote it. I didn’t, I’m just saying the lines. It matters to me because I know now what it means to walk through the world in the skin that I’m in, right? I realize that part of the laughter, potentially, is the discomfort with that. That’s an opportunity for all of us to be uncomfortable, but also to be like “Oh, that’s a real moment that we laughed at.” The way I wrap it up is [as Bob] is all of my apprehensions and fear were taken away because of what these people are doing for us.
If you could take one person’s track for a night, who would you want to play?
Jim: I’m too logical. I would have to say it would be Joel’s part because I’m older.
Joel: I would play Beulah because I feel very fluid today. She’s like Claude but the other sex because she’s taking care of people and I relate to that very strongly.
Chad: I would play Jenn’s role but I would switch “Me and the Sky” to “Me and My Bus” and it would be Garth.
WHO: I can’t with you.
Q: I would be Joel, the mayor.
Sharon: I would want to play Hannah, Q.’s part.
Caesar: If it was like a fantasy world, I would want to play Hannah, definitely.
Geno: I want to play Bob & Others, De’Lon’s track. I think that’d be really fun. Although you do it so well I would suck, so it would not be worth it.
Jenn: I also want to play Bob.
Geno: So much fun.
Astrid: You’d be a great Bob.
Jenn: Thank you.
Astrid: Geno, you would be too.
Geno: Well, too late.
Astrid: I would want to switch up with Claude because I feel like that I could…I understand him.
Petrina: I would also like to play Bob, but I would also like to play Oz. I would have fun at that.
Alex: I’d like to play Oz or Nick but in a very practical sense would like to try to be Bonnie because Petrina moves the most stuff in every scene change and I feel like I just need to know the ins and outs of that. I feel like I just need to appreciate you a bit more onstage with all the heavy lifting.
Petrina: Go ahead and appreciate me more!
De’Lon: I want to play Janice, actually. Janice gets to observe a lot more than the rest of us because she’s reporting to the audience. I feel like she’s also the audience conduit. Every show, there’s one person that kind of gets you into the story because she’s like the new person. I would want to have that connection.
Doing this shoot with you guys today, you guys clearly love each other. It radiates off of you. I feel like I was invited to the family picnic. What makes it that way?
Jenn: We’ve been together as long as some folks are in college. It’s been four years.
Astrid: Sometimes it feels like college.
Jenn: We genuinely love hanging out.
De’Lon: A part of it, too, is that it’s ensemble based. We all have to work with each other. We all have moments with each other. Sharon and I discovered we don’t have that many moments together—
Sharon: No, but I found two places I can say hi to you!
De’Lon: Exactly. We all have to create everything together, we all have to lean on each other. We also get to watch one another work. It’s so rare in a show that you get to sit and watch your compatriots do their thing and I just get to sit there and laugh at the bar scene with Joel and Caesar and Geno and Sharon every night, which is so cool.
That house is always packed and the audience energy is palpable. Does that help you continue to find more layers and deeper moments and connect with your audience two years in?
Astrid: We always say that the audience is our 13th cast member because, really, they change up every night and we do so much of our talking to them, so their energy’s always different.
Jenn: We’re also doing a show about kindness. A true story about kindness. They want it! I can feel they’re leaning forward. That’s not what’s happening in the world right now. Nobody is talking about kindness or making a show about kindness—and it’s the fact that it’s true. That’s why we can feel so close. That’s why nine of us from the original cast are still here. It’s an incredible thing to be a part of.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.