On September 11, 2001, actor Jenn Colella—then a grad student in Los Angeles—heard the news of the terrorist attacks while in her car. She pulled over and began walking in L.A. That same day, American Airlines Captain Beverly Bass heard the news of a terrorist action over air-to-air traffic while piloting a flight from Paris to Dallas. She landed her plane in Gander, Newfoundland, along with 37 other diverted aircrafts.
Now, in the Tony-nominated musical Come From Away, Beverly Bass’ story is what Tony nominee Colella conveys in her powerhouse solo “Me and the Sky.”
Having been with the show since its first out-of-town incarnation, there’s one way Colella put her stamp on this role that other singers wouldn’t have. “In Seattle, I raised it a whole step,” says Colella of the song’s key. “It was fine in the other key, but anybody who knows me knows I like it up there. It feels more authentic for me up there and more exciting.”
While the singer may be known for her impressive upper range, the vocal gymnastics require more skill than her effortless sound lets on. “It’s like a workout every single time,” she says. “It’s challenging for several reasons 1) because I want to make it interesting, but I also want to make sure it’s authentic and 2) technically there aren’t a lot of places to breathe, so once it starts I have built in my breaths like they’re notes. If I miss one I’m screwed.
“On top of that, the emotion of it [is] her trying to tamp down her emotions because she’s supposed to be in control,” Colella explains. “Then add on top of that that Beverly is usually in the audience watching and crying and staring right at me”—Bass has seen the show 65 times— “there’s no amount of training to prepare me for the challenge that song is every single night.”
In order to portray Bass to the audience in such a short snippet of time, Colella has to feel the emotion of the pilot who has lost her friend and colleague in the terrorist attack on the Pentagon and portray the mitigated expression of that emotion as Bass stays calm to lead her flight crew and passengers. (And the actor has appropriated Bass’ natural hand gestures to get into the bones of her character.)
Simultaneously, Colella must keep her own emotions at bay. “[Director] Chris Ashley has directed us not to get lost in the emotion, just as actors who are telling the story, so that’s running through my head,” says Colella. Still, “a little piece of me breaks every time because it’s true,” she shares. “We’re not making up a really sad story; this happened, and I have to relive it every night.” While the show is set in Canada, the crux of the American story hits Colella in the quietest moment of the song—when she practically whispers the lyric “suddenly something has died.”
“I feel it all in that moment and I allow myself to,” she admits.
From the thickly layered emotions to the intricacy of the onstage choreography, Colella’s track—which also includes sweet and “oversexed” schoolteacher Annette and other Ganderites—requires her total focus. “It’s a 100-minute meditation,” she says. And in her “Me and the Sky” she—along with audiences—find a sense of solace.