The first time I saw Come From Away, an early preview at the Schoenfeld Theatre, the musical had an air of optimism that set my critical faculties on alert: I had no idea how Broadway would respond to a musical that drew positive vibes, joyful music and, well, hope for mankind in a story set on September 11, 2001 and the days immediately following – especially New Yorkers, including myself, for whom the memory of that day remains a scarred, if not festering, memory.
One thing of which I was fairly certain, however, was that Jenn Colella was likely to become an overnight star – 13 years after I’d first seen her, in her Broadway debut as Sissy (the Debra Winger role) in a musical adaptation of Urban Cowboy. (Sample line: “I just love doin’ it in the back of a pickup, don’t you?” It did not go well.).
In Come From Away, Colella plays Beverley Bass, who in 1986 became the first woman promoted by American Airlines to captain. On the morning of 9/11, Bass was high over the North Atlantic on a flight from Paris to Dallas when she was told that the airspace over the U.S. had been closed in response to terrorist attacks that ultimately resulted in the murders of 2,977 people in New York, Washington and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and brought down the twin towers of Manhattan’s World Trade Center. Ordered to land at an airport outside Gander, Newfoundland which had once served as a fueling hub on trans-Atlantic flights, Bass’s plane was number 33 of 37 wide-body jets delivering some 7,000 crew and passengers into the hands of the tiny Canadian outpost.
The husband-and-wife librettists Irene Sankoff and David Hein interviewed many of those people after the visitors returned home and began talking about the generosity and kindness of their hosts. It’s by no means a saccharine show, but it exudes heart. Notable visitors have included Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, as well as the mayor and many fellow citizens of Gander.
It’s also up for seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical and for Colella’s performance, Best Featured Actress in a Musical. She stops the show with “Me and the Sky,” a killer number in which Captain Bass tells the story of her coming of age, passion for flying and that fateful flight:
AIR-TO-AIR TRAFFIC SAYS, AT 8:46 THERE’S BEEN A TERRORIST ACTION
AND THE ONE THING I LOVED MORE THAN ANYTHING WAS USED AS THE BOMB
In 2015, Colella joined the cast at the La Jolla Playhouse (the show’s director, Christopher Ashley, is artistic director), where she and Bass met and formed a fast friendship (Bass has now seen the show more than 60 times). Of course, the story began many years earlier, as the actress recounted when we spoke a few weeks back.
Deadline: Where were you on 9/11?
Jenn Colella: I was in LA. I got my master’s degree at the University of California – Irvine and I was dating a woman who lived in Los Angeles. I can remember hearing the news and the feeling of everyone wanting to be out of their cars, people walking along the side of the road, and lighting candles. It felt interesting, because everyone’s always in their cars in L.A. and we wanted to connect. I remember making calls to friends in New York and got through to some but not others, just trying to make sense of it. It didn’t feel real for so long.
Deadline: You joined the cast in La Jolla though many others had been with the show from workshops.
Colella: I didn’t think I was right, quite honestly, for Beverley Bass. But I got called back, and it did not dawn on me until I actually sang that song again and I could feel that there was something about it that clicked for them. Reading over the transcripts later, it’s almost verbatim, the way Beverley really spoke and shared her story.
‘I thought, This is meta, I’m singing to her, tears are streaming down her face, she’s grabbing Tom’s hand as I’m singing, I’m fine, Tom, I’m fine.’
Deadline: What was that first meeting with her like?
Colella: We met in La Jolla after the last preview. We just embraced and it felt like I was meeting long-lost sister. She and Tom, her husband, hadn’t seen the show yet. They had no idea what they were about to see. And the next night was the opening and she was in the second row, blonde hair, this radiant smile, and I thought This is meta, I’m singing to her, tears are streaming down her face, she’s grabbing Tom’s hand as I’m singing, “I’m fine, Tom, I’m fine.” It was this extraordinary experience in pure love, and art reflecting life, and focus – all of these things at once. They’re a part of the family. We text constantly. She’s given me her original captain’s jacket and many of the service pins she’s garnered through the years.
Deadline: You and the rest of the company have done a number of talk-backs with the audience.
Colella: Everybody wants to share their stories with us after the show. They feel comfortable enough to tell their stories. One woman lost her husband in the towers, another was one of the flight attendants who was grounded in Gander and we got to applaud them they made us cry. It feels like a communion. And there’s great responsibility attached to that as well. I have that woman’s face in my heart when I go into the show, and while I know what my job is, and I’m telling this story, every person that shares something with me and looks into my eyes and into my soul and tells me why this is important to them, I can’t just slough that off. That becomes a part of who I am and the way that I’m going to say my next line.
‘Urban Cowboy was a wonderful introduction to New York. I didn’t know a show could close that quickly. I remember coming in the day after the opening and everybody’s faces were so dour. I said, What’s wrong, what’s goin’ on, that was such a fun party! ‘
Deadline: Coincidentally, I was a I was a sort of fly-on-the-wall during the creation of Urban Cowboy The Musical in 2002 and 2003.
Colella: I was doing stand-up in Los Angeles, at the Laugh Factory and the Comedy Store, when I got the call to audition for Urban Cowboy. [Director] Phil Oesterman had passed away suddenly and Lonny Price had come onboard and had a new vision for the leading lady. They asked, could I fly to New York the next day and if I got it, start rehearsals? I thought, How do you pack for that? So I threw everything I owned into a bag, went to New York and the next day was the lead in a Broadway show. It was a wonderful introduction to New York. I didn’t know a show could close that quickly. I remember coming in the day after the opening and everybody’s faces were so dour. I said, “What’s wrong, what’s goin’ on, that was such a fun party!” And then I’ve just been lucky enough to stick around here.
Deadline: It closed after several tough weeks. You’ve gone on to many other shows, including the underrated High Fidelity, and If/Then. You’re even in the cast of another contender for best musical, Dear Evan Hansen, as one of the recorded voices heard throughout that show.
Colella: I’ve just been lucky enough to stick around here. I’ve been proud of every show I’ve ever done. This is, yes, a great role, great cast, great music but – I don’t know how to say this without sounding corny – but it is the reason we got into this. To move people. To make an impact. To do something that feels important for humanity. To use my art and what I’ve studied and worked on and believed in my whole life, not just to entertain or to make people laugh, but to help them feel better about who they are and about humanity as a whole. It feels like the ultimate gift.
The Tony Awards will be telecast live by CBS June 11, beginning at 8 PM New York time.