Jenn Colella on returning to Come From Away for the 20th anniversary of 9/11
Welcome (back) to the rock!
On Friday, AppleTV+ debuts a filmed version of Broadway's Come From Away complete with much of the original cast, including Tony-nominated Jenn Colella as Captain Beverley Bass. The show, which was filmed earlier this year for an audience of 9/11 survivors and frontline workers, is premiering just before the 20th anniversary of 9/11,
Colella says it was a "no-brainer" to return to her breakout role for this special filming and the opportunity to reach a global audience in a new way.
Written by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, the musical tells the true story of about 7,000 people stranded in the small town of Gander, Newfoundland after all flights into the U.S. are grounded on Sept. 11, 2001. Referring to the newcomers as "come from aways," the Newfoundlanders welcome the passengers into their community to process what's happened and search for love, laughter, and hope amidst their strange circumstances.
It was nominated for seven Tony awards following its Broadway premiere in 2017, but now it will have the chance to reach a whole new audience via the virtual stage — following in the footsteps of other recent stage-to-screen recordings such as Hamilton and What the Constitution Means to Me.
We caught up with Colella to talk about returning to a role she played for five years, the emotional experience of performing this show in the midst of the pandemic and in the run-up to the 9/11 anniversary, and the message she hopes audiences take away.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How long has were conversations going on about filming Come From Away for something other than like New York Public Library preservation? Even in early days was that a pie in the sky discussion?
JENN COLELLA: I didn't hear a lot of that happening at all to tell you the truth. There was discussion about another film, not a live capture of the Broadway show, but a filmed version, like they did with Dear Evan Hansen, of the show. I know that they've been trying to work that out, but I was very surprised when I got the call about the live capture. It was the first I'd heard of it.
You left the show in 2019. What made you want to come back and reprise the role for the filming?
I didn't have to think twice about it. To come back and work with these people to tell this story, to know that I would have the opportunity to reach so many more people with a story like this of kindness, it was a no brainer. Of course, I would come back and do it.
Was it strange or emotional coming back into the role after a very weird 18-plus months?
It was both strange and emotional coming back. I felt nervous about my chops, wondering if I would still sound the same, if I could still hit those notes, if I was still going to dive as deeply into the characters as I had before. All of that quickly faded when I got into the rehearsal room, not necessarily because I had such faith in myself, but because of my colleagues, feeling the love and support of them and their energy and then watching them jump back into the work made me realize that we were all in this together.
You did it for five years, which is a long time, but did you find anything new this go around especially having taken some time away?
I did, yes. I tried to listen to what the time off was telling me and what I needed to learn about myself. I really tried to take stock of that and bring a lot of that into the character work. I still wanted to honor what we had built from the beginning, but yes. I think primarily this sense of all of us going through something again that was so deep and so devastating and so terrifying, and realizing what it means to be a good person and a good leader in those times while you're still carrying the weight of that — I tried to bring that in with me this time.
Did you have to calibrate anything or offer anything different for the cameras, or were they sort of out of your way and you still were able to just give your performance for the theatrical audience?
I wish that they felt out of my way. [Director] Chris Ashley did such a good job of continuing to remind us that we would just do our show, as we would if there was a full audience of 1,100 people in the Schoenfeld. To just do our theatrical performance. But we had these beings in our faces. I had to, at once, make friends with the camera and pretend like it wasn't there. I think we succeeded. I know that I trust Chris Ashley completely so I just tried to do my show and trust that what was being picked up by the camera was exactly right.
Did you get to rehearse with them at all or was that very much more a last minute thing once you were in the theater?
It was more of a last minute thing. We rehearsed without the cameras in a ballroom. We were all sequestered together and bubbled together in a hotel, so we're in this small ballroom with a column in the middle of it and we were rehearsing there. Once we got into the theater, the cameras were there pretty immediately. There wasn't a lot of time to get used to it; we just had to jump in.
Chris Ashley also directed the stage production. I assume that was helpful not having to merge stage and film directions from a different person?
Totally, yeah. That would have been terrifying, really terrifying. The entire team, Chris Ashley our director; Kelly Devine, our choreographer; and Ian Eisendrath, our musical director took such good care of us. They all knew that we would be emotionally raw, that we would be nervous for many, many reasons, and they took such good care of us really held our hands throughout the whole thing.
"Me and the Sky" is a signature piece for you and for the show. What was it like returning to that? Were you able to give that a new shade or is that something that's become almost muscle memory for you now?
It was a little bit of both. I had to rely on the muscle memory, so that I could do the thing that I needed to do, but I definitely came at it with a new pair of eyes, with a new, more open heart. I felt like a raw nerve, quite honestly, which made me feel at once, strong and deeply, deeply vulnerable. I'm hoping that it was a fresh take while still being able to have the foundation of what I relied on all those 1,200 performances before.
Over the course of developing the show and then it's run on Broadway, you formed really special relationships with a lot of the people depicted in the musical but especially the character you played, Beverley Bass. Did you talk to them at all about going back and filming this?
Captain Bass has been incredibly supportive from the beginning. From the moment we met, we felt a kinship with one another and we became fast friends. She has only supported every decision I've ever made while exploring the character of her. I actually went to visit her in her home in Florida, in her vacation home. I got to spend some time with her away from Come From Away, away from the theater, away from interviews, and it was very, very dear. We had long deep talks about our feelings, about our families, about how we move through the world. It really helped me come back into the role this time. But yeah, she was excited. She's super excited that we get to share this in a global way this time.
I can imagine that was helpful going back into the show and knowing her more deeply in that way.
Absolutely. I got to ride with her. She has a boat, like a speedboat, but while we were out on the open water, she was driving with her feet. I thought, "Yes, Captain, yes!" I wanted to get a picture, but I also just wanted to honor her. But I can't get that out of my head, her just chilling with her foot on the steering wheel. I just have such a deeper sense of her and who she is in the world.
The recording is debuting right before the 20th anniversary of 9/11, and your audience was made up of 9/11 survivors and first responders. How did that add an additional layer or emotional weight to it? Did you know going into the filming that this would be the premiere date?
We didn't know when it would premiere. I feel really grateful that they're using this to launch a commemoration, but also to offer another memory for that dark time in our nation's history and our world history. Come From Away offers this piece of goodness that we can hold in our hearts for this otherwise very, very dark time. So, I think it's super smart to release this film on Sept. 10.
And yes, going in and knowing that there were 9/11 survivors and first responders in the audience, I can't think about it too much. I held space and definitely had my heart and my energy wrapped around them in like a "I'm going to take care of you" way. Like, come along with me. But I can't think too much about that. Or else this raw nerve would just completely break down. The craft of acting is balancing the two — taking care of the audience while making sure I'm just telling the story.
I love that because when I first saw the show I was afraid it would be very dark or depressing, and it's not. It's the most positive thing you could take away from this tragedy.
That's exactly right, and that's the beauty of this show. We always say that it's a 9/12 musical, not a 9/11 musical. It's about the events after this awful tragedy, and how people opened their homes and their hearts to others around the world simply because they needed a hand.
You said that you brought the experience of the last year to the table. Was that something you all talked a lot about in the rehearsal room and that you felt like everyone was bringing in?
We did talk a lot about it and the sense of that was quite palpable in the rehearsal room. There were moments when we would sing something that we've sung literally thousands of times before, but we could feel a new weight attached to it. There's a song called "Something's Missing" toward the end of the show, and that one felt very, very difficult to get through in rehearsal. We're all so linked that if one person was feeling something from something personal that they had experienced in the past year, we could hear their voice crack or them catch a breath. Then, the rest of us are gone, because we're all so so connected. It was really beautiful to share these moments of grief and hurt as we're working to tell this story of hope.
This show is the definition of an ensemble piece. Was it difficult to find that flow again?
Not at all, no. I mean there's something about the way the show is designed that automatically makes us take care of one another, but this group of people, we've been loving each other for a very long time. In rehearsal, we had our anniversary of our very first rehearsal in La Jolla, six years ago to that day. We've learned how to care for one another, we've learned how to breathe together. The fact that it's this ensemble piece where we get to hand each other pieces of clothing and bring a chair as you sit down feels super easy. That rhythm we got back into quite easily.
I'm sure you were all happy to see each other too.
Oh my goodness, to see faces, to hug, to touch, to hear their voices, to laugh together, to cry together was really a balm for all of our souls. I don't have any trouble speaking for my colleagues in this way because we'd said it many, many times, but it felt like coming together and telling the story again in this way was genuinely healing for all of us.
It's also coming as Broadway is just starting to reopen. That's probably unexpected compared to where you guys were at when you were shooting, but how does that add to the significance or the resonance for you?
It's exciting. It's perfectly timed. This feels like a perfect alchemy that the film is being released as Broadway is coming back. Come From Away reopens on Broadway Sept. 21. This is getting everyone excited again about the fact that theatre's coming back. It feels like a renaissance. It feels like we're all going to have a deeper sense of appreciation on stage, a deeper sense of gratitude in the audience.
What are you most excited for audiences to discover in this filmed version?
For audiences to discover that kindness is accessible at all times, not just in the wake of tragedy. That we all have the capacity to be kind, that it is a practice. That it is there just waiting for us whenever we choose to grab it, and that's kindness for ourselves and kindness for others. It truly, I believe, is the path for us, to better days.
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