Come From Away
Music Credits: “Finale,” “Beds and Blankets,” “Phoning Home,” “Something’s Missing” , all from the original cast album of Come from Away, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein.
“NY” composed and performed by Kosta ,T from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.
Jo Reed: Welcome to Art Works the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts—I’m Josephine Reed.
Many of you will recognize this from the Tony and Olivier Award-winning musical Come From Away-- the play inspired by the aftermath of 9/11 when a small town in Canada welcomed some 7,000 people whose flights had been diverted. Well, on September 10, Ford’s Theatre will present a one-night concert version of Come From Away in its entirety on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, the free non-ticketed event not only so fittingly commemorates 9/11, it also marks the return of live performance for Ford’s Theatre and Come From Away’s return to Broadway later in month. The concert is the brainchild of Sue Frost of Junkyard Dog Productions, the lead producers of Come From Away, and Paul Tetreault director of Ford's Theatre and they are both joining me now.
Sue and Paul welcome…Paul, I’m going to start with you—September 10 promises to be a momentous evening in Washington DC.
Paul Tetreault: Yeah. I think that we are very excited. First of all, the idea that Sue and I were able to sort of craft this crazy concept that we could bring one of the companies from New York, of Come From Away, back to Washington, where it had its sort of original journey, and bring it back on the eve of the anniversary, the 20th anniversary-- of 9/11. So, here we are on September 10th, getting ready to sort of acknowledge the 20-year anniversary of 9/11, but also a kind of welcome back to the arts; not just here in DC, which, of course, we've all been shut down for almost 18 months now, but also kind of a welcome back to Come From Away, coming back to Broadway. So we are very, very excited about all of these things converging on the nation's capital on September 10th.
Jo Reed: Sue, you've been with Come From Away almost from its inception; I mean, really, pretty close to it.
Sue Frost: Yeah.
Jo Reed: For people who might not know the plot, do you mind just giving us a synopsis of it?
Sue Frost: Sure. Come From Away is based on real events. When the airspace was frozen in the United States after the attacks of 9/11, 38 international jets were diverted to this small town in Newfoundland, called Gander. Gander had a big airport there, because it used to be the place where jets would refuel before they went back and forth across the Atlantic, and they deployed a lot of military airplanes out of there during World War II. So it's a very big airport in a very small town. And 38 jets were diverted there, and the 7,000 people who were on those planes were taken care of, housed, fed, embraced by the people of Gander, Newfoundland. And the show itself is based on real people who were stranded there, real people who took care of them, and we tell a lot of really amazing stories.
Jo Reed: And have some really, really cool songs. <laughs>
Sue Frost: And some really great music. Anybody who knows Newfoundland knows you have to have music, yeah. <laughs>
Jo Reed: Paul, as you mentioned, Ford's Theatre was one of the first in the country in which this show was mounted. Before it was on Broadway, it was at Ford's Theatre. What do you remember about what you thought when you first encountered Come From Away?
Paul Tetreault: Well, what's interesting is, we sort of first encountered it, the Ford's team, at a workshop in New York City. And my folks here brought it to my attention, and said, "This is amazing. It's about the human spirit. It's about human connection." And so we looked at it, and thought, "Oh, my God, we need to do this." And I sort of thought, "Well, we'll do our own production." And then I found out shortly after that, that my good friend Sue Frost, who I've known for too many years for either of us to think about, had the rights. So I called up Sue, and she said, "Well, we've already got a production that's going to happen at La Jolla Playhouse in Southern California, and also Seattle. But we very much want to do the project, A, on the East Coast, before we get to New York; and B, specifically Washington, DC." And I said, "Well, let's talk." So, in short order, we had made an agreement and crafted out a plan for Ford's to be the East Coast stop on this project and this production, as it made its way to Broadway and New York City.
Jo Reed: Given that the attacks on 9/11 took place in New York City and Washington, DC, did you have trepidations about the way these particular cities would respond given that it brings up 15 years after the fact a very painful event that took place in these cities?
Sue Frost: It was something that was always on our mind. When we got the rights to the show, we knew we loved the show, we knew we loved the story of it and how it was being told, but we also knew that everybody was going to call it the "9/11 musical," and that wasn't necessarily going to be helpful for us. It's really not about 9/11. It's really about 9/12 and the days thereafter, and the positive stories that came out of it. But we knew right from the beginning that we needed to be very cautious, in terms of how we shared this story. And when Paul reached out to us and said, "I would really like Ford's to be a part of it," we knew we wanted to go to Washington, DC, before New York, because, of course, Washington, DC, was impacted by these events, as well, and it was going to give us an opportunity to explore. And one of the things that Ford's did for us, which was really tremendous, is they arranged, first and foremost, for our company to tour the Pentagon and to meet with some Pentagon survivors; and also, we did a special, private, invited performance for folks from the Pentagon. And we learned a great deal from that, and we made some really tremendous friends from that, who really helped us communicate with the 9/11 community in New York, before we even got there. And it was very strategic and very important for us that we approached all of this carefully and with respect, and our experience at Ford's was really instrumental in helping us negotiate all of that.
Jo Reed: Well, Paul, when it played at Ford's, it literally was during the 15th anniversary of 9/11.
Paul Tetreault: Yes, right.
Jo Reed: What was the audience response to the play when it opened in DC?
Paul Tetreault: Well, I mean, it was tremendous. And I think we, as Sue and all of her team in New York, and the team here at Ford's, there was a great deal of... "anxiety" is probably too strong a word, but just hesitancy, concern, about, how is this going to be received? We knew, because we had the sort of standing ovations and the huge ticket sales from the West Coast, but 9/11 has a very unique relationship with, as you noted, with Washington and New York City. And we were concerned about, how is that going to be received? And really, it's a testament to the power of this production, the power of this piece, that the response was overwhelming. It was powerful, moving, heart-wrenching, tear-jerking-- everything you can imagine. And the beauty of this piece is, it's all there. I mean, it runs you through the whole gamut of emotions, and fortunately leaves you at the end with such hope and promise and belief in the human spirit and the human condition, and when you leave Come From Away, I think you leave with this sense of, "Wow, we really all came together as a people, as members of the human race, in those days following 9/11." And you sort of leave with the hope that we would always have that response to that kind of tragedy. So it was an extraordinary run here. It was completely sold out. We ended up extending a week. We had, as Sue mentioned, a private performance that I think was still one of the most profound experiences for the artists and everyone involved, to perform to a theater of only families of survivors, families who were affected, people that were in the Pentagon that day…
Sue Frost: And those who were lost; families of those who were lost.
Paul Tetreault: Yes. Something that we could never have imagined and I think, as Sue mentioned, informed the production in that experience here at Ford's.
Jo Reed: And do you think that's why, Sue--you've taken this around the country, around the world-- this has the response of the audience it does? I mean, how would you describe what's at the heart of this show?
Sue Frost: You know, I think, probably first and foremost, is the resilience of the human spirit, and how much we can do if we all pull together for the greater good. I think, one of the things that it's so extraordinary about this show is, everybody who was alive on that day, of a certain age, has a memory. And whether they were in New York, whether they were in Washington, DC, whether they were in London, or Toronto, wherever they were, they have a memory of that day, and they have a story. And so, what Come From Away does is it amplifies stories, and it also encourages more stories. And it inspires people to do better, to be better, to reach out to somebody that may be in need. And it's not a Pollyanna thing at all. It is a truly sort of, in your heart, you come away feeling better about the human race after seeing the show.
Jo Reed: Yeah. I think it is uplifting, most certainly, but it's also earned, if you know what I mean.
Sue Frost: Yeah. It's because it's true. These are real people. These are real stories. It's true, all of it, you know? I mean, and it's amplified by the audience walking out and thinking about their stories, and thinking about what they might do to help somebody, you know, and where they were, and where they're going, and how they can understand each other better, you know? We've always been inspired by the stories that come back to us from the audience, and they're real, they're genuine, and heartfelt.
Jo Reed: Yeah, I was going to say, I think the way the story was created is key to the authentic feelings that it generates. <laughs>
Sue Frost: Yeah.
Jo Reed: Because the book, music, and lyrics, by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, they spent a lot of time in Gander, talking to both those who lived there, but they did it at the tenth anniversary, and a lot of those people on the planes had returned to Gander.
Sue Frost: Yes. It was a big commemoration ceremony there, and many of the-- they call them the Plane People. Many of the Plane People had come back. And it was sort of a fun story. David and Irene, when they first heard about this idea, and decided to go to Gander for the tenth anniversary, they really weren't sure it was a musical, do you know? They were thinking along the lines of, perhaps, a play. And at the commemoration ceremony, at the end, one of the Newfoundland bands started to play, and the entire hockey rink of thousands and thousands of people, everybody started to dance. And they said, "You know what? You can't tell this story without music, because music is also just part of that human spirit and how we express emotions bigger than words." And it was being there-- they were going to go there for a week. They ended up there a month, because they just kept hearing more stories, and wanting to include all of them. They tell this great story that, when they first started writing, when they got back, they were 600 pages, and they hadn't gotten off the planes yet, you know? <laughs> So they had to come back, and most of the work we did developing the show was editing, editing, editing, and distilling the words down, and distilling the stories down, and figuring out how to tell this story in a comprehensive way, without going for hours and hours, you know.
Jo Reed: Well, Paul, you had this idea that, "Okay, this is what we're going to do to commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11." So, why don't you share how this evening is going to unfold?
Paul Tetreault: Well, it's on September 10th, which works out perfectly, because it's actually a Friday evening. It's going to be dusk, so it'll be 6:00 P.M. Hopefully, people will come early. It's a completely free concert, right in front of the Lincoln Memorial, on the steps there, and in front of the Reflecting Pool. And there's going to be jumbotrons, and there's speakers, and so we will be able to accommodate thousands of people down there. And there'll probably be a little preshow on the jumbotrons before the concert actually begins. We've been working with Sue's folks in New York about some material that we have, video material, about interviews with some of the creatives and some of the storytellers-- some really interesting stuff. So I think, if folks come down to the Mall early, they'll be able to participate in that and see that. And then the concert will start right around six o'clock, and it's performed straight through, without an intermission. And I think sitting at the steps at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, at sunset, on the eve of 9/11, I think could be pretty profound, and I hope folks will all come down and participate, because this is sort of a gift to the region from Ford's Theatre and the Come From Away company.
Jo Reed: Now, it's being presented as a concert-- some costume, but pretty much as a concert. The play has 12 actors that play multiple roles, so costumes and lighting and choreography is kind of key for us knowing who's who, and how is this going to work if it's presented as a concert? I guess I'm throwing that to you, Sue.
Sue Frost: Sure. We have a little experience with it. Part of our-- actually, part of our journey to Broadway, when we closed at Ford's, before we went up to Toronto, where we were going to do the show before we came to New York, we went to Gander. And we presented a concert version of the show to the people of Gander in the hockey arena, and it was one of the things that was so important to David and Irene, was to really get the Newfoundlanders' buy-in in the show at that. And it was an extraordinary weekend. None of us had met any of the real people from Newfoundland, and trying to do what we did on a rock in the middle of the ocean was really kind of amazing, but we did it. And it tells the whole story. And there's a little bit of-- I call it "mic-ography," versus "chair-ography," where, if you've seen the show, you understand there's a lot of chairs moving around, and now there's a lot of people running mic to mic. They'll be using costume pieces, so you'll get the sense of it. And we watched it. We've seen it work. We've seen it work in Gander. We also did a concert version of the show for a week in St. John's, with a Canadian company, so we know that the story transcends the staging, transcends the lights and the costumes and everything else. The story works. And we did it for those Newfoundlanders, and they were on their feet probably 10 minutes before the end of the show. <laughs>
Jo Reed: I have to say, in preparation for this conversation, I've been listening to the cast album a lot, and, oh, my God, it's captivating. I mean, no matter how many times I'm listening to it, at certain moments, I'm still reaching for the Kleenex. <laughs>
Sue Frost: Oh, you know, and I tell you, one of the other things that's happening on September 10th is, David and Irene have just realized another dream of theirs, which was to create a recording of Newfoundland cover bands performing the songs from Come From Away. And two of the songs are going to be released on the 10th, and then the entire recording's going to be released the following Friday. But listening to this music performed by Newfoundland artists is a whole other trip, and it is really fun and really exiting.
Jo Reed: Oh, I can't wait. That will be very, very cool. Okay, I'm curious. Obviously, people are rehearsing now. What about pandemic protocols? How are you adjusting for that, as both of you, you're reopening theaters?
Paul Tetreault: So, obviously, when Sue and I originally talked, we were sort of feeling high about the vaccinations, and we hadn't been introduced to the Delta variant yet, and we were really feeling like that wasn't a major concern. Obviously, as we have evolved over the last several weeks, the Delta variant has become more of an issue, and we have had to require vaccine mandates for everyone participating in the project. All of the artists, all of the staff working, will have vaccine mandates and negative COVID tests. We are requiring, or suggesting, masks for everyone attending the performance. And we have a VIP section, where we are highly recommending vaccines, and also masks, for the sort of VIP section. So there's a lot of protocols that we have had to put in place over the last several weeks that we didn't originally anticipate, but obviously, after the year and a half that we've all been through, I think we've learned how to be nimble and do what is necessary.
Jo Reed: I think "nimble" and "pivot" are the two words <laughs> of the past 18 months.
Sue Frost: You know what? I cannot wait until I don't have to use either of those words ever again. <laughs>
Paul Tetreault: Or "unprecedented."
Jo Reed: That's another one. <laughs>
Sue Frost: Yeah.
Jo Reed: Sue, what about for the performers?
Sue Frost: Well, everybody coming back, in all of our companies, will be vaccinated. We also have a fairly rigorous testing schedule. They'll be tested before they come to rehearsal; they'll be tested regularly in rehearsal. We're taking whatever steps we need to do to make sure their travel is safe, their hotels are safe. We take the health and safety of our company very seriously, and the audience, as well. And so, masks when you aren't performing. Anybody who is working with them backstage will most likely be wearing a mask; certainly, all the folks who come in direct contact, if they're not on the stage, performing. Just out of an abundance of caution. Yeah. And this company is a combination of some of our Broadway company and some of our touring company, and they'll be coming back from that concert and going back into rehearsal with both of their different companies, so we'll be very careful with them as they do all of this.
Jo Reed: One of the many things that I'm mindful of, as 9/11 approaches-- and New York is my hometown, and it's how theater came out and came together for the city, for the first responders. I mean, not just theater; musicians, certainly-- poets, artists in general, performing artists in particular-- and how the arts just have this ability to bring us together, to provide solace; to give expression in those moments when we ourselves can't quite find the words to say what's in our hearts.
Sue Frost: It's the great unifier, isn't it? It is the way you transcend differences. It is the way-- in many ways, it's how you can communicate without words: with music, with dance, all of that, you know? I think-- it elevates us from the mundane. It takes us away from it, and helps us sort of restore our spirits, as well. And artists are just incredibly generous-- they're generous with their art, you know? And part of it is a need to share it. So, just as three days after the attacks, Broadway came back, because the city needed it, I think that we're not going to be truly back and functioning from this pandemic until artists are back in theaters, in concert halls, and doing what they do, and audiences are able to gather together and experience it together. We have spent a lot of time by ourselves, looking at screens, for the last 18 months, and it's time for us to get out and rejoin the human race. And I'm truly thrilled that we're going to have this opportunity to share this story with so many people, in such a majestic and profound way. So it's very exiting; very exciting for us.
Jo Reed: And I'm also so mindful of how the performing arts have borne such a burden this past year. I know, Paul, you and Ford's Theatre, and other theaters, have done... okay, I'm going to say "pivot," but you have, and you've brought work online. But, man, what a year it's been.
Paul Tetreault: Yeah, it's sort of interesting, when you think about sort of the juxtaposition of September 11th and Come From Away, and then where we've been over the last 18 months, and you talk about the power of the arts. And we saw, as you noted, firsthand, the sort of power of the arts after 9/11, and the amount of product that came out of 9/11, and was sort of dedicated and about all of the various components of that, and the various feelings that we had from that. And what we've learned, I think, over the last 18 months is not just the power of the arts, which we knew about previously, but also how much we desperately need, as human beings, the arts, and how we have all struggled over the last 18 months. And yes, we've pivoted, and we've tried to do things online, and we've tried to present other ways to give the artform out, but there is nothing like sitting in an audience, whether you're on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial or in Ford's Theatre, surrounded by other audience members in dialogue with a piece of art. And I think that's something that, when we are able to get back, beginning with September 10th, here in Washington, and shows coming back online in the DC region, shows coming back online on Broadway, we are going to get back in those theaters, because we have such a hunger for the arts and what they do to feed our soul.
Jo Reed: And when you say "back online," you're really talking about doors opening.
Paul Tetreault: Yes
Jo Reed: And Come From Away is opening the season for Ford's Theatre, and I know every season is put together very carefully, but this one has to have so much more meaning. Just quickly walk us through the season. What else is on the docket for Ford's?
Paul Tetreault: Well, we are going into rehearsal, actually, next week for our first play of the year, after the concert of Come From Away. We'll be opening a new play, My Lord, What a Night, about the special relationship between Marian Anderson and Albert Einstein. And that begins performances October 1st. We will then do our annual production, bringing back to the stage, for the sort of 40th year, our annual production of A Christmas Carol, which the surrounding area missed so much last year. We will be doing The Mountaintop in the winter slot, which is a play about the last night of Martin Luther King's life, set at the Lorraine Hotel.. And we will close the season with a brand-new musical, Grace, about the lives of an African-American family very much involved in the restaurant business. And that show actually is on a sort of pre-Broadway trajectory, as well, and so we're excited to be presenting that production, as well.
Jo Reed: And are you requiring vaccinations for audience members?
Paul Tetreault: We are. We just announced last week, following in the steps of Broadway, and following in the steps of all of our colleagues in the DMV region, we will be requiring vaccinations for all patrons, or a negative COVID test for those who either are unable to get vaccinated, or young people under 12 years old.
Jo Reed: And, Sue, Come From Away, as you said, it's going to reopen on Broadway after quite some time, and when are you reopening?
Sue Frost: Our first performance on Broadway will be September 21st, and then our tour will reopen in Memphis on October 5th. So we're very excited about that.
Jo Reed: All right. First Sue, and then Paul: What are you most looking forward to on September 10th? What moment?
Sue Frost: Oh, when that bodhran starts, and thousands of people are there to listen to that heartbeat of the show. And I think it's going to be extraordinary.
Jo Reed: And, Paul, for you?
Paul Tetreault: Yeah, I'm sorry. I hate to be boring, but I have to agree with Sue. There is so much going into this one, simple concert. But I say "one simple concert" from the audience perspective, but the details and the amount of work that has gone into it from the Ford's team, and from the New York team, has really been extraordinary. So, for me, I will take a deep breath when the performance starts, I think I will be able to say, "We've made it, it's here," and I will actually be able to relax and just let that show wash over me, as I know it will, and really enjoy it.
Jo Reed: I've always loved the title Come From Away. Sue, can you just explain, in case it needs explanation, what it means?
Sue Frost: Oh, sure, because it's not a title that everybody understands. Newfoundlanders call people who are not from Newfoundland come-from-aways. That's exactly what it is. And so this story is about 7,000 come-from-aways who descended on this tiny town. And the mayor at the time, Claude Elliott, who is featured in our show and has become a dear friend to all of us, he says, "You know, on September 12th, we had 7,000 strangers who became friends, and when they left, they were family."
Jo Reed: I think that is a great place just to end it. Thank you so much, Sue. Thank you so much, Paul.
Sue Frost: Thank you. It's been a pleasure to chat with you.
Jo Reed: I am very much looking forward to September 10th.
Sue Frost: It's going to be fun. It's going to be fun.
Paul Tetreault: Don't miss it.
Jo Reed: I'm not. I would not miss this for the world.
Sue Frost: Oh, boy. I'm looking forward to seeing you there.
Jo Reed: Yeah, me, too.
Paul Tetreault: Looking forward to meeting you, Jo.
That was Sue Frost from Junkyard Dog Productions—the lead producers of Come From Away and Paul Tetreault—director of Ford’s Theater. Once again, you can see Come From Away: In Concert at the Lincoln Memorial on September 10 at 6:00 p.m. Supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, this free non-ticketed event will presented rain or shine.
You heard excerpts of Come From Away from the original cast album.
You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed, stay safe and thanks for listening.
In Washington, DC, the evening of September 10 promises to be momentous: at 6 pm ET, Ford’s Theatre is presenting Come From Away: In Concert at the Lincoln Memorial. It’s hard to think of a more appropriate play than Come From Away to mark this occasion. The Tony and Olivier Award-winning musical was inspired by the aftermath of 9/11, when a small town in Canada welcomed some 7,000 people whose flights had been diverted when the U.S. airspace was closed. Supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, the free non-ticketed concert is the brainchild of Sue Frost of Junkyard Dog Productions, the lead producers of Come From Away, and Paul Tetreault, director of Ford's Theatre. In this music-filled podcast, Frost and Tetreault talk about the origins of the play Come From Away, its inspiring story and glorious music, their hopes for the concert, and the power of art to give voice to tragedy and to shine light on possibility. We also discuss the significance of the return of live performance for Ford’s Theatre, for Come From Away, and for theaters across the country.