'Come From Away' Cast Reflects on Surpassing 1,000 Performances

Come From Away
Matthew Murphy

The cast of "Come From Away"

On Aug. 6, the cast of Come From Away -- the hit musical about how the small Newfoundland town of Gander welcomed hordes of stranded travelers when air traffic was halted on Sept. 11, 2001 -- delivered their 1,000th show at Broadway’s Schoenfeld Theatre. It’s a Broadway rarity these days to achieve that kind of longevity, period -- and even rarer that nine of the original cast members are still in the show.

Billboard spoke to three of them -- Petrina Bromley (who plays the dedicated veterinarian Bonnie), Geno Carr (town cop Oz) and Joel Hatch (town mayor Claude) -- about the evolution of the show, memorable guests (Justin Trudeau! Hillary Clinton!) and why audiences keep coming.

Lately, it seems like every day you hear of more and more shows closing on Broadway -- so hitting 1,000 performances is an even more impressive milestone. What’s it like to be a part of an all-too-rare Broadway success story?

Bromley: I find it slightly terrifying. (Laughs) Only because all of these shows are closing. It’s true, it feels like every time I log onto something or walk past a marquee that I see there are only so many weeks left. This was my Broadway debut and I didn’t know anything at all about how any of it worked beforehand. For me, Broadway was this distant, difficult thing that happened somewhere else in the world and only really, really lucky people were able to be a part of it. When we first came to New York, the unofficial world among people who had opened shows on Broadway before was, “Anything can happen. You can get reviewed and close that night, so brace yourself and enjoy the experience.” In particular, we didn’t know how people will react bringing this specific show to New York City. We were hopeful that people would see that it’s about kindness, generosity and optimism and not necessarily about what happened in New York but about the ripple effects that it had. So I didn’t know what to expect. All I knew is that everywhere else we played the show it had been received really well and I felt confident we had a great show. The ride has been so incredible, I keep on trying to remind myself how lucky we are and how people have really opened their hearts to the story.

Geno, this was your Broadway debut too, right? Not a bad show to debut in.

Geno: I always I feel like I won the lottery and should be black and blue from pinching myself. To be on Broadway is an amazing thing as an actor, but to be on Broadway in this show, in this role, with these people and this story. It’s an amazing layered joy we get to experience. As Petrina said, people feel that ripple of hope and joy knowing that in the world we live in there’s still kindness in the face of some of the dark things that happen. Now there are five companies in the world telling this story, so we hope our ripple effect is starting to overlap.

Not many actors know what it’s like to performing 1,000 shows. I’m wondering if there has there been an evolution when it comes to either the production or your characters? How different was that very first preview in 2017 compared to the 1,000th show this week. Would I notice a difference in the pacing, style or lines?

Joel: Well, I think one of the reasons why we’ve had success is our consistency. That’s been something that’s commented to me by audience members leaving the theater who’ve seen it multiple times. Our show is so fact-paced and we rip through so many different events, from the 7,000 people who were stranded (come from away-ers) and the 9,000 people who were in Gander, and we tell all these stories in 102 minutes. So I’ve had people who have seen the show five times say, “I’m amazed that there are still things I’ve missed the last time I saw it.” I think we are very committed to telling the story as honestly as we can and giving tribute to the people there at that time as much as we can, and I think that that is one of the reasons why we are still here 1,000 shows later. That’s why we go see theater, to be surprised. That’s entertainment; to be taken in with something that we haven't experienced before. That’s the key to any show’s success and we’ve been lucky enough to latch onto a story that does that.

Petrina, I know you’ve been in three different productions during the evolution of the show and you’re also a legitimate Newfoundlander. What are your personal memories of 9/11?

Petrina: I was at home in St. John’s, the capital city which is a three-hour drive from (where the story takes place in) Gander. I was listening to BBC Radio and heard about what happened, so I went downstairs and my parents were visiting me at the time, and I remember my mother and I watched a lot of it unfold live on TV. But my dad was out picking blueberries with his sister, which is a very Newfoundland thing. It became pretty clear to them that something was going on because they kept noticing planes in droves flying over them. It was a very isolated spot, so they knew it was very unusual. We heard that there was a bigger group of people stranded in Gander, because that airport was originally built for military purposes and could accommodate the larger jets. The airport (near me) in St John’s was a commercial airport, so the landing strips aren’t as long. We heard Gander was overrun, in a good way.

What’s it like for you three to be playing and reenacting what real people did? Geno, you play Oz, who is a real person. Have you met him?

Geno: Yes! Oz Fudge was indeed a police constable in Gander and I got to meet him when the producers took the original cast up to Newfoundland to do two benefit concerts for the people there. It turned out to be a great opportunity for us actors to live in the world where the show takes place. I even got to drive Oz’s police cruiser, which I’m not sure is legal (laughs). We whipped around the Tim Horton’s parking lot. But (from the locals) we heard over and over again, “You’re just like Claude” or “You’re just like Bonnie.” We didn’t ever know those people, but it deepened our understanding in a way that may not be 100 percent apparent on the surface, but it turned out to be a huge gift. It helps create a depth.

Petrina: As a Newfoundlander, my thoughts about those shows were it was like bringing a boyfriend home to meet the family hoping that at dinner nobody would embarrass me. Watching everybody be in the place and get a feel for what the sensibility of the people are, it changed everybody’s performances in really beautiful, subtle ways. The cast went, “Oh, I get it.” From then on they were no longer creating something completely imaginary. And nobody embarrassed me. (Laughs)

Geno: Not that we didn’t try. (Laughs)

Out of the past thousand shows, are there some that stand out in your mind above the rest?

Joel: I want to preface this by talking about our amazing swings. We have three men and three women and each of them cover five of us, so they know five times as much as we do. But we had a performance awhile back when a lot of people were out; we had some deaths in families and other people were either sick or on vacation and it all happened the same day. There were swings who had never gone on in the specific role they were covering and there were others who were covering things who were secondary or third characters. It became this amazing, joyous evening of theater because we were all watching in amazement with each other, going “Oh, my God! You just pulled that off.” I loved that we have not only a great leading company, but this amazing company of swings who support our show in such a powerful way. It doesn’t really matter who’s in the show that day because the audience is always going to get an amazing evening of theater. We have infinitesimal little chair moves, where we have to hit very specific mark. The show is so tightly choreographed that the fact they even got one of those right is a miracle to me.

I know there was also that infamous show when a bunch of disparate political figures saw the production, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ivanka Trump, among others?

Petrina: Not long after we opened, Justin Trudeau came and we did a show for invited U.N. delegates. It was pretty incredible and I had a couple of friends in the audience too, which made it really special. Another night, Hillary and Bill Clinton came to the show and watching Jenn (Colella) sing “Me and the Sky” and making eye contact with Hillary Clinton was something I’ll never forget in my life. Here she was, singing a song about a woman breaking the glass ceiling to a woman who has done just that. It was pretty incredible. But of all the shows we’ve done, the shows we did in Gander for the community were career pinnacles. The locals wept, cried, laughed and gave us every indication that we had their blessing. That made everybody’s hearts beat a little easier. We were like Coldplay or U2 for those shows; I never felt more like a rock star in my entire life.

Speaking of, I also understand you had a special show down in Washington D.C for first responders?

Joel: We performed for folks who had lost people during the tragic events of 9/11, or who worked in the various memorials and museums associated with the remembrances of 9/11. It was pretty incredible experience to be telling a story about events that are still so fresh for all of us. This isn’t something about events before our lifetime; we were looking at people in the audience who experienced such deep, emotional losses or had connections to the events that day. It sort of felt like we received permission from them and we had people thanking us for telling this particular story of the goodness of that day. They spent so much time in their life thinking about the horrible things that happened, so to have some of that eased by hearing about some of the positive things was a great comfort to a lot of them. It was really something they were able to walk away feeling good about.

This is also a show about diversity that celebrates people’s differences and coming together, so it must be rewarding as actors to not only tell this story but to touch on so many different people.

Geno: I think that’s why the show has been going for 1,000 plus performances and five companies. Speaking for Joel and Petrina, there are a total of nine of us who are still original cast members; not only from Broadway but the original world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2015. We lasted this long because the show is wonderful, the people are wonderful, but it’s also that feeling of going out eight times a week and spread this message and tell this story of hope. In the world we live in right now, all we hear about are the bad things; they’re hammered at us every day. It’s a testament to the human spirit that we are hungry for stories about goodness, hope and kindness. We are providing that for people. We also walk away every show knowing we’re doing something good for the world that fills us up as well.