Come From Away, the new musical with seven Tony nominations (now playing at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre), follows the passengers and crew of 38 planes diverted from American airspace to Gander, Newfoundland in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Like the rest of the 12-member ensemble cast, Jenn Colella plays multiple characters over the course of the show’s 100 minutes. But it’s her stirring turn as pilot Beverley Bass, who was captaining a Boeing 777 from Paris to Dallas before being diverted to Gander, that’s made her a favorite to win Best Featured Actress in a Musical at the Tony Awards June 11.
“She’s a pioneer for women in a male-driven industry,” Colella, 42, says of Bass, who was the third woman hired as a pilot at American Airlines and the first to make captain. “She’s an incredible part of our feminist history, and I’m thrilled I get to tell her story every night.”
Bass’s remarkable life is conveyed in “Me and the Sky,” Collella’s rousing anthem that is Come From Away’s centerpiece. Composers Irene Sankoff and David Hein based the song’s lyrics on interviews they’d conducted with Bass on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. So Colella knew spending time with her character’s real-life counterpart ahead of Come From Away’s 2015 out-of-town run would be the best way to prepare for the role.
The pair hit it off instantly. “We’re genuine buddies,” the South Carolina native said, noting that Bass has seen the musical over 60 times. “She’s been such a champion of the show and so supportive of me. She’s like a long-lost kindred spirit.” As for “Me and the Sky,” “That song teaches me every night,” Colella says. “I can’t check out, I can’t all of a sudden think about my dry cleaning. It requires focus unlike anything else I’ve experienced.”
Prior to Come From Away, Colella’s best-known Broadway stint was in 2014’s If/Then, a star vehicle for Idina Menzel. She also had roles in 2006’s High Fidelity and 2012’s Chaplin, both of which struggled to find an audience. Netting her first Tony nomination some 14 years after her Broadway debut in 2003’s Urban Cowboy has been “awesome,” Colella says, but she adds that her earlier struggles are keeping her in check.
“It’s very important, but it doesn’t change a thing. Being recognized by my peers feels really, really good and validating,” she says. “At the same time, I’ve been a part of shows that didn’t get recognized. It doesn’t mean my work meant any less. I’ve been thinking a lot about my friends who are in shows that didn’t get nominated, and I’m trying to put as much love and respect around them, too.”
The success of Come From Away has earned Colella a sizable following among LGBTQ fans, too (she has described herself as “mostly gay” to The New York Times). As she began establishing herself as an actress, Colella says she struggled with her sexuality, partly because she let people convince her not to come out. “I finally put that aside and learned to trust my own heart, and it was the best decision I’ve ever made,” she said. “The only challenges that I faced were the ones I put on myself.”
With Come From Away marking a step up for her as a Broadway performer, Colella said she “couldn’t be happier” with settling into a lengthy run with the show. As such, she hasn’t given too much thought as to what her next step will be — “The present moment is most important at me,” she explained — but there is one role she’s eager to tackle. “I’d love to be a female Bobby in Company,” she said. “I think it would kick my ass.”