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‘We all come from away’: How the Broadway company reunited to film the musical for Apple TV+

September 10, 2021 by Suzy Evans
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Come From Away was the first Broadway musical to play to a live audience after theatres shut down due to Covid-19 in March 2020. No, it was not the first show to open, but somewhere in the middle of 45th Street, the cast and creative team were able to put together a live performance on their final day of filming for the Come From Away film. 

How did they get here in the midst of a worldwide theatrical closure and a pandemic? Not unlike the citizens of Gander, Newfoundland welcomed over 7,000 people in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001 and turned their small town into a safe haven for these stranded passengers — with a little bit of ingenuity, planning, and a lot of heart. 

We chatted with the company of Come From Away about how they welcomed everyone back to the rock and planned, rehearsed, and filmed Come From Away, which premieres on Apple TV+ on September 10, the day before the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Associate choreographer Richard J. Hinds walked us through the timeline and the details of the production, while the cast and creative team shared anecdotes and memories from this unimaginable time filming a show about another unimaginable time. 

“We looked like we were superheroes.”

Diana The Musical had just been filmed for Netflix, and Come From Away director and choreographer Christopher Ashley and Kelly Devine also worked on that production. Very quickly, the company realized they could replicate the Diana filming model for Come From Away. 

Richard J. Hinds (Associate Choreographer): At the beginning of 2021, we were kicking into full gear and getting everything ready. And as you can imagine, coming out of Covid, it was figuring out logistically how to do it. Where can we rehearse? Are there rehearsal spaces even open? How do we quarantine? We followed the [Diana] model, and then we all checked into the Ink 48 Hotel. It was like summer camp.

Each floor was separated by your personal bubble. So the cast was maintained on one floor, and the band was on a floor. The crew was on a different floor, because they were in the “front-of-house bubble” in terms of the camera crew. We had certain elevators that we could take. And we were in an interesting position as creatives, because we were the only people that could sort of go to both bubbles. So when we were filming, we had to stay in the house. And then when we wanted to go on stage to give any notes, we had to put on these amazing masks, and shields and glasses. We looked like we were superheroes.

Joel Hatch (Mayor Claude and Others): The anticipation of seeing each other was heightened by the fact that our Covid protocols demanded quarantine time before we could be in a room together. We all were in the same hotel, many of us, sharing walls but not seeing each other for a couple days. By the time we actually were in the same room, we experienced different waves of emotion as we hugged, shared memories, and then when we started to sing together a whole new set of emotions would hit us. A combination of sharing years of memories and this story that we all loved was powerful to rediscover.

Astrid Van Wieren (Beulah and others): I had to overcome the challenge of trepidation and travelling. But, I think there were so many more joys and laughs than challenges. Certainly once we were all able to begin rehearsals together. 

​​Sharon Wheatley (Diane and others): My hotel room had a view of my apartment building! So I could literally see my home from the film bubble. Sometimes when my family would walk the dogs, they’d walk past the hotel and wave to me (obviously I could not go down and see them). So while others were far from home, I was almost too close! I think, as much fun as it is to watch the movie, nothing can top how much fun we had making it. It was the greatest sleep away camp EVER. We played corn hole in the hotel hallways. Seriously. It was stupid amounts of fun.

“It felt like a family reunion”

After cast members who had travelled back to the city quarantined and everyone arrived at Ink 48, the team began rehearsals in the hotel, which was an emotional experience.

Richard J. Hinds (Associate Choreographer): We had two ballrooms at the hotel that we rehearsed in, and it was amazing. There were moments where the cast was like, “Oh my God, I totally remember this.” And there were moments they were like, “Wait, did I do that?” You’re like, “Yeah, you totally have been doing that for five years.” But it was interesting what sort of stuck and was just in their bodies, and then other things that we had to sort of break down and go over, and remind everyone. But it was gorgeous.

Nate Lueck (Acoustic Guitar/Mandolin/Bouzouki): It felt like a family reunion! I had not been able to see people that I’d spent almost every day with for the past four years was really hard, so to finally see them again was both a relief and a joy. It was a little tough not to be able to just embrace everyone, but I’ll take it!

Richard J. Hinds (Associate Choreographer): This group of actors had never done the show together as a group. So there was this really incredible, fresh energy of finding it together. And I was really pleased with our whole creative team that, it wasn’t like rinse and repeat. It really was like, we are this own living, breathing organism of Come From Away and we’re going to find this together. And of course, some actors had been away from the show longer than others. So, some people needed a little bit more time to sort of check in and remember certain things here or there, but the way the show is structured, it’s such a supportive piece of theater that everyone is there to help, that I feel like even some of those actors that hadn’t been with the show for a while felt very protected, and everyone was there to sort of lift them up and hold them in those moments that they were like, “What did I do here? What’s happening?”

Sharon Wheatley (Diane and others): I knew the filming was much more than just going back to work; it was going to be the one documented production of this show. So we not only had to be back on our game, but we had to be back and immediately at the top of our game. So, I started training like I would if I was running a marathon. I started doing the show in my apartment (to crowds of zero). I sang every day. I stretched and did physical therapy exercises, and I tried to go out in the world more. I was worried that I’d spent so much time in my apartment that I would struggle with social anxiety, so I made sure to surround myself with stimulus, even if it was simply walking through a Target or talking to strangers in an elevator. I felt very out of practice in all ways ​​— both social and in my performing. It was an intense prep time, for sure.

Astrid Van Wieren (Beulah and others): I think the strongest moment of connection as a cast happened when we all sang one of the last songs in our show. “Something’s Missing”. The title alone, right? The resonance for us in this time of separation and isolation was palpable in the rehearsal room. We were all moved by it and by being together again. Singing together. Art reveals and heals.

Sharon Wheatley (Diane and others): Ok so this is a weird response, but go with me. My nephew, when he was about 3, wanted these light up gym shoes. When he finally got them, he was so excited and so overwhelmed by how cool they were, that he immediately started worrying about the batteries wearing out and them not working anymore, so he asked my sister to take the batteries out. I have never understood being so excited about something and so dreading the end of it at the same time, but that’s how I felt. Like I was so dreading the end of it that even at the start I wanted to take the batteries out to make it last. 

Richard J. Hinds (Associate Choreographer): We had about two weeks in the ballroom that we were putting the show together. And then we moved into the theater to start the tech process. And again, it was like summer camp. We had a chaperone. We walked over in groups of about 20 at a time. And we weren’t allowed to stop in any restaurant, stores, shops. If you saw people we knew as you’re walking up the street, we had to just keep moving, which was so terrible, because you’d see someone that you hadn’t seen in a year and you’re like, “I want to hug you, but I can’t. I’ve got to go. I’ve got to go. I’ve got to go.”

“We didn’t want to leave.”

The cast moved from the hotel to the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre for technical rehearsals and filming. For the actual filming, they performed the full show through five times, one time with an audience on the last day, and then they did a series of close-ups and different angles for specific sections of the show. 

Richard J. Hinds (Associate Choreographer): What I loved about the show is that our creatives, Chris [Ashley] and Kelly [Devine] were like, “We want to present a Broadway musical. We’re not making a movie. We are telling the story exactly how we tell it across all five companies that we have running around the world.” And really the only changes that we made for the film was just small lighting adjustments that you had to make for cameras that works on stage, but didn’t necessarily work for film. But every piece of choreography, every lyric, every note, every transition is exactly the Broadway shows that we do every night, which I think is great. It really captured our show in its true, complete original form.

That first day of just seeing the actors back in their costumes and walking out on stage. That was a very emotional moment. The lights turning on and they’re standing there. They were all just like, “Don’t cry, don’t cry. Stay strong, stay strong.” 

Larry Lelli (Drums/Percussion): The challenges weren’t really understood, until we were in the theatre, and filming was underway.  We all had to find that unifying voice again, after being separated for so long.  It took a minute, but very quickly the connection and groove was re-established.

The strangest thing was being completely together in the theatre, but then having to go back to the hotel and quarantine in my room.  It was a very strange dichotomy.

Hinds: Everyone from the proscenium back has been doing the show for a very long time now. So we know how that operation works. Everyone from the proscenium front, most of them have never seen the show before, ever. So you’re watching these camera crews, and you’re hearing the TV, or I’m sorry, the movie assistant director that’s saying, “Okay, camera three pickup Beulah, camera seven pick up Nick.” And they’re like, “Wait, they changed costumes. Where are they? Da, da, da.” And seeing them basically discover our show for the first time was, and I was sort of on that side of it, was really fascinating. And obviously you just had to let them have their time and their process because it was a brand-new show.

Joel Hatch (Mayor Claude and Others): When you do theatre, you normally tell the story just once for each audience. The charm of storytelling is in the surprises a good story springs on its audience. When you film a piece of theatre you tell the same story in many ways from multiple angles for the same audience. We had an amazingly supportive group of 150 people who were a combination of first responders to 9/11 and  the current Covid healthcare responders as well as invited friends and supporters of the show. Under the Covid protocols they were spread out all over the house. They were so great, that they made us feel like we had a full house. The strange thing occurred after our first run through of  the show. Everyone took a dinner break and then came back with about ten cameras on stage with us shooting scenes from upstage and from the wings. It’s hard to act scenes out of context and having a live audience made us feel a bit exposed as actors. They saw our confusion about what scene we were doing and what our first lines were supposed to be and all the many little changes that come with trying not to bump into a camera while walking and talking.  They remained incredibly supportive though and proved the trick in keeping us all focused on the storytelling.

Hinds: We, because of the nature of the show, because it is direct address, we had always hoped it would, but as you can imagine, we were sort of at the mercy of Covid and restriction. And I would say it wasn’t until maybe a couple of weeks before that we actually got the green light and we knew that we could do this. So it sort of was one of the last pieces of the puzzle to fall into place. But we are beyond grateful that we were able to have that. Just the cast, especially, to be able to look out and see people, as you can imagine, is a completely different experience than not.

Hinds: When you were asking sort of what was the energy like on the first day? I would say it was much harder on the last day because we’d finished, we’re all standing on stage, and sort of circled up, and just sort of had the last check in with everyone. And then they were like, “Okay, everyone, you’re released for the day. Get out of costume, hair, and makeup, da, da, da, and nobody left the stage, and people kept talking. They were like, “Okay, no, but really, we have to get out of the theater.”

That was really hard because we had now been told September 21, but as you can imagine with the state of the world, we were like, who knows when we’re going to see each other again? And this was in April. September was so far away. And coming back to the world that we all love and know, we didn’t want to leave. But I would say that day was way more emotional saying goodbye to each other, and just keeping your fingers crossed that September would be when we would see each other again.

“The world could use more Newfoundland right now.”

Come From Away premieres on Apple TV+ on September 10 and reopens on Broadway on September 21. The show is also currently in performances in the West End. The message of the show continues to become more and more relevant, and as the world slowly emerges from the pandemic, the cast and company reflect on its relevance. 

Irene Sankoff and David Hein (Writers): We were living in New York in September 2001. David’s cousin was in the towers, but fortunately escaped. So as New Yorkers, we wanted Come From Away to be a 9/12 story — about how these towns responded to a tragedy. Because of that, over the past decade, we’ve seen that this story can again inform a response to the unfortunate daily tragedies that we see on the news. And today, in the middle of a pandemic, it feels like a story that, again, reminds us how we can come together as a community, overcome our differences and take care of one another. Telling this story has been such a gift for us over the past year, and we hope it can be for others as well. 

Tony LePage (Kevin T. and Others): It was a true honor and a privilege. To be entrusted with this role and be able to bring the message of this show to so many who need to feel uplifted at this incredibly trying time.

Astrid Van Wieren (Beulah and others): This story is so specific to a moment. And that very specificity makes the piece more grounded and universal. I think the message of kindness, inclusivity and love at the heart of it all will impact people’s lives. I hope viewers will check in on their neighbours, set aside differences and celebrate our shared humanity.  

Sharon Wheatley (Diane and others): I felt an enormous responsibility to the show, to the real Diane, and a responsibility to all the other phenomenal actresses who play Diane around the world. I love having the lighter storyline in the show (I call the Nick and Diane storyline the “rom-com” of Come From Away, and my job is to love and laugh. Even in the hardest of times (maybe even especially in the hardest of times) comes an opportunity to reinvent oneself, and my character represents that. As people emerge from the pandemic, there is space to take a hard look at your life and wonder, Am I happy? Is this what I want out of my life? Is there something I can do differently? Diane says, “I can be whoever I want to be.” And that theme is resonating around the world. Be whoever you want to be.

Joel Hatch (Mayor Claude and Others): I am constantly amazed by the power of storytelling. I guess that’s why some of our oldest existing structures are amphitheaters. I once was greeted by a distinguished gentleman, at the stage door, who told me that he was a rabbi, here in New York, and he came to our show once a month to reaffirm his belief  in the power of love. A story that reflects the truth about its listener’s lives has a powerful effect. Our story reflects both the good and the bad in human nature. It is mostly direct quotes from people who shared a powerful communal experience. It will ring true for generations to come.

Sankoff and Hein (Writers): When we first started writing Come From Away, we were hoping that Canadian high school students would be forced to do it, so having this story celebrated by so many is beyond our wildest dreams – but it’s also a testament to the extraordinary generosity and kindness of the people we interviewed ten years ago. The stories they told us have been a gift to remember, especially now, that we can still overcome our differences and that there’s still good in the world. They continue to inspire us and it’s wonderful to see them inspire so many others. It feels like the world could use more Newfoundland right now.

Get tickets to Come From Away on Broadway.

Get tickets to Come From Away in London.

Interviews conducted by Suzy Evans and Tina Wargo. Conversations have been edited for clarity and length.