A new musical set on Sept. 11 — yes, that Sept. 11 — may not seem like a laugh riot, but as Jenn Colella knows, laughter can crop up in unexpected places.
She was a stand-up comedian before switching gears and establishing herself among a new generation of Broadway belters. And now she’s starring in “Come From Away,” a new musical from the Canadian songwriting team of Irene Sankoff and David Hein, which opens at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on March 12.
The title is a local Newfoundland phrase describing outsiders — and it was used a lot on 9/11, when scores of international flights were forced to land once American airspace shut down. The musical recounts what happened in one town — Gander, pop. 9,000, plus suddenly 7,000 tourists on its doorstep for several days with only carry-ons (luggage was off limits for security reasons). The locals provided food, clothing, shelter and, in this version, rip-roaring songs. The story is based on interviews with real people, with Colella playing both a local woman and Capt. Beverley Bass — American Airlines’ first female pilot — who wound up in Gander.
A South Carolina native, Colella, 42, has starred on Broadway in “High Fidelity,” “Urban Cowboy” and “If/Then.”
I bet you hear a lot of 9/11 stories at the stage door.
Yes, which is . . . quite lovely. That’s the whole reason for this — to make people feel something and open up.
OK, well, here’s mine. In the opening number you sing “I’m an islander” — meaning Newfoundland. I thought, “Hey, I’m an islander, too.” I grew up on Long Island, and live on Manhattan Island. But I never felt that “islander-ness” so acutely until 9/11, when they shut down the bridges and tunnels and I thought . . .
You’re trapped . . . on this island.
Yeah. The opening number took me back to that.
It’s interesting — we did a concert version in Gander in their hockey rink.
You performed in a hockey rink?
Yes. [She laughs.] Huge hockey rink. Jam-packed. And when we sang that lyric, they jumped to their feet and roared. It changed how we sing it. There was this deep . . . sense of pride we felt from them. I’ll never forget their faces and the sound of them yelling.
Playing a real person must be daunting.
The moment I met Capt. Beverley Bass was after a preview in La Jolla [California]. I walked into a restaurant near the theater — she saw me, came over and said, “Excuse me, but I think you’re playing me.” I looked at her and said, “I think you’re right.” We just knew. We had this instant . . . connection. I can’t explain it.
Have you ever flown a plane?
No, but she wants to get me into a flight simulator. That would be great. I’m so much more attuned to flight crews when I travel now, and how hard they work. I look the pilot in the eye on the way out the door and thank him or her. This isn’t the first time I’ve played a pilot. I played Amelia Earhart in the musical “Take Flight,” and I’ve played Peter Pan, too. So . . . it’s funny — there’s something about me being in the air. [She extends her arms, like she’s floating.] It’s like I’m meant to be up there or something. I have a photo in my dressing room of Amelia Earhart climbing out of a Lockheed. I keep it up for inspiration.
OK . . . so, what the heck are “honey buckets”?
Ohhh, yeah. I say that in the show. Whenever a plane lands, they empty out the passengers, cargo and the honey buckets — which is a lovely euphemism for the toilets.
Ohhh. And an ugly stick? You play that weird-looking thing with the band onstage.
I’m not a percussionist but I have to learn to rock that thing. It’s a traditional instrument from Newfoundland, dating back for who knows how long. It’s basically a broomstick with cans and bells attached. And you bang it on the floor and hit it with a stick. I’d just gotten used to what I have to play, and now they’re rewriting music, giving me new rhythms to learn. It’s hard. I have to take it home to practice. [She chuckles.] I’m sure my neighbors are thrilled.
Well, the audience approves. You can feel a buzz in the house before the show starts.
I was prepared for a cooler reception in New York. I thought this subject matter might hit too close to home. But they love it. I think people associate that day with such tragedy and yet here’s a story that makes you laugh and cry and appreciate the human capacity to care for one another. And . . . really . . . that’s what it’s all about.