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Interview: COME FROM AWAY Cast Member Julie Johnson

The hit Broadway musical stirs up strong memories for Johnson.

Interview: COME FROM AWAY Cast Member Julie Johnson

Like most of the characters in the musical COME FROM AWAY, actress Julie Johnson has distinct memories of where she was on Sept. 11, 2001.

Hours after the terrorist attacks on the United States, Johnson had the surreal experience of keeping the emotions of the day under wraps as she performed the voice of Baby Bop during a taping of BARNEY AND FRIENDS.

"I remember asking the studio, 'Are we going to film today?'" said Johnson, the voice actor of Barney's friend Baby Bop for over 20 years. "They said the kids were already there. We're not mentioning (the attacks) because we want to let the parents decide how much information they were going to give their children."

Johnson channels the sensations of that day and the weeks that followed whenever she performs COME FROM AWAY. The musical revisits the true story of the people of Gander, Newfoundland, who housed nearly 7,000 passengers after their planes were detoured to Canada immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks. The musical, which won a Tony Award for the best direction and four Drama Desk awards in 2017, runs Feb. 8-13 at Ohio Theatre (39 E. State Street in downtown Columbus).

Johnson, who plays Beulah and a host of other characters in COME FROM AWAY, said the musical is not so much about Sept. 11, but about the healing and the compassion afterward.

"It's a story of things that happened as a result of 9/11, but it's really the story of 9/12," Johnson said. "People came together in these small towns up in Gander NL when they had to find a place to land all the planes that were coming from Europe back to the United States (after) the U.S. airspace had to be shut down immediately following that horrific event.

"Without even the inkling of thinking of 'Can we get this done?' they put up almost 7,000 people and landed 38 planes. They literally took care of as many people as were in the town themselves, and provided everything for them from food, clothing, pharmaceuticals. They took them into their homes, entertained them, and had cookouts. They just did everything in the world for those people for five days to help them feel like something in the world was still right and still normal."

COME FROM AWAY is an actor's challenge. To tell the story of what happened in Newfoundland, the cast members take on the voices and actions of at least three to five characters a night. Johnson's main character is Beulah Davidson is an amalgam of two actual people, Beulah Cooper and Diane Davis, who helped care for the passengers.

Before opening the tour in Seattle, each cast member encountered their real-life counterpart and at the end of the opening night, those involved with the Canadian detour were called to the stage and stood beside the actors who played them.

"At first the audience was wondering who the heck are these people? And then when they stood by the person who played them, it dawned on them who they were, the screams grew louder and the applause got bigger," Johnson said. "Those people were so honored and they are some of the nicest people in the world. I leaned down to Beulah and thanked her for all that she did. She said, 'It was nothing. We just made a few trays of sandwiches.' I said, 'I believe that was 5,000 sandwiches you made' and she started laughing.

Although she was not in Canada after the attack, Johnson experienced the post 9/11 benevolence after moving to New York City to be in an Off-Broadway production of ROADSIDE days after the attacks.

"The whole city was paralyzed in so many ways," said Johnson who was nominated for Helen Hayes Awards Outstanding Supporting Performer, Non-Resident Production for her role in MEMPHIS in 2013 and for a Drama Desk's outstanding actress for her role in DAS BARBECU in 1995. "It was another world. There were little glimpses of the good that came out of it. I remember vividly riding down the escalator at the Port Authority after I got off my bus to go to rehearsal. There were people, complete strangers, asking each other, 'Are you okay?' There was this kindness of people reaching and asking each other if they could help them.

"Come to think of it, that's kind of the message from COME FROM AWAY, isn't it? What these Newfoundlanders did for people who were, as we say in Texas, rank strangers is just marvelous. Everybody decided to take control back little by little by just being kind and taking care of each other."

Come From Away will have eight performances at the historic Ohio Theatre (39 E. State Street in downtown Columbus). The musical will have 7:30 p.m. performances on Feb. 8-10 and 8 p.m. shows on Feb. 11-12. Additionally, it will offer three matinee performances: 2 p.m. Feb 12, 1 p.m. on Feb. 13, and 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 13.

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