BWW Interview: Julie Johnson of COME FROM AWAY at Orpheum Theatre

BWW Interview: Julie Johnson of COME FROM AWAY at Orpheum Theatre

I can't wait for the emotional rollercoaster COME FROM AWAY! This Canadian musical built on the true events of 9-11 when 38 airplanes were diverted to the tiny Newfoundland town of Gander will open at the Orpheum on Wednesday, March 27, and run through Sunday, March 31. Wednesday through Saturday evening performances are at 7:30 pm, Sunday evening at 6:30 pm. Matinees are also scheduled for Thursday (2:00 pm) and Sunday (1:00 pm).

I have not heard ONE negative word about this show! Everything points to emotions running wild and people leaving the theatre with wet eyes and big smiles. So, I spoke with Julie Johnson (Broadway: Candide; Off-Broadway: Das Barbecu-Drama Desk Nominee; 1st National Tour of Memphis the Musical), who plays Beulah Davis in the musical to get some background on the show. What is it that makes it such a powerful production?

COME FROM AWAY sounds like such an exciting musical, based on all of the reviews and social media posts. Can you describe the story for me?

I would love to, because it is a story that is one of the most heartwarming, wonderful human stories about a time in the United States when we were going through a horrible tragedy: 9-11. All of the American air space was closed very suddenly and for the first time ever. This little bucolic town of Gander, Newfoundland, which is at the top of the earth and known to Canadians, but perhaps not as well known to Americans and many of the Europeans who were on the flight, was one of the few airports that could take all of these airplanes that were in the air. A few planes landed in Toronto. A few landed in some other Canadian airports, but this small town, made up of even smaller towns, around 9,000 people-took in over 7,000 passengers. Gander happened to have an Air Force base from World War II era that was also used when the big transatlantic flights carrying people like the Beatles, the queen, you name it, would come from Europe to the US and they would have to refuel. The planes in the late 1950s, early 60s couldn't carry the fuel load that they needed.

This airport was sitting there with all these wonderful people who suddenly got messages from the FAA that our airspace was shutting down and they were sending 38 planes to this one airport. They landed these 38 planes in less than an hour without a single incident. They said it was like watching a flock of birds land. When one was landing, another was coming in. They had 14 men and women helping land the planes. They had no protocol for this. They were making it up as they went along.

The people sat on the planes, some of them as long as 28 hours, while the town of Gander prepared. Every school, every church, any kind of building, plus people's personal homes were made ready to take in all these passengers. They ended up staying there for five days. The people of Gander got them new clothing since they couldn't take their bags off the planes because they didn't know at that time if there had been bombs in the bags. They didn't know yet how it was done when the planes hit the Twin Towers. Safety precautions were intense at that point. So the people got off the planes and came into schools. The Gander Academy is one that we portray. They went to churches. The Legion Hall where the Legionnaires met took in people. They fed them, clothed them, and ended up entertaining them. They got as many cell phones as they could, because this was when not everyone had a cell phone. They got them phone service so they could call home and tell them "We're safe. We don't know where we are, but we're safe!"

The characters in COME FROM AWAY are real people who were involved in this. They use storytelling and beautiful Canadian music with an Irish influence (Newfoundland was settled by a lot of Irish settlers and fishermen)- it's music like you've probably never heard before on a theatrical stage. The stories are just the most loving and heartwarming. When a stranger arrived in their backyard, what did they do? They took everybody in. They fed them sandwiches and hot meals. Evidently, they make very good chili up in Newfoundland, so they had huge vats of chili. All these people got to know these passengers.

These are actual interviews with the passengers and with the Newfoundlanders. The authors, Irene Sankoff and David Hein, did an amazing job of taking over 1,500 interviews and turning them into this wonderful, wonderful show. It's just a theatrical experience I think people will find they have never had before. It's about real people with true stories. It restores all your faith in humanity and in what people will do for each other in times of crisis.

If I didn't want to see it before, I certainly do now!

Laughs. It's just fantastic. It's was nominated for several Tony Awards. Christopher Ashley won for Best Director. You will see 12 people play over 40 different people from the actual events. All we do is change a scarf, a sweater. We change an accent. We grab a chair. We use 14 chairs and 3 tables in an absolutely stunning set. It's not a set that comes and goes. It does not move. It's about the people and the music and the love.

Are any of the actual people from this event in the show?

They're not in the musical, but let me tell you, they are traveling everywhere. There's a Toronto company. There's a company in London on the West End. There's a company in Australia that's about to open. So many of these people who were the subjects of the musical have been flying to all the openings. They get to see themselves portrayed in different countries.

I just got to spend several days here in Calgary with what I call my spiritual doppelgänger, Beulah Cooper, who is one of the women that my character is based on. I'm a combination of two women, Beulah Cooper and Diane Davis, so they call me Beulah Davis in the show. These two women were two of the most incredible organizers you have ever seen in your life. One organized the Gander Academy to house about 700 people. Beulah organized the Legion which housed another 200-300 people. Also, she got people into homes, including her own. She took five people into her own home.

In the show is such a cute touch. People knew that showers were at a premium. Some of the Americans were in Walmart and someone would walk up to them and say, "Hi, I know you're a visitor. Would you like to come home with me and take a shower?" At first they were a little taken aback, but the people were literally offering them a good, hot shower and a meal and just some time to be inside a home instead of in a gymnasium. There were some wonderful fast friendships made. They've continued to have contact with each other and visit with each other.

It takes a leap of faith to invite strangers into your home, particularly with these circumstances where you don't know who was behind the terrorism.

Absolutely. That's what's so amazing about what they did. I told Beulah how much I thought of her and how much we all appreciated what they did and she said, "Oh, it's nothing. We just did what we always do. I never thought I'd get famous for a tray of sandwiches!" She was completely nonplussed. They don't think of themselves as doing anything extraordinary. They just think that's what you do when people need you. If it happened again tomorrow, God forbid, they would be right there.

You know, we're seeing a little of that right here in Nebraska with all the flooding. People are coming out and offering everything from transportation in their personal airplane to the use of their tractor to providing supplies. It's pretty amazing, so I can only imagine what it must have been like in Gander.

Absolutely! And you know what? The human spirit is everywhere.

I'm from Texas and there was flooding a couple, three years ago down on our coast. I was working in Oklahoma City doing a musical (A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline) at Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre, and I stopped at a gas station on Monday, my day off. I saw all these boats and all these handsome men in uniform. They were coming from Oklahoma and heading to the coast of Texas. I thanked them for it. It was Coast Guard. It was police officers. And anybody that had a boat. I'm certain that the surrounding states are doing the same thing with Nebraska.

Yeah, it's pretty fantastic. Have you been to Gander yourself?

I have not. The people who did the Broadway show went to Gander. They don't have a theatre, so they performed the show concert style in the hockey rink. They filled the hockey rink with two or three performances. They said they've never felt like such rock stars in all their lives. It's their story. But that's the thing. It's everybody's story. They did it at that time. But they have the faith that anybody would have done it in the same way. We don't know about the most thickly populated cities if someone knocked on their door saying, "hey, I need a shower, I'm stranded out here." The jury might be out on that one! But when it came to a whole community pulling together, as you just said you're seeing it in Nebraska right now, when our better selves are called upon, that's what we are supposed to do. We are supposed to care for our fellow man, woman, and child.

So, is COME FROM AWAY more of a concert style than something with actions?

Oh no, no. no. It is a fully staged musical. We use a turntable at several points. The band is live on stage with us and become part of scenes, such as in the Legion Hall when they had a huge barbecue with an evening of music to lift spirits. People were thinking they would be in Gander for maybe 24 to 48 hours, and by day three people were starting to get a little edgy. The town said "let's do some music and some cooking." People drove up with big, huge platters of food and supplies. The businesses opened their doors and the pharmacists asked what medicines the people needed, because all their bags were still on the planes.

They actually weren't going to let animals come off the planes. The woman in charge of the SPCA, she WAS the SPCA--just her and her home--she snuck onboard a couple of the planes and found the animals within the first 24 hours. She started calling officials and said she was taking the animals off the planes and was going to take care of them. They made a space for them in a warehouse at the airport. She took care of a couple hundred animals including some chimpanzees that were being flown to a zoo in the US.

You can't believe what all went on in that five days!

I'm so glad they turned this into something that everyone can see, so everyone can know this story.

It's recently been made into a documentary. Tom Brockaw did a documentary about it right after it happened. It was seen a few times on NBC during the Olympics. It didn't get the widespread release and coverage, so there's been a new documentary made by some Canadians through HBO Canada. Very soon it will be released in the US. It's called, "You Are Here."

I also heard the musical will be turned into a film version. Will that be different from the documentary?

It will be different. Christopher Ashley will be directing the film too. We don't much about it yet; I don't believe they've even gotten to the story board yet. It's not a filmed version of the musical. It's going to be an actual feature film with a lot more of the characters telling stories. I can only imagine that it will make the musical even more sought after.

In the live musical version of it, I can't tell you the number of people who have come up to me and said, "I don't know when I've ever laughed and cried at the same time for an hour and forty minutes." It's the most wonderful, emotional experience. You think that since it's about 9-11, it is just going to be so sad. Of course there's sadness. But the joy coming from these people being so helpful is what lifts you. At our end of the show blackout, the audiences are literally jumping to their feet. From bottoms down to up! They come out so elated and so fulfilled. Their hearts are full and their minds are full. We like to think they are going out looking for some place to volunteer because they want to spread the love and the joy they just saw.

It will probably spur people on to do even small things for someone. You might think, "Is it enough?" Whatever it is at that moment, it will be enough.

Omaha Performing Arts in conjunction with the COME FROM AWAY production team and Broadway Across America will generously donate a portion of ticket sales to the American Red Cross of Nebraska and Southwest Iowa. In addition, donation buckets will be passed at the end of most performances in the manner of Broadway Cares.

Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

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From This Author Christine Swerczek