Emotions were running high on the Broadway stage of “Come From Away” when the lights flickered back on for a few days earlier this year.
Reunited on short notice, cast members from the Gander, N.L.-set musical were together for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic tore them apart and put their show on hiatus.
Everything was different, however.
They weren’t back to reopen Broadway, but to collaborate on a filmed version of “Come From Away” for Apple TV Plus. The nearly two-hour show brings the beloved Canadian story into people’s homes across the world on Friday when it debuts on the streaming service on the eve of the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
During rehearsals, a mixture of sadness and tearful joy swept over the performers, recalled St. John’s-raised actress Petrina Bromley, an original cast member who returned to play Bonnie Harris and other characters.
“There were many moments that we had to stop and take a minute,” she said.
“There’s a number called, ‘Something’s Missing’ and every line of that song was heartbreaking all over again for new reasons.
“We’d all been through a year-and-a-half of feeling like the world that we once knew is no longer. We miss parts of it; we missed each other, and we missed the community.”
“Come From Away” was recorded over four days in early May under COVID-19 safety precautions. The cast and crew were split into two bubbles inside a New York hotel for the duration of the shoot.
In their downtime, the performers would gather on the rooftop deck to play games, socialize and heal from more than a year of lost time.
“It was like the ‘Come From Away’ summer camp,” laughed Bromley. “We absolutely revelled in each other’s presence.”
The final afternoon of shooting was completed in front of a live audience of 9/11 survivors and front-line workers at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in New York, recording their laughter and applause to replicate a true performance.
The musical tells the true story of a small Newfoundland community that rallied together when dozens of planes and thousands of passengers were unexpectedly grounded there after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The 12 actors each play multiple roles and glide from one persona into the next, an approach that hints at underlying ties between each character.
It’s a conceit that works seamlessly on theatre stages but will be less familiar to television audiences accustomed to actors portraying only one character.
“Come from Away” co-creators David Hein and Irene Sankoff hope that unconventional aspect will appeal to home viewers who’ve already seen other hit Broadway shows at home, such as “Hamilton” on Disney Plus.
“This is a way for people to actually experience theatre and make it more accessible,” Hein said.
“You’ll see something so completely different from the film and TV you’re usually seeing. Hopefully, it feels brand new, fresh and exciting.”
The show’s director Christopher Ashley was in charge of keeping that excitement faithful to the experience loyal “Come From Away” fans grew to love at live theatres across the world.
The director, who won a 2017 Tony Award for his part in the original show, was asked to come back and replicate the show’s success for the small screen.
Ashley had some experience filming stagy elements working with Netflix on a TV version of “Diana: The Musical,” a Broadway show that was sidelined before its opening night last year.
“We could put the camera in all kinds of places that an audience will never get to see,” he said.
“The camera can come right in with the action and give you close-ups and nuances of the actor’s work in a way that (a person) in the 20th row will never experience.”
Aside from a few excised expletives, most of the recorded “Come From Away” sticks to the script while Ashley inserts flourishes to pull in closer to the action. There are a few over-the-shoulder shots of one character speaking to another and views from the wings of the theatre.
Tony LePage, who spent three years as an understudy on the Broadway show before he was cast as Garth and Kevin Tuerff in the streaming version, said this particular version captured a special moment for the united band of performers as they returned to the stage.
“It was just so euphoric to be able to do the thing that you do after having it taken away so abruptly,” he said.
“The film was able to capture this really unique experience.”
“Come From Away” resumes performances at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on Sept. 21 and will return to the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto on Dec. 7.
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