By Kat Mokrynski
Picture: all rights reserved
Come From Away, an incredible Broadway show, is closing on Sunday, October 2nd, after playing over 1,600 performances at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. The show tells the true story of 7,000 airplane passengers who had to land in Gander, Newfoundland after the US airspace was closed on September 11th, 2001. But Come From Away isn’t the “9/11 story.” Instead, it’s focused on the days after the terroristic attack, focusing on the themes of community and love that emerged in Gander and other small towns between passengers and Newfoundlanders. The best way I’m able to describe it is that “You’re going to cry from both laughter and sadness, so bring tissues!”
For me, Come From Away has been my own kind of refuge, an escape from the world. I first saw it at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., nearly five years ago in 2016. Like many others, I was nervous going into the show – How can a musical about 9/11 be good and not absolutely offensive? But by the end of Come From Away, I had been moved to tears multiple times by the show’s powerful writing, music, and cast. A few months later, I was in New York City seeing the show’s last preview before its opening night on Broadway. Since then, I’ve seen the show several times, including once on the West End, written multiple articles on different platforms, and spread the word about the show on all forms of media. Whenever a friend is going to New York or London and ask for show recommendations, I instantly tell them to see Come From Away. It’s a beautiful show that deserves to be seen by the world.
Recently, I had the chance to speak with Q. Smith and Sharon Wheatley, two actors who have been with the show since the first performances at La Jolla Playhouse in California in 2015. We talked about the audition process for the show, audience reception, and even some stories that have never been shared before by both Q. and Sharon!
Kat: So how did you first get involved with Come From Away?
Sharon: We both auditioned! [Laughs]
Sharon: I was living in San Diego – I had moved there a few years earlier – And I got a Facebook message from Rachel Hoffman, who’s one of the casting directors at The Telsey Office (Bernie Telsey’s casting company), asking my availability and what I was doing in San Diego. I was writing at the time and I wasn’t really performing, and I said that. And she sent me the script of the show and I felt that moment of, “Oh, this is really good,” and I auditioned. Originally I auditioned for the role of Beulah and was called back to the role of Diane. When I was auditioning for Beulah, I knew I wouldn’t get it because I had to tell a joke, and I’m the worst joke-teller ever!
Q: I don’t think you are!
Sharon: Yeah, awful. Knock knock! Who’s there? I don’t know. I don’t know who?
Q and Kat: [Laughs]
Sharon: Like that! So I was like, “Well, this is cute, but I’ll never do it.” And then they called me back for Diane and I read the script, and I was like, “Oh, I see. She falls in love. Well, I got a shot . . . If they’re gonna cast somebody who’s not super skinny and blonde, I’ve got a crack at this one.” So that’s what happened for me.
Q: I was doing a show at the Arkansas Repertory Theater. I got a call from my agent, saying they’re looking to cast a role in Come From Away, but I wasn’t sure which role, kind of like Sharon, so I auditioned for Beulah and Bonnie, and then Hannah. So yeah, those two roles didn’t work out for me. I recorded myself and they kept giving me notes throughout the week for Hannah. They were like, “Actually, can you try it this way? Can you do it this way? Can you sing this way? Can you . . . ?” And then by the end of the week, I had booked it. I think I was one of the last people to book it because about three weeks later, I left to go do it. I didn’t even go back home. I had people ship stuff to me! A friend of ours was getting married, and I was supposed to stay there [Arkansas] for the wedding. But then I was like, “I gotta go.” I had always wanted to work at La Jolla – I had never had the opportunity to audition for them, and I knew they did good work. When I first got the audition, I was like, “What . . . A musical about 9/11?” We don’t call it that anymore, we don’t believe that. But when I got the information, I was like, “A musical about 9/11. I don’t want to do that.” So I actually said no first. I left my agent a message and was like, “No, I don’t think I’m really interested.” And then he calls back and we start talking. I was like, “Well who’s doing it?” “It’s at La Jolla Playhouse.” I said, “Yes.” I’ve been trying to get into La Jolla forever. I’m so glad I say yes. And so t that’s the story.
Kat: I feel like that’s a very common thing with people going, “Oh, it’s a musical about 9/11! No, I’ll pass.”
Sharon: I was lucky. I got to read this script, so I had a pretty clear idea of what they were doing with this story. But Q, I didn’t know that you came straight from Arkansas! I had no idea!
Q: Sure did! And I didn’t read the script until the first day of rehearsal.
Sharon: No way! I love that I’ve been sitting next to you for five years and didn’t know this. [Laughs]
Q: I had all the sides for Bonnie and Beulah so I had an idea (of the story), and I was like, “This is interesting,” so I booked it. And then I read the script on the first day of rehearsal, and I was like, “Oh, my God.”
Kat: So you two have been with the show since the very beginning. What’s it been like watching it change over the different productions and ultimately reaching Broadway?
Sharon: It’s been thrilling.
Sharon: Really fun. It’s been interesting to watch, just creatively. With this show, the way they (Irene Sankoff and David Hein) shaped it was that they made surgical cuts. The core is still the same show that we did in La Jolla, with the exception of a few big things, which most of them I would say happened in your storyline, Q. It looks very much the way it did when we were in La Jolla. If you were in it, then you know, what all the changes were, but to the outside eye, I think they would see minimal (change), but it’s been really neat to watch them craft this show together.
Q: Yeah, that’s been neat. I’ve never been a part of an original production from beginning to end, so the process has been really interesting. We’ve all learned a great deal, the writers included. It’s just interesting because what you think works sometimes just doesn’t, and you’re like, “Oh, but I thought . . . Why did we cut? That was so good!” And not even your stuff! It could be something else! But then, after a while, you see the little surgical cuts, as Sharon said, and you go, “Oh, I see why they did that.” But it took a while. One of our cast members, she recorded everything from our first days of rehearsal, and some of that music and some of those lines . . . I just can’t believe we used to sing those songs!
Sharon: I know, right?
Q: Yeah. They did a wonderful job. It has been thrilling and exciting. It was scary, too! It was like, “Is this going to work? Is this gonna fly?” It’s been an interesting journey.
Sharon: There’s also been a serious lack of ego in the whole process, starting with the producers, Chris Ashley, the whole creative team, the writers . . . Everybody. Just the way that everybody was able to work together. It mimics what happened in Gander in the sense that everybody came together. I feel like everybody’s goal was to honor what really happened there, to stay very focused on the telling of that story and keep it very tense for those 100 minutes. And just to piggyback on what you said, it did feel like anytime you did anything in rehearsal that like felt super good, you were like, “This is my moment,” it would get cut.
Sharon: Once I was singing in “Costume Party” and I was holding a B-flat, my favorite note, and I was like, “Yes!” And I came in the next day and they were like, “We’re gonna cut that.” But that was just the beginning of that! I remember in “Stop the World,” Chris Ashley was like, “Can you sing less?”
Sharon: And I was like “. . . it’s . . . a song?” That was constant! They were like, “Can you pull it back? Can you make sure you’re focused on just telling the story?” That was a constant theme throughout the whole thing, for all of us. Tell the story. Get your ego out of it. Use your talent to tell the story, which I think was really cool.
Kat: Was it something that was difficult to adjust to?
Sharon: Yeah, but we were all doing it. The biggest thing I remember is that I would listen to Chris Ashley give notes, and I would agree with what he was saying to other people, so I knew that when it came to me, I had to listen to him about me, even though he would say it to me and I was like, “Nuh-uh!”
Sharon: I was like, “He knows what he’s talking about with 11 other people, Sharon, so take the note.”
Q: It was hard for all of us because we’re performers right? We’re entertainers. We come from doing these big shows and jazz hands, you know, Broadway. So to do a show that is so intimate . . . You feel like talking to the person in front of you rather than talking to an entire audience. It was difficult because when he would tell you to bring it back or not to work so hard, you’re like “Am I overacting? Am I not good?!” You’d constantly second-guess yourself. But, literally, that note was given to all of us over the course of several years, and I finally went, “Oh, okay, I finally think I got it.”
Sharon: I think about it now and I’m like, “Wow, what’ll happen when we do a show and we have to really hit it?
Kat: Yeah, I was about to bring that up, switching between the intimacy to the performing.
Sharon: I remember Chris saying to me, “Can you sing that a little Les Mis?”
Sharon: Which I was in a million years ago, but I was like, “What are you talking about?” And then obviously, I didn’t get it right, because my solo line in the opening number was reassigned! And then I watched something else of mine get reassigned in “Blankets and Bedding” and I was like, “Sharon, you better figure this out fast, because your stuff’s just gonna keep getting reassigned to somebody else!”
Q: And I’m so curious about what other productions will do, you know? Not immediate productions like the tour or Australia or anything like that, because they have the creative team there. People that decide, “Oh, I’m going to be really good at directing Come From Away, I’m going to do it.” I’m just curious how the other productions will land and I wonder if they’ll be performances . . .
Sharon: Don’t you think that they’ll cry through the whole thing? That’s something we’re totally not allowed to do. Chris is always like “Nothing, no wet eyes.”
Kat: Do not cry
Kat: What is it been like performing as a character that was adapted from a real person that you can actually talk with? Has it been difficult? Or has that made it easier to fall into the role?
Sharon: Do you want to go first, Q? You just saw Hannah.
Q: Yeah! You know, the thing is, I did not meet Hannah beforehand. I didn’t have any information about her until rehearsals began. And even then, Chris was very clear about not trying to be the other person, just to tell your own story. So that was helpful. I mean, Hannah and I are very, very different. She is an Irish woman in her 90s. We’re very different. But I think we carry the same essence for life, for people, and for love. Even if I tried, it would be impossible to be her. I’ve never portrayed someone who was still living, so it was daunting, knowing that I’m on stage and this person is actually in the audience watching me tell her story. Your heart is fluttering and you put pressure on yourself. And so in that in that way, it was tricky and scary, but thank goodness for Chris making sure that we just told the stories purely as we could without putting on a character or trying to become someone else. But yeah, I do know Hannah. We all know Hannah, her and her family. They’re wonderful. We’re family actually.
Sharon: Nick and Diane, they sort of feel like my aunt and uncle. It’s interesting, before we did the movie and then again before we came back for Broadway, I wanted to make sure that I had my dialect going. So I called, Nick answered, as always, and I was like, “Put Diane on the phone!” And she got on the phone and she was like [imitating Diane’s voice], “Hello?” And I was like, “Oh, good. I’m back. I got it.” I think there’s an important word that Q said, essence. It’s interesting, right? As you pull back on the whole landscape of what’s happening on Broadway right now, I do feel like, in a lot of ways Come From Away can be an example of how to cast the essence. And what does that mean? I think when you’re looking at a part, so often people get caught up in the “skin suit” that everybody’s in. And something that’s really beautiful about Come From Away is the casting. In a lot of ways, I credit David and Irene with this, because they really were like, “I want to capture the essence of these people.” So I think it was Irene in my case who looked at my tape, which was for a different character and said, “That person is Diane.” And it’s really true! I met Diane and immediately was like, “Oh, I get it. You’re an introvert who can be outgoing, depending on who you’re around.” And you get a couple of beers in her and she’s kind of a different person. Like, I understood that, but I also understood the idea that Diane was solely focused on her son until she found out that her son was okay. Then she allows herself to have this metamorphosis while she’s in Gander. I do feel like Diane could have looked like anybody, sounded like anybody, whatever. But you have to understand the basic core of what was going on inside that human being in the same way that I think that Q and Hannah are faith-based, family-based, and carry burdens in a way that feels relevant to each other.
Kat: Do you feel that your portrayals of the characters have changed over the years? Or have you tended to remain true to the essence?
Q: For me? I think so. When I started the show, I was not married and I did not have a child. Now I have a son and I’m married. I have definitely experienced loss before. But the pandemic and life . . . We’ve experienced so much life over these past few years. How could you not change? So when I changed a bit, it came with me to work, and I think it really deepened my storytelling. And so it is a bit different but not on purpose – It just came with me, and I appreciate it. I’m grateful for the life that I’ve had for the last few years because it’s really rounded me out as a person and an artist.
Sharon: I would say yes, for me. It’s funny, my older child who’s 24 was seventeen when we were in La Jolla. I have a child who was seven and a child who was seventeen when the show started. My now 24-year-old just saw the show on 9/11. We were walking home and she was like, “Mom, you’re so much more playful now than you ever were.” And I thought about that, and I think it’s a few things. I think there’s the release of having comfort of “I know this character inside out. I know what her response would be in any given situation, whether it’s happening on stage or not.” And that’s just the beauty of playing a role for so long. But also midstream, I had a change of who was playing Nick! I went from Lee MacDougall to Jim Walton. Lee MacDougall and Jim Walton . . . Put those two people next to each other and they are two totally different people. Lee was much more buttoned-up – Lee carried a briefcase to rehearsal like that’s Lee.
Sharon: And he’s funny, but was not somebody who had particularly played someone who was in love before. And that’s something that I do all the time. I remember very early on, he was like, “Honey, how’s this gonna go?” And I was like, “Just sit there and I’ll handle it.” The first kiss was very much me jumping on Lee and being like, “I got it!” And so he was like, “Oh, all right!” That definitely fed into what all of the Nick and Diane’s around the world are doing – The dynamic between me and Lee, which was very similar to Nick and Diane. Then Jim Walton showed up. And I’ll never forget the first time I did the show with Jim Walton. We were doing this part of the show where we go for a walk, and he turned around and flirted with me, and I was like, “Oh, you got game!” And it totally changed how I played Diane. My Diane became much looser, more playful, and much flirtier because Jim was very different. His Nick was very different. I just recently did it with Chamblee Ferguson who came in from the tour to cover for a couple of weeks. I did Diane with him and again, the same thing happened. If you are playing opposite somebody who’s giving you something different, you hit the ball back in a different way. So it was fun. It’s very fun.
Kat: Q, did you find it different if you’ve had different Beulahs? Because that’s usually the person I feel is closest to Hannah in the show.
Q: Yeah, I respond differently to whoever’s playing it. But Astrid is on pretty much all the time, so the amount of times I’ve played the opposite of someone who is not Astrid is rare. It does happen, but it’s rare. I do respond differently, but they’re all wonderful.
Kat: So what is it like being a part of a show where you almost constantly have to be on stage?
Sharon: Don’t drink too much and don’t get in the way of me running to the bathroom! [Laughs]
Q: It’s that improv game, the trust fall, where there are two rows of people and their arms are in towards the center, and then someone just falls – They have to trust the people that are going to catch them. It’s kind of like that every single night. The chair moves, the costume pieces, the lines, the dialects, we have to have each other’s back at all times. A couple of weeks ago, somebody had to bow out in the middle of the show, so we were waiting for the other person to enter. And as we were waiting, there was a scene happening, and people would just say the lines. We trusted one another, nobody freaked out, we were like, “Okay, somebody’s got to do it. You got it? All right, you got that.” It’s kind of like that every night with the show. It is the hardest show I’ve ever done in my career. It’s the hardest show artistically, almost vocally! It seems like an easy sing, but it’s really not. It is a challenge is very challenging. I know we make it look really simple, but it really is complex and challenging. In this situation, we all have to work as one moving piece at all times, even when we’re just listening to each other perform. We have to give that energy to one another.
Sharon: Q’s answer is way classier than mine, so strike mine from the record!
Q: [Laughs] Don’t! That’s real talk, man.
Kat: What is your favorite memory of your years of working with Come From Away?
Sharon: Mine would be the very first preview in La Jolla. I felt like I wasn’t ready to share the story with other people. We were having such a good time in rehearsal, and loving each other so much that I felt a little nervous. Anytime that you put something out there, people sort of get to vote on it. Is it good? Or is it not good? And I was not ready for people to think this story is too sappy, or whatever people think because it’s just so beautiful. And that very first preview at La Jolla, when we took the curtain call, I don’t think any of us were prepared for it. They put it in the small theater at the Playhouse. There’s a bigger theater, but that isn’t where we were. So it was like 300 people. And even there, that first night, there was this roar, and people immediately jumped to their feet. And for me, that was a moment when I was like, “This is going to be the thing, at least for me in my life. This is going to be something for me moving forward. Hopefully.” That was a very defining moment. I’m sure Q has others, but that was the very first one for me.
Q: Yeah, I would definitely agree with that. I will never forget that night. You don’t know how the audience will respond and how they’ll take it. You think you’re gonna know but you really don’t know, and it’s nerve-racking.
Sharon: It was shocking.
Q: It was shocking! But another memorable moment for me was the night I thought I was going to be fired in Toronto. They were like, “Q. Smith to the office, please.” You’ve heard this story, yeah?
Q: I don’t think I’ve ever told anybody in the show the story, but here you go! You can print it.
Q: So, “Q. Smith to the office.” Now mind you, they’ve had trouble costuming me throughout the runs of the show, like “How we want her to look?” I looked too young, and then I looked crazy, and then the costume doesn’t fit right . . . I went through 100,000 costume changes and wigs. And I’m like, “They can easily find somebody who is older than me to play this track.” I was beating myself up for years with that. Toronto, Washington, D.C., La Jolla . . . I was like, “They’re going to recast me any minute.” So get to Toronto, we’re halfway through the run, we’re going to Gander after, and then to Broadway. “Q. Smith to the office, please.” Oh, god, okay. And I was like, “This is it. It was really nice meeting y’all!” And I go to the office and I’m shitting bricks. And I really shit bricks because I walk into the office and our producers were there, Chris was there, David and Irene . . . everybody was there. And they’re like, “Can you sit down?” I said, “Oh my god.” And then David comes over and he’s like, “Q., we visited with Hannah this past week . . .” And he’s holding my hand, he’s bending over to talk to me. I thought for sure he was gonna say, “We visited Hannah. We understand this has been difficult, we’re gonna recast.” That’s what I was thinking! But he’s like, “We thought that Hannah needed a song, so we wrote a song. We want you to hear it because we want it on the soundtrack. I literally thought I was underwater. I could have thrown up! I said, “Huh?” And they start singing the song and all I could do was bawl from a release and also because the song was amazing. But after two years of working on it, Hannah had not had a song until that point, I got two days to learn the song before I put it on the soundtrack. I was in tears of fear because I only had two days to learn this beautiful song that’s gone down in history and tears of relief because I’m not getting fired, tears of joy. So I was like “Okay, well then I guess I’m on Broadway!” So that will be in my heart and mind forever. [Laughs]
Sharon: I’m sorry that you had that stress, I’m so sorry.
Q: Oh my god for two years, just stress, stress, stress, stress, stress. I couldn’t get the monologue, right, I got notes all the way up into Broadway about my monologue. I feel like I just got it right this past year. Honestly! I think I finally got it after six years.
Quick Fire Questions
Kat: What’s your favourite song to perform in the show?
Q: Yeah. And “Channel of peace.”
Kat: What other character would you want to play for a night?
Q: The mayor.
Sharon: I don’t know. I don’t have a good answer!
Kat: [Laughs] It’s okay, you don’t have to have an answer!
Kat: Screech – Bad Jamaican rum or delicious?
Q: Bad. [Laughs]
Sharon: I’ve never tasted it.
Q: You never had it?
Q: You’ve never even tasted it?
Q: What? Sharon! Why?
Sharon: Because, when we were in Gander and they were doing the “Screech-In,” I didn’t want to do it, so I snuck away to the bathroom.
Sharon: I didn’t want to! I didn’t want to kiss the fish, I didn’t want to take the shot, and I didn’t want to have to eat the bologna.
Sharon: And I was like, “I’m just not going to do it.” So I left, and then they gave us a little parchment and a ribbon saying, “You’ve been Screeched In,” and I gave it back to them. I said, “I went to the bathroom.” And they were like, “No, no, no, you just keep it anyway.”
Sharon: But I don’t really ever want to do it.
Q: [Laughs] You never tasted it.
Q: I’m telling everybody
Q: I’m telling everybody! It’s terrible. It’s terrible.
Sharon: No thank you. All I know is that somebody kissed the fish right before I did when we were at the Gander Legion and the fish had teeth that were sticking out. The person who kissed the fish cut their lip!
Q: Oh yeah!
Sharon: Remember that? I was like, “I’m out. I’m going to the bathroom.”
Kat: And finally, if you had to describe Come From Away in one word. What would it be?
Q: Yeah, it’s the perfect show. I’m trying to think of another word so I’m not copying you. But
Sharon: Yeah, you copycat!
Q: [Laughs] Sorry! Delicious. It’s a delicious show for an artist because you get to do all the things. You get to do all the things and it’s just a wonderful show. It’s delicious.
Thank you to Q. Smith and Sharon Wheatley for the fantastic conversation and to Nina Chae-Gordon, Colgan McNeil, and Wayne Wolf from Polk & Co. for helping to arrange the interview.