By Jimmy Kontomanolis | January 3, 2019 | People
Typically, you leave a Broadway musical with a feel-good attitude from a message that’s been delivered with much pomp and circumstance, and you go on with your life. But every once in a while, there’s an important piece of theater like Come From Away—a story that hits close to home for not only New Yorkers, but anyone who lived to experience the tragedy of 9/11—a show whose message resonates for days, months, even years. The musical tells the story of thousands of travelers who were stranded in Gander, a town on the island of Newfoundland, off the coast of Canada, when North American airspace was shut down following the attacks.
We chatted with one of Come From Away’s stars, Chad Kimball, about what makes the show unique and special, tackling a sacred subject like 9/11, and the real-life stories and town that the musical portrays.
Come From Away portrays such an incredible 9/11 story. People typically immediately think of NYC when they think of 9/11, and how the city was so tragically affected. But there are so many stories of stranded travelers, like those in the musical, who were trying to contact their loved ones or trying to get back home. Why do you think it’s so important to tell a story like this, or to tell a 9/11 story from this perspective?
CHAD KIMBALL: The thing that we’ve really come to understand and appreciate about the show is that it definitely does tell the story of that day. But it does it in a real roundabout way. We find a lot of people have some major scars from that day that they don’t realize they have, and definitely people who are closer to the tragedy, who lost someone, or who are directly affected by the attacks themselves, but everyone’s got something from that day. And what a lot of people don’t realize is how close to the surface those feelings are. So a lot of people don’t approach 9/11, so this is a way for them to approach that day again without head-on diving right into it. However, it really is diving right into it, because the show really shows not just the goodness from that day, but the opposite of evil. We get that there’s kindness because we get that there’s evil. To get to revel in the kindness is a lot different from reveling in the tragedy of that day. We do that every year, we memorialize and we remember. And what we heard from survivors and first responders and other people who are really close to the tragedy of the day is that it didn’t take away any of the pain, but it added an element of goodness. There was goodness happening in the world.
What do you love most about the show?
CK: It’s such a pat answer to say, “We love it because of the audience.” But it’s really just a rollercoaster ride, and they are just reacting from the gut. So that’s fun, and that kind of energy is just what you live for when you’re on stage, because it really is another cast member. But the other really great part is no matter how many times someone sees the show, there’s something new that they might have missed the time before. The show is such a quick pace and is so specifically directed by Christopher Ashley, that there are just things that you miss. So people who see it three, four times, always see something different. Because we’re changing characters, we’re switching scenes, we’re switching environments, all in a split second. So to be able to ride that energy of the audience is really one of my favorite things.
As you mentioned, you and your castmates all portray several different characters throughout the show. How difficult is it to change characters in such a fast-paced format?
CK: Oh my gosh, it’s every actor’s dream to sit back and go “Hey, look what I can do!” But it’s also a thrill. It was difficult in the beginning, in rehearsal, trying to come up with the character and at the same time switch to another one, while you’re still trying to figure out the other one. So there was some bleed-over in the beginning, but it really is a joy to do.
As a viewer, you experience a wide range of emotions during the show. Amidst the tragedy, Come From Away is injected with moments of humor and joy. Is there a moment or particular story that resonates with you most?
CK: There are so many favorites, but one of them is one of the first moments that the audience gets the idea that it didn’t matter who you were, the moment when the bus driver—it happens to be my moment—when the bus driver speaks to the African man and his family through a Bible verse. It’s such a simple thing, but speaks volumes to how much the same we are, and how we can communicate on such simple levels.
People may not realize that the show is based on true stories and one of the characters you portray recently published a memoir about the experience at Gander. Have you had a chance to read the book?
CK: I have read it, he would kill me if I hadn’t. We’re actually really good friends, Kevin Tuerff and I, and he has written this book, Channel of Peace, and it tells stories of his that weren’t told in the musical. He left everything and moved to New York and started a consulting firm to teach people about immigrants and refugees. It’s the example of the show really, but putting it into action and in real time. He also started the Pay It Forward 9/11 movement, which is really just a way to get people thinking about kindness and how to spread it. He’s a really compassionate man and I’m happy to be able to play him.
Have you and your castmates had the opportunity to meet any of the other subjects you portray?
CK: It’s funny, the national tour opened in Seattle and I got a text from my mom saying “Hey, I’m at dinner with Beulah.” And that’s really how deep our relationships go. Most of the people we portray come to every production on opening night, we bowed with them on the opening night on Broadway, we have family and friends who have gone to Gander and have stayed with them. We really have become a part of this big, warm family, which is such a different take on things. I’ve never, ever experienced something like that. It’s been a wonderful experience.
We actually went to Gander and did two concert-style productions of the show, in the world’s largest walk-in refrigerator, in the hockey rink, for about 6,000 people, before we came to Broadway, and it was one of the most meaningful experiences of our lives. Just to be able to get the blessing from the community to go on and tell this story, and that we weren’t portraying them in an odd light, but we were being authentic in our portrayals of them. We got to be good friends with them and they took us around town. We went to all the different places we talk about in the show, and we were able to get a good feel for the place. It was a really memorable experience.
Chad Kimball with fellow cast members on stage in Come From Away.
What’s Gander like? Is it as idyllic as the show portrays it to be.
CK: It’s just a town! It’s this town with this one big, long road in the middle. And just people—people who have been there for years, generations. And it gets really cold there. So their thing is, to survive, we have to help each other out. It’s just something that they do. And they’re always shocked that people are so taken aback by what they did. Of course, we experience kindness all over the world. But we looked to Gander because it was such a perfect example of what was happening across the world. It’s such a unique experience.
Are there any other moments that have really stood out to you or left an impact on you?
CK: The 9/11 community is incredibly protective of the legacy of that day. The Museum, the first responders—we wanted to be very careful about how we presented ourselves to that community and to the New York community at large. And they have really embraced us. So one of the more meaningful moments for me, the week of 9/11 this year, some of the docents from the Museum came to the show, and we had a talk-back after the show, and they honored us with FDNY patches that were taken from actual uniforms. And it was just such a surreal moment, because one of the things I love about this show—it’s everything I ever dreamed I could do as an actor, which is to possibly affect change in people’s lives and tell a remarkable story, and at the same time do something now that I wasn’t able to do back on that day. You couldn’t help on the day, you couldn’t do anything. So to now feel like I could do something, and then be honored by them was even more special.
You have a long-running career on the stage, in shows like Godspell, Into the Woods, and Memphis. What’s your favorite Broadway musical of all time?
CK: This one definitely holds a very special place in my heart because of the meaning it has for me and for New York and for our time. But I also would say that Memphis holds a special place, too, because I worked on that show for 10 years, and Huey Calhoun was kind of this guy who popped up out of nowhere, and was such a kismet character to play. He played me as much as I played him. Although, I would say playing a cow in Into the Woods was a lot of fun!
Aside from Come From Away, what other shows are you loving right now?
CK: It’s really hard to see anything else. Let’s see, I haven’t seen anything in a few months. Farinelli and the King was such a beautiful piece of theater to experience, and Mark Rylance was, as always, a phenomenal presence on stage. My goal is to get out there and see as much as I can when I take my vacation in January!
What do you do in your down time? Any favorite NYC hangouts?
CK: Right now, it’s the dog run up at Teddy Roosevelt Park at the Museum of Natural History. And I just got married, so my wife and I are kind of starting to explore all sorts of different aspects of New York. It’s interesting, you live here and you never look up. So when you’re with someone else and you’re kind of just spending time, it’s such a new city in a lot of ways. We’ve been to a lot of different restaurants in the Upper West Side that are a lot of fun and very good. We’re trying to get to know our neighborhood and get to know the city more. We’re walking a lot more in Central Park!
For tickets to Come From Away and to learn more, visit comefromaway.com.