The massive success of the musical Come From Away is about to finally land in Ottawa. ARTSFILE begins three days of coverage of the show with this interview with the actor Kevin Carolan who plays the mayor of Gander, Newfoundland on 9/11, Claude Elliott.
Veteran stage and screen actor Kevin Carolan lives in New Jersey, just 10 minutes south of the Newark Airport.
He’s never been to Newfoundland in his life, but these days The Rock is his theatrical home.
Carolan is an actor in the North American touring company presenting the smash hit Come From Away which will land in Ottawa next week for three virtually sold out weeks of performances.
“The closest I’ve gotten to Newfoundland is Montreal. We are coming up on these three weeks in Ottawa,” he said in a phone interview. “Originally, about four or five months ago, it was two weeks with a layoff in Ottawa and a possible hold for a third week. Had that happened I think many of us would have taken the trip to Gander for a few days.”
They would have landed just as dozens of planes dropped in on the small Newfoundland community on Sept. 11, 2001 (along with airports across Canada) in the wake of the massive terror attack that knocked down the towers of New York’s World Trade Centre and struck the Pentagon, killing thousands. A fourth plane was prevented from hitting the White House by the brave passengers on United Airlines Flight 93.
There are historic events that penetrate our minds and lock us in a memory. Where were you when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, for example. This is the case with 9/11. On that morning I was on my to work at the Southam News national bureau when a reporter called me in my car breathlessly saying a plane had hit the first tower and wondering what to do. For the next year, the knock on effects of that day affected my working life.
Kevin Carolan was at home playing Mr. Mom to his young daughter when his sister called.
She was concerned that Carolan might have been in New York on the day.
“She told me what was happening and I turned on TV. The first thing I remember was watching and thinking I was seeing a replay of the first plane hitting a tower and what I was actually seeing was the second plane. It was remarkable.”
His wife then called and told him to turn the TV off and distract his four year old with something happy. He needed some comfort too and he says he turned to a surprising source, the Howard Stern radio show. The shock jock was someone he had listened to as a teenager and on that day the program was a surprising source of normalcy.
“They weren’t doing their regular show, they were just reporting on what was happening,” he said. “You didn’t know if it was over. I remember being out in backyard and just looking up at the sky. One of the things that people remember is what a magnificent day it was, weather wise.”
Soon after the attacks, the U.S. government ordered all aircraft to land.
“I knew how serious it was when they started diverting and halting all air traffic across the U.S. That had never happened on my lifetime.” Frankly it had never happened in anyone’s lifetime at that point.
At the time, he wasn’t aware that dozens of planes had landed in a small city in Newfoundland. He is now.
In the production, Carolan plays Claude Elliott, who was the mayor of Gander at the time. Elliott retired from politics in 2017.
In Come From Away, the mayor is a central figure. He introduces the show; he closes out the show.
The story of how the people of Gander welcomed some 7,000 people into their homes and their hearts is one of the few heartwarming stories from grim day. But what is more surprising is that the story works so well as a piece of theatre.
Carolan heard about it when he “was working on the musical Newsies. Our assistant director’s next job was working under Kelly Devine who is the choreographer of Come From Away.
“He had the book and I asked him about it. I thought to myself that it is rich (theatrical story) because of what it was telling about the good nature and the charity and the selflessness of the time.”
In the mantra of the production, he said, Come From Away is “not really a 9/11 it’s a 9/12 story.” It is genuinely positive and not contrived, he believes.
“You know when something feels treacly and forced. I knew from moment I saw the material that it was the real thing.”
A little while later, when he was on the road in Tucson, Arizona with another musical called Newsies, he got a call that Come From Away was looking for “coverage” as the show was moving across the U.S. on the way to Broadway. Coverage is a word for the work done by an understudy.
His did a taped audition.
“We do these things, you put things down on tape for an audition and you forget about it because if you hold onto it you are going to make yourself crazy.” So he didn’t hold out any hope.”
But then he saw the production and he knew “that I wanted to get in front of the team again.”
The chance came in April 2018 when Carolan was once again on the road, this time in Baltimore.
He came home for a weekend to see his family and then had to hightail it back to Baltimore for a rehearsal on Sunday. And the call came. It meant heading back to New York on the Monday for an audition.
“In all honesty, I felt it was a day of diminishing returns for me. I felt it started strongly with an audition for the role of Claude. But then they gave other material and I started to think that they were looking for understudy work.”
Needless to say he wasn’t optimistic about getting the part.
“I took the train back to Baltimore and you do the thing. You just have to wipe it.”
But it wasn’t doom and gloom. Less than a week later he got the call.
“I have never gotten an invitation about a job on a Sunday evening, but my agent had an email from the casting director that ‘Kevin will receive an offer tomorrow morning for the Come From Away tour for Claude.” It was at 11:30 p.m. and Carolan had to stew for the next seven hours because everyone he wanted to tell was asleep.
In these days of division and Donald Trump, Come From Away is an antidote.
“We almost feel that we are missionaries bringing this show that is full of good nature, good cheer and good feeling around North America. Here is the world coming together.”
Recently the company has been touring in Canada where Carolan has been overwhelmed by the reaction.
“Let me speak for a moment on the incredible sense of pride that we have been able to experience from Canadian audiences so far. We have played Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton. There is also a sit-down production in Toronto. In each place, the pride that Canadians have for the show is off the charts and it’s so lovely to see.”
It’s something the veteran actor has rarely experience.
In the production, as Mayor Elliott, he is on stage for most of the show.
He does have a favourite moment.
“As somebody who enjoys landing a good laugh line there is a one, two, three punch that I have in the middle of the show when I’m playing three different characters.”
The mayor turns into a person who is sitting in a bar with a couple of the Come From Aways and then he turns into the mayor of an even smaller town called Appleton.
“We follow some of the Come From Away people through the town. It’s the third day they are there and there isn’t much to do. These interchanges throw little spotlights on what is happening. It’s lovely to play and it never gets old.”
Come From Away features a cast of 12 each playing several characters. It is a demanding show that requires a lot of discipline. On top of that there is a live band on stage that underscores the play. The result is that it almost feels “like they are scoring a film,” Carolan said.
But somehow it all works — really, really well. So well in fact that there are five productions of Come From Away now up and running — in New York, Toronto, London and on tour in North America and Australia.
There has rarely, if ever, been a show so demonstrably Canadian that is having such success.
The fact that it works in Vancouver as well as it works in New York is a testament to that. And after Ottawa, the North American tour will bring its welcoming message to places like East Lansing, Michigan, Cincinnati, Ohio, Philadelphia, Boston and Providence, Rhode Island, which isn’t too far from The Rock.
The cod awaits and Kevin Carolan knows it.
Next: Meet Capt. Beverley Bass, the pilot of one of the planes that landed in Gander on 9/11.
Come From Away will be at the National Arts Centre from Aug. 20 to Sept. 8. There is very limited seating left. For more information, please see broadwayacrosscanada.ca