It was a day most people will never forget – the morning of September 11, 2001, when two planes were flown into the World Trade Center. The extraordinary musical “Come From Away” – opening next week at the Fox Theatre courtesy of Broadway in Atlanta – charts what happened in the aftermath, when 38 planes were re-routed and landed in Gander, Newfoundland. The townsfolk had to quickly adapt to the visitors – and the emotional turmoil they were going through – over the course of five days and make them feel welcome.
The cast includes performers playing the townspeople as well as some of those on the planes. Gay actor Michael Brian Dunn plays Claude Elliott, the mayor of Newfoundland. The actor joined the company in August as the first national tour began. The road team rehearsed in New York for five weeks and then opened in Seattle in the fall. Dunn himself had seen the show in previews before it opened on Broadway and knew it would be right up his alley as a performer. “It absolutely blew me away,” he admits. “The production is staged so beautifully and seamlessly. It just moves so rapidly. That is true watching it and performing it. You get on the ride and it carries you through.”
Before the musical was in development he read a story in the New York Times about the townspeople of Gander and what happened and thought it was interesting. He didn’t realize there would be a future in it for him. “It hits all my marks about what a great show should be – an ensemble, strong storytelling and really interesting music.” Once aboard, he met many of the real people the show is based on. “They are delightful people and their lives have changed because of the event and because of ‘Come From Away,’” Dunn says.
His character, Claude, is the mayor of a small town and is very down to earth and practical. “He and everyone here live their lives from day to day. They’re just normal people; they don’t take anything for granted. They live a life of doing great deeds without realizing it. They opened their entire town without realizing it was nice. It was just what you do. It’s a great example of selfless good deeds. The townspeople did it out of necessity. They didn’t know if the visitors would be there a few hours or a few weeks.”
The actor enjoys playing Claude, whom he describes as colorful and happy, a character who has an easy life and good nature. Dunn is excited that the real Claude Elliott will be in Atlanta for the show’s run.
“Come From Away” changed how people look at Newfoundlanders. “Newfoundland has been the butt of jokes along the way and this show has changed people’s outlook,” says Dunn. “They are looked at with much more respect and regard now and tourism has gone through the roof.”
The production won a Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical but had the misfortune to come out the same season as “Dear Evan Hansen” and lost other key awards to that blockbuster. Nonetheless, it’s still playing to near-capacity crowds on Broadway. Dunn has his own theory as to why the musical resonates. “Even if you were too young to remember that day, your parents or siblings did. It’s a standout day in our history and will continue to be. As people listen to other people’s stories, they put themselves into that place.”
“Come From Away” also feature two gay characters in its cast, based on real people – Kevin Tuerff and Kevin Jung, a couple from Los Angeles.