Light from the Trees: 'Come From Away' on Broadway

by Bryan Reesman
in Inside Theatre
The townfolk of Gander rose to the challenge of helping the stranded passengers. Real trees flanked the wooden floor, wall and furniture. Photos by Matthew Murphy
The townfolk of Gander rose to the challenge of helping the stranded passengers. Real trees flanked the wooden floor, wall and furniture. Photos by Matthew Murphy

During the chaos and confusion of the 9/11 attacks, American airspace was closed, and many flights were diverted back to their point of origin or to other destinations. In one specific scenario, 6,700 airline passengers on 38 flights landed in the town of Gander on Newfoundland. Gander only has 10,000 residents, and over the next few days, the resilient, resourceful Canadians showed their unexpected guests hospitality, shelter and care in a way that surprised and moved many people. The new Broadway musical Come From Away celebrates those random acts of kindness in the wake of a horrible tragedy.

The narrative presented some major challenges for director Christopher Ashley, scenic designer Beowulf Boritt and lighting designer Howell Binkley. The story has dozens of scenes taking place on and around airplanes, inside an airport terminal, in various buildings and homes around town and even outside. It would have required a larger number of drops and props, or at the very least numerous computer generated backdrops, to capture all of the required locations.

Kendra Kassebaum and the cast. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

‡‡         Assisting the Narrative Flow

“I must say, it’s been a great journey with the show,” Binkley tells PLSN. “We started out in La Jolla in a little 200-seat theater. I’ve done a lot of shows with Chris [Ashley]. He sent me the script, and when I read it, I thought, ‘How are we going to do this?’ He said, ‘It’s all up to you, Howell.’ For me, it’s all storytelling. It’s a show for the audience to reflect on. These are happy stories reflecting happy things during a tragic time. My job was really to help the writers and the director just tell the story and to direct the audience where to focus.”

While the staging includes at least a dozen real trees brought in from upstate New York flanking both sides of the stage, as well as a large back wall with two doors that open for select scenes, the bulk of the show is sculpted with light. There is a grid over the stage, light coming from the balcony, lights behind the wood wall and lights actually placed on the trees themselves; Par Can 56s and 64s as well as a few practicals including lanterns and signs.

“We had to layer the show in a unique way,” explains the Tony Award-winning LD. “It is one simple set — it is a wood floor, a wood wall, a turntable and about 12 chairs with a band on stage. One of the reasons for the little practicals on those trees and the lights on the trees was something that Beowulf just thought would enhance little scenes, like the Molson sign in the bar or the lantern in the church, just a storytelling layering process.”

Although trees have been a part of the scenic design since the show began life in La Jolla, the lively rendition at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre is the first one to feature the real thing. “They’re all sprayed and taken care of,” notes Binkley. “All the other places we’ve done it they were fake trees. We brought the real trees in for Broadway. And let me tell you, they’re heavy. They weigh tons.”

More daunting than bringing in the trees was the challenge facing Ashley, Boritt and Binkley in terms of how to represent all the different locations in the show. The LD says that once the director and scenic designer had gotten the set mostly to where they wanted it, they brought him in.

“Chris and I formatted throughout the show,” says Binkley. “There are so many different areas. How are we going to designate this? What do we want to do when we go inside and outside of the airplane? And [with] the animals inside of the airplane? There so many different places, and there can’t be scenic elements for all of them, so it was up to me to have to isolate them or pull them down and let them tell the story with a black table or [people] sitting on a chair or standing on chairs.”

Divorced American housewife Diane, played by Sharon Wheatley, and shy British engineer Nick, played by Lee MacDougall, spark a romance after becoming attracted to one another during their unintended stay. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

‡‡         Massive Trees, but Few Props

The live musicians are interspersed through the trees, and aside from some chairs, there are few props onstage. The scene changes happen at an almost dizzying pace (and the actors switch roles from Canadian to American, British and beyond), and to transition fluidly and quickly between a meeting hall and an airplane interior, for example, would require plenty of automation. Thus Binkley’s lighting and the actors’ performances and brisk costume changes help to create places in people’s minds, and it works.

Some scenes, for example, are bathed in cool blues, others in warm reds. During intimate moments, a single spot focuses on a key character while the other lights around them are dimmed, and sometimes other characters are lit with a different color. On the flip side, the ensemble scenes are much more bright. It all depends on what is being represented onstage. When the local vet is going through a plane’s cargo hold to find neglected animals, the side door of the plane is represented by an elevated opening in the back wall and side light from inside helps indicate where she is. There are fiber optics in the drop to represent stars near the end of the show, and two rows of LED tubes signify the plane. A door in the center of the wall is used as an entrance to both a bar and a chapel with appropriate back and front lighting.

“Look at when [former President] Bush is addressing the world,” Binkley points out. “He’s symbolized at a table. The people in the plane are symbolized as they could be anywhere listening to what he’s saying. Here we are creating two different locations with one look. That’s the magic of the show. They’re consistent.”

6  Beverley, played by Jenn Colella. She is the first female pilot for American Airlines, and sings about her life path. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Come From Away is a musical that is constantly moving, from characters sweeping across stage, often changing roles and accents, to lighting shifts to quick jumps from scene to scene and location to location. The show continually evolves. “Like [with] the back wall, there’s an evolution of colors, of emotion, of time of day, of time passing,” says Binkley. “You see stars. You see inside of a plane. You have the audience use their imagination in this instead of having a template that defines something. Everything is broken up and indefinable, so the audience can use their imagination as well to bring out the reality of what the whole story is telling and where they are.”

While there are some Martin MAC Vipers used, the show is not heavy on moving lights the way that many other Broadway musicals are. The main lights that Binkley employed are a mixture of fixed ETC Source Fours, LED Pars and Par 64s. There was a lot of programming involved — approximately 600 cues — which is perhaps 100 more than what Binkley averages on a typical show.

“Some shows have more to do than others, that’s just the way they’re written,” observes the LD. “With this one in particular, it is one stage with so many different things happening. It’s not like a drop flies in and you do a scene downstage, then it flies out to reveal something else. It’s all one area.”

Come From Away is a musical that has taken two years to ripen and mature. The original show was done at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego starting in June 2015 with the same basic set and turntable setup as the Broadway incarnation, although the trees were a little smaller — and fake. The show also had runs in Seattle, DC and Toronto before landing at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in New York, where it opened March 2017.

“For me to design a show like this, it takes a series of formatting things from the director, a lot of time in rehearsal and then designing the plot,” explains Binkley. “Then the plot goes up, and we focus it and start tech. Our format for the show has stayed pretty much the same since La Jolla, except for implementing the new techs, the rearranging of songs and adding songs. That’s just a part of the process of building a musical production. We were blessed to have great producers and to be able to do it out of town in different locations.” That time spent testing things out allowed the creative team to determine what worked and what did not.

2 A celebration between the folks of Gander and their international guest

“The hardest thing for me was the continuity and keeping the show threaded together, having to go seamlessly from one scene to the next,” states Binkley. “I thought, between the lighting and staging and choreography, that was achieved very effectively. The story just keeps coming at you as an audience member. It’s like an engine that, once you turn it on, doesn’t stop until the blackout at the end of the show.”

While working on Come From Away, Binkley learned a lot about sculpting. “Being able to sculpt the trees and keeping the environment involved in the storytelling of the show, keeping the trees alive, just keeping the show lit in a way where it never went dead,” he expounds. “Always focusing where the story is taking place.”

Given the grim subject around which the musical’s scenario is based, it is nice to see an uplifting human story that shows people coming together under duress. One could easily come up with many other stories about what transpired in Newfoundland that week, but Come From Away does a good job of representing people from different walks of life caught up in unexpected chaos.

“I tell you, the people they play in the show have all seen the show many times and are big fans,” says Binkley. “They were all there opening night. It was great.”  

1 Howell Binkley headshot

Come From Away LD Howell Binkley: No Stranger to Broadway, Awards Ceremonies

Howell Binkley, LD for Come from Away, is a veteran Broadway lighting designer who has been recognized for numerous productions on Broadway with nominations (and wins) for the annual Tony Awards and other kudos.

Before his latest project, Come From Away, Binkley lit A Bronx Tale, Hamilton (2016 Tony Winner), After Midnight (2014 Tony nomination), How to Succeed…starring Daniel Radcliffe (2011 Tony nomination), West Side Story (2009 Tony nomination), Gypsy starring Patti LuPone, In The Heights (2008 Tony nomination), Jersey Boys (2006 Tony winner), Avenue Q, The Full Monty, Parade and Kiss of the Spider Woman (1993 Tony nomination) among others.

His work on Kiss of the Spider Woman was also honored with Sir Laurence Olivier and Canadian Dora Awards, and in addition to his Tony wins in 2016 and 2006 for Hamilton and Jersey Boys, Binkley was honored with Henry Hewes Design Awards for those shows.

Binkley has also been honored as a Helen Hayes Award recipient on five separate occasions during the course of his long career, and along with Broadway productions, he has extensive experience lighting dance performances; he is co-founder and resident lighting designer for Parsons Dance.