Interview with Come From Away stars Jim & Emily Walton
They say every cloud has a silver lining and in times of a crisis, this shines through in the form of human kindness and a spirit of community. Although we are technically in self-isolation for the time being, the efforts communities around the globe have made to support each other, both financially and emotionally, have been truly moving. There is arguably no better show that personifies this sentiment than the smash hit musical Come From Away, which officially opened at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on Broadway in March 2017.
Set in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Come From Away depicts how the community of Gander, Newfoundland came together to care for the passengers of 38 planes, who were diverted to the small Canadian town upon the closure of the American air space. It has now been seen by audiences around the world from New York to Toronto, Dublin, Ireland to Melbourne, Australia, and at the Olivier Award-winning 'Best New Musical' production in London's West End, all celebrating the common, universal themes of human resilience and family.
Speaking of family, the Broadway company of Come From Away currently includes a couple of real-life family members. Stage veteran Jim Walton has been playing Nick, Doug & Others in the cast since November 2018, whilst his niece, Emily Walton took over the roles of Janice & Others on Broadway in November 2019, after originating the roles on the show's National Tour.
Whilst we eagerly anticipate the return of the fan-favorite musical, we caught up with "Uncle Jim" and Emily to talk family matters...
What were your first thoughts when you found out you would be working together on Come From Away?
EMILY: I was completely thrilled when I found out we’d be working together! Just pure glee. Couldn’t believe I was going to be on a Broadway stage with my literal uncle 8 times a week. I still can’t.
JIM: I was thinking she’d upstage me. Seriously - She’s really good! I was mostly thrilled and pleased for Emily, but also selfishly excited for me. To share a Broadway (or any) stage with her, after seeing her in countless wonderful shows in her hometown of Riverdale (the Riverdale Y, in the Bronx), directed usually by her amazing mother, Laurie Walton, and sometimes co-starring her equally-talented brother, Alex, I was just over the moon about it. I’d never even considered it was possible until it happened. And in a hit show! It’s a bit unreal.
Had you ever worked together professionally before?
EMILY: Yes! Only once. We did a production of The Wizard of Oz in 2013 at Sacramento Music Circus. I was Dorothy, Uncle Jim was the Scarecrow. It was only about 3 weeks of work in total, including rehearsal and performance, but it was a very fun, memorable experience. Also a very sweet, family-oriented show to get to do together.
JIM: Emily was perfectly cast as Dorothy, and I was a 57-year old Scarecrow. Which really was scary! I used to stand at the top of an aisle (it was in the round) and watch her sing “Over the Rainbow” before I quickly changed into my Scarecrow costume. I didn’t know it then, but I got a little proud taste of Come From Away in that moment. And we also previously sang in events together at the Riverdale Y.
What’s it like having an actual family member in the cast with you?
JIM: It’s emotional. The show is stirring enough, but I remember the first night, onstage with Emily and the others, watching her sometimes out of the corner of my eye, then sometimes just giving in and totally watching her full-on. It was surreal and moving. And she’s also very funny. I laughed at her so many times, and I was just so proud of her. And as an uncle, it was also a little confusing. The first couple of nights, after the show, I stopped Emily in the stairway and asked if she was okay getting home on her own. (What?!) I then remembered she’s a grown person who knows how to take care of herself. Kind of ridiculous but sweet.
EMILY: You go into work every day with an immediate, inherent sense of comfort and love. The anxiety about getting to know a new group of people dissipated for me pretty quickly, because I knew one of those “new” people was my own flesh and blood! And someone I’ve known my entire life. It’s incredible to look across the stage sometimes and go, “Wow. That’s my family. And we are on a Broadway stage together, both doing the thing we set out to do in life.” It feels pretty profound. And we were both together on 9/11, so that adds a whole other layer of profundity.
In what ways does ‘family’ factor as an important theme in Come From Away?
EMILY: Oh, gosh. In so many ways. It reminds you — or teaches you, depending on your age — that you can find family wherever you look. Family is there for you in times of need, and the entire town of Gander became a family to the thousands of stranded passengers on that fateful day in 2001. The words that spring to mind as soon as I think of Come From Away are family, community, and kindness.
JIM: If you know the show, it’s an extremely important factor. Come From Away is about inclusion and unity among people of varying races, sexual orientations and world views. It’s about extending hospitality between strangers, a profound thing, especially in the midst of an international crisis like 9/11. Another personal element concerning family for me has been hearing others at the theater call me ‘Uncle Jim,’ echoing how Emily calls me, which tickles me and makes me feel proud.
How were each of you affected by the events of 9/11? And did you personally encounter the resilience of the human spirit or acts of human kindness in its aftermath?
JIM: Interestingly, we saw each other on 9/11/01. The long story is - Emily was in school at LaGuardia High School, on 10th Avenue, and I was on jury duty in the Wall Street area that morning. I saw the North Tower fall, after hearing and feeling the South Tower fall. Indescribable. I finally got out of the area, and walked to my home in Midtown Westside. I later met Emily and her Dad (my talented, extraordinary actor/brother, Bob) at a diner, where they figured out a way to get home to Riverdale together, with the subways closed. They somehow made it. And I did witness acts of kindness in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, too many to mention. I believe the human spirit is designed that way, to lead us to look after those in trouble or who are less fortunate, which included basically everyone on that terrible day. Flowers and candles in front of every fire station, people reaching out to each other in small but significant ways, holding a door, looking more deeply into each other’s eyes, smiling how they could, saying ‘Have a great day,’ and really meaning it. I remember many New Yorkers commenting on it, saying, ‘I wonder how long this goodwill can last.’ Well - come see our show. Thanks to Irene Sankoff and David Hein, it has lasted.
EMILY: I think, initially, the most heartbreaking thing was learning the hard lesson that evil does exist. Plain and simple. There are people whose primary goal is to make others suffer. That is a devastating truth for anyone to reckon with. I think, in New York, we immediately encountered the resilience of the human spirit. My teenage friends and I got together and raised funds to donate to relief efforts. I think we thought it was a lot of money, but we probably raised $100. Ah, youth. There was just a general feeling of community and camaraderie; a warmth on the streets of NYC that I hadn’t felt before.
What touches you the most in terms of your uncle’s/niece’s performance in Come From Away?
JIM: That’s tough, because there’s too much to mention (said the proud uncle). I would say I mostly admire Emily’s courage. To join us after her year with the National Tour of the show on the road, with different actors, traveling through so many cities, which can be grueling, personally and professionally, then to finally land in New York, with others in those roles (including many of the originals) it would be natural to feel undue pressure, not to say confusion maybe, and it could present quite a challenge. But she did it with flying colors. And did I mention, she’s funny? I’m struck by her sense of humor, a great gift, and central to the magic of Come From Away.
EMILY: I am so moved by my uncle’s portrayal of Nick (and Others, of course). I find his characterization to be the perfect combination of bumbling and heartfelt. He makes you laugh with his awkwardness, and then makes you tear up with his genuine longing. I get the full story about Nick just from the way my uncle says, “Will you tell someone at head office that I’m fine?… No, no, I just thought someone should know.” It made me cry the first time I watched it onstage. And then I had to go say a line so I had to pull it together quickly! It also just touches me to see how much he loves the show, how much everyone who gets to perform in this show loves it.
What do you think surprises audiences the most about the musical?
JIM: I think it’s that many people, maybe especially New Yorkers, aren’t prepared for how moving and funny the musical is. Many I meet at the Stage Door line after the show are shocked at how emotional their response has been to it. And some have mentioned they’d resisted seeing a ‘9/11 musical,’ which it really isn’t. The emotion and comedy surprises them. It really is hilarious AND moving, a rare feat.
EMILY: I think the thing that surprised ME the most when I saw it was how genuinely funny it is. I expected it to be moving, I expected it to be heartfelt and painful and sad, and all of those things that it so naturally is. But I didn’t expect it to have many real laugh-out-loud moments. I think the show is so expertly crafted in every way, but particularly in the way the humor emerges JUST as you’re on the verge of bursting into tears. The thing I’ve heard most often from audience members across the country, and now in NYC, is, “I was laughing through tears the whole time.” That about sums it up.
Finally, why do you believe Come From Away has struck such a chord with audiences not only in New York and across the States, but also in London’s West End, Ireland, Australia, and, of course, Canada?
EMILY: Because it is a TRUE story about human kindness. Plain and simple. It holds up a mirror to humanity and says, “Look at this thing that we can be. We are capable of this, every day, in big ways and small ways.” What is more universal than that? At the end of the day, we are all we’ve got. Seeing people being so selfless, so generous with such ease, is incredibly moving. The show is not cynical at all. It is so pure of heart. I love it so much, and I’m crying as I write this because I miss it! I can’t wait to get back to sharing this story with people. My goodness, we are going to need it more than ever. We are so lucky that this show — this story — exists.
JIM: I think it’s because, during these strained political times in our country, and across the world, we need to somehow let our tribal instincts fall away, allowing us to remember we’re all in this together. It sounds preachy, I know. But we have to make that happen now, and in the immediate future, if we are to survive. It might seem extreme, but that’s my view. We’re living in a global reality now, and we have to find a way to live together, happily and respectfully. Emily and I are fortunate to be in a show like Come From Away that sends that message to so many.
Come From Away Tickets are available now.