Amid the fancy luncheons, galas, and red carpet events that take place during the six weeks between Tony nominations and the awards themselves, one smiling face, complete with a piercing stare and infectious laugh, stands out. It belongs to Jenn Colella, an actor who has been treading the Broadway boards since 2003 and who, this year, has received her long-overdue first nomination.
In the new musical Come From Away, Jenn Colella plays Beverley Bass, the first female pilot to be made a captain by American Airlines, and one of many aviators forced to land, with planes full of passengers, in Gander, Newfoundland, after the September 11 terrorist attacks forced the FAA to shut down American airspace. Colella doesn't take the opportunity to play a figure of this magnitude lightly: "This is her life story, and I want to make sure every night that I get it right." That the role has afforded her a seat at Broadway's biggest party is icing on the cake. "I've waited my whole life for this," she says. "Every single moment has been awesome."
Growing up in South Carolina, Colella describes herself as a choir nerd. "I just wanted to be as close to music as I could be, and learn as much about music as a could," she says. Like many teens, Colella didn't really know where she fit in, and started using humor to gain acceptance. "I realized that if I could get people to laugh, I could feel part of something." Then she found a drama club, and it changed her life. "Here are loving, accepting people who just want to create and play together, and it doesn't matter what you look like, or what you're wearing, or how popular you are," she remembers.
After graduating from Columbia College with a degree in speech and drama, Colella moved to California, where she received her M.F.A. in acting from University of California, Irvine. It should come as no surprise that someone who delighted in making her schoolyard classmates laugh would then begin pursuing a career in stand-up comedy.
"I was a regular at the Laugh Factory and the Comedy Store in Hollywood," Colella says with pride. Her experiences served as the foundation of her future career. "Doing stand-up comedy taught me a lot about how to be courageous onstage. If I were to fail, I had no one to blame. I can't blame the writer, the writer is me. It was all me." She also realized that not landing a joke wasn't the end of the world. "I realized I could get the audience back and get a laugh. That really helped me out."
There was a downside, though. "The tough part about comedy, for me, is that a lot of comics are sad and don't respect themselves and one another as much as I would like," she notes. " I'm a light, positive person, and that's just not my bag."
Positivity itself plays a big part of Come From Away. On its most basic level, it's a show about kindness and people being nice to one another in the face of hardship. "At a time when people are in the habit of being mean, and when it's become socially acceptable to be mean, this is a reminder that we need to get back to what we learned in kindergarten, which is be nice." And that kindness has come back at the production in spades. The show was honored with seven Tony nominations. Colella herself has earned Tony, the Drama Desk, and the Outer Critics Circle nominations. So far, she has won the award for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical from the Outer Critics.
When she first auditioned for the show's La Jolla Playhouse run two years ago, Colella didn't exactly think she was a shoo-in for the part. "They gave me the pilot's song to learn, and it has that line 'And now I'm 51,' and I thought, 'Well, that will never work,'" says the 43-year-old actor. Turns out, it did. Night after night, she brings down the house with "Me and the Sky", the tune about Captain Bass's journey. It's also provided Colella, who describes herself as a "mostly gay" New York Democrat, with an unexpected new friend in Bass, who is "a lovely, soft-spoken, Republican from Texas." Without this show, "We would not have crossed paths," Colella adds, "which makes the sweetness of our relationship all the better."
Bass herself is extremely moved by Colella's performance; as of May 31, she had seen the show 68 times between its New York and out-of-town runs. "What I love about Jenn playing the role," Bass says, "is that she acts exactly the way that I act. It's my mannerisms; it's the way I would speak to the passengers. She's just so in charge." And when it comes to hearing Colella sing "Me and the Sky," Bass says she can feel her "heart starting to race a little bit. I'm amazed that she can do what she does. I'm so in awe of her personally, and to know that she is singing my life story with regard to flying makes me so proud."
It has taken Colella a long time to get to this point. She started her Broadway career with Urban Cowboy and then moved on to High Fidelity, and Chaplin, which only lasted, respectively, 60, 14, and 135 performances on Broadway. But she sees them as learning experiences. "What I've learned from shorter runs is that I need to deeply appreciate every second of the journey. Every costume fitting, even if it's in the middle of the day or I feel tired, I'm gonna go and have a smile on my face and really enjoy the fact that someone's spending time to make a costume look perfect on my body. I trust that everything unfolds exactly as it's meant to, so I try not to have a lot of regret in my heart. It's deepened my sense of gratitude for the whole thing."
And that's the attitude she exudes while grinning from ear to ear on every red carpet and at every honorees luncheon. "I've waited my whole life for these six weeks," she concludes. "I go to every event with my heart open and my eyes open. It's going to be over soon and it'll have just been a blip. I don't want it to go by under the guise of 'it's so busy and I have to do my show.' I try to look everyone in the eyes and just experience what's happening. I don't want to miss a moment."
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