Bridgeport musician rides the rails to Broadway hit ‘Come from Away’
A few Broadway stars who live in Connecticut have enough clout to demand a car service to take them in and out of the city six days a week. The rest of the working stiffs with jobs in the New York theater ride the rails like the rest of us.
Over the years, it has been fun to spot great character actors, such as the late Rex Everhart and Donal Donnelly — both longtime Westport residents — on Metro-North, commuting to their Broadway gigs. One night, when two girls were sitting next to me with playbills in hand, and they wondered what “swing” dancers do, a charming woman in front of us turned around and proceeded to answer every question the kids had. (She turned out to be veteran actress Kirsti Carnahan, who was then appearing in “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”)
Bridgeport musician Carl Carter has been a Metro-North regular for the past year, going in and out of the city to what he calls his best job ever — playing in the onstage band for “Come from Away,” the musical that has sold out every performance at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on West 45th Street since it opened in 2017. It has been smooth sailing for the commuter on this show, but he says a close call during a previous Broadway musical job — the South Norwalk bridge was having one of its intermittent issues — was nerve-racking, and taught him to leave a bit earlier.
“A lot of us do this,” Carter says of riding Metro-North. “I run into other musicians, actors, stagehands, all the time. A lot of them live out here. ... A prop guy for ‘Anastasia’ takes the same train.”
The musician, who plays electric and acoustic bass in the show, says he enjoys the routine of taking the same train in every day, getting to know the conductors and some of the other passengers as he gears up for that night’s performance of the powerhouse show about the thousands of commercial air passengers who were diverted to Gander, Newfoundland, on 9/11. Carter worked on the pre-Broadway run in Toronto and says it was clear right away that the musical was something special. Originally, “Come from Away” was done in two acts, but now it is presented in one powerful 100-minute piece. “(Director) Christopher Ashley decided you couldn’t let (the audience) come down. You had to feel that you were there with those people in Gander the whole time.”
“Where do I begin?,” he says of trying to describe the reactions of audiences to the hit musical. “It’s very powerful and the audiences get very emotional. Someone asked me after a show, ‘Do you get this reaction every night?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’”
Carter and the other artists working on “Come from Away” have been pleased to learn that a musical without any special effects — or, indeed much of a set at all — can still grab an audience and become an SRO hit.
“It’s very minimalist,” Carter says. “Two tables and some chairs. But the way it tells the story is what’s important. It’s the best thing I’ve ever been a part of.”
When Carter first graduated from Boston’s Berklee College of Music in 1986, he played in bands for a wide variety of performers, including Dizzy Gillespie. In recent years, he has been steadily employed on a series of Broadway musicals including “Bring It On” and “Holler If You Hear Me.”
Like many of his fellow musicians, Carter isn’t crazy about the modern Broadway technique of hiding the band or orchestra in a completely covered pit or even in a location elsewhere in the theater. (He was in the basement for “Holler If You Hear Me.”) Some of these changes are due to the requirements of miking the instruments. In the old days, the open orchestra pit allowed the music to waft up to the farthest reaches of the balcony.
Part of the power — and the old-fashioned theatricality — of “Come from Away” derives from the fact that all of the stagecraft is visible, including the work of the musicians who are right by the side of the singing actors on stage.
“In a lot of shows, everything is separated. We don’t see the cast. The audience doesn’t see the stagehands. But in this show, everyone is dealing with everyone else,” he says.
The scoring of the songs is much simpler than it is in the bigger shows, with only eight musicians playing what Carter calls “amazing orchestrations.” In addition to the songs, Carter and the rest of the band play an underscoring of scenes that is like a movie soundtrack.
“I’m still having a blast after almost two years,” Carter says. “The music is challenging, which means you don’t get bored ... ever. We’re part of the story because we are always playing. I’ve talked to crew members who have worked in the theater for 30 years and they say they’ve never been a part of anything like it.
“We sit around and talk about the way the show affects people,” he adds of the portrait of something good coming out of a terrible event. “It reminds us of who we should be and that we all need to pay it forward.”
Because the job is so creative and uplifting, Carter says he has no idea when he might move on to a different show, so you can expect to see him on the 3:17 out of Fairfield Metro for many months to come.
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