Part of Great Big Sea, the band who embedded this province’s music and culture into the hearts of expats and come from aways for over 20 years, Bob Hallett now wears a new hat, one that allowed him to sprinkle his musical pixie dust all over Broadway.
Four years ago Bob Hallett received a very nondescript email.
“It was almost nothing really. It was just; we are doing this project, do you know anybody? And; what do you think of this idea? sort of an email. It didn’t feel like anything then. I get all kinds of emails like that, people just throwing spaghetti at the wall,” Hallett shares with a laugh. Years later, sitting at a table hours before his downtown restaurant, Tavola, opens for the day, reflecting on the early days of Come From Away is almost mind-boggling.
Despite being an email like hundreds of others he receives regularly, there was something about it that caught Hallett’s attention.
Phone calls followed. Hallett was asked to play in the show’s band for the early performances in La Jolla, a suburb of San Diego. “I said, I can’t do that. I deliberately took a step back a while ago from live performing to avoid being away from home so long. However, I have time to contribute something if we can confine it to chucks of time and if a lot of the work can be done elsewhere.”
Originally there was no official title, or any real job, Hallett explains. It was just; can you come down and help us with this?
Eventually Hallett became Come From Away’s Newfoundland Music Consultant – a creative consultant in Broadway terms.
Authenticity & sincerity
There was much to be done back then.
Director Christopher Ashley came on board with Junkyard Dogs Productions and the team worked at assembling the cast.
“Still, this was a play in a very skeletal form. There were questions; how would this work on the stage? And the music? Everyone knew that would be critical to the success; not just the ticket buying success, but in terms of the artistic success of the production. I think they very quickly realized that if they didn’t get the music right, if it wasn’t something really unique and interesting and authentic, then the whole production would suffer. Authenticity and sincerity was a huge part of what could make this production work or not work.”
Hallett says he spent a fair bit of time in New York with Come from Away creators David Hein and Irene Sankoff.
“We worked through every piece and I said, this is a Newfoundland approach, these are the things that are right, these are the things that are wrong, here’s how we would stack the instruments up. Even things that may look sort of haphazard are often actually deliberately so. Quickly, there’s a realization that this couldn’t sound like Riverdance or The Chieftains. It couldn’t be faux Irish or Star Trek Scottie. This had to be real. I knew how to do that.”
Hallett said he felt the importance of his role right from day one. “The music in a Broadway play is the connective tissue, it’s the underscore, which is music that takes place in transitions and while people are talking, and that is where all the Newfoundland ambiance is created. These songs brought out the spirit of Newfoundland.”
‘small but critical’
Hallett says it would be an understatement to say he’s thrilled to have played a role in Come From Away. He shakes his head in wonder. “Funny how you make a small decision, like answering an email, and it turns into this.”
In the grand scheme of things, Hallett stresses that his contribution was ‘small but critical.’
“All I did was solve a problem. I didn’t write the music, I didn’t arrange it. I just brought them ideas and approaches and I became a sounding board for authenticity.”
Hallett says he knew one thing; any great Broadway success story has great music, and he wanted to make that the case here.
“Some pieces needed that Newfoundland touch, the way Great Big Sea or Shanneyganock can mix Newfoundland music with pop music, making it more accessible without selling out that thing that there is that makes Newfoundland music great. That mixture of pixie dust is what I brought to this,” he says with pride.
‘a great show’
Hallett has seen Come From Away about 50 times, and it’s changed less than what you might think, he says, a testament to how good it was in the beginning. “I think it’s a great show. I wouldn’t have gone on with it as long as I have if it wasn’t. The people involved were top notch and Broadway is the highest possible level you can get and I’ve learned so much.”
But as with everything he’s ever done, there’s one thing that’s key. “You have to stand on stage and make people like you, make them walk away having gotten something from it. The skills I’ve learned standing on the stage in pubs in St. John’s and what these Broadway performers do, it’s the same thing. Just a bigger audience, some stronger lights and way better advertisements. But at heart it’s that; the ability to stand on a stage and make people want to spend that hour with you. That’s the magic.”
Hallett offers that much of that Broadway magic was picked up right here in this province when the cast brought the show to Gander.
“The characters are funny, interesting and charming; as are many Newfoundlanders in their own right. Parts in the play, these are not jokes, these are things that these Newfoundlanders said that happen to be funny. It’s much more docudrama than people realize. Like anything on the Ocean Ranger or the seal hunt; it’s real.”
Having the actors meet the characters they portray made a world of difference. “The actors captured these Newfoundlanders over the course of this and it added so much. Accents that were a little wobbly suddenly locked in. The physical nuances of these people were picked up. It was very easy for these actors to inhabit these people they met. Working with a dialect coach is not the same as meeting that person. The audience maybe couldn’t put their finger on it and say; yeah that’s it, but something changed.”
Besides changing his life, and the lives of many who have seen the play, Hallett says he can only marvel at how much the actor’s lives have changed, Newfoundland’s own Petrina Bromley included.
“I suspect Petrina got an email like I did four years ago and thought, yeah why not? And now, she’s found herself propelled to Broadway. This has to have been life changing for her. I would image, much more than it has been for me, that this has been life changing in some way.”
wonder & amazement
Now, you’re on Broadway, he says, wonder and amazement in his voice, eyes, and I’d imagine, soul.
“This is not just some kind of thing that is on Broadway for a couple of weeks and everyone goes home again. You’re involved in this phenomena that has taken off and might last forever. For the actors, there’s this sense of, holy sh*t and I don’t know if that will ever wear off.”
Hallett’s smile broadens.
“This is the stuff dreams are made of. To have this opportunity is amazing enough for me, but for those on stage? They know they’ve been blessed and I see that reflected on the stage at every show. Everyone goes out on stage with this; wow! What an opportunity! What a gift! feeling. That adds to the sincerity. It’s so real. From all kind of blue sky fantasy talk to Broadway!? If that can happen, anything really is possible.”