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U-M music prof moonlights as "Come From Away" music director
Cynthia Korman Westphal has been in stage musical bands, including as a music director, for nearly than 25 years. And her credits include the original Broadway company of "The Lion King" as well as "A Christmas Story" and "Miss Saigon."
So when the Holland, Mich., native and University of Michigan musical theater department faculty member calls a production "a little more challenging" than the norm, it's certainly intriguing.
But that's how Westphal feels about "Come From Away," the Tony Award-winning hit about Operation Yellow Ribbon in Gander, Newfoundland, the Canadian town where flights were diverted after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and wound up hosting 7,000 stranded travelers for five days until air traffic resumed. The musical puts Westphal, who's been music director of the touring company for the past 15 months, beside the other seven musicians on stage and integral to the show, fully costumed and interactive as with the actors and their characters.
"That's pretty unusual," Westphal acknowledges. "We're all on stage, all in costume. We come out a couple of moments in the show and become characters — like the band that's in the bar where people come to blow off some steam and have a few drinks. That's really different — and really fun."
Westphal adds that unlike being in an orchestra pit and out of the audience's sight, "Come From Away" requires her to be "a little more aware of when mistakes are made or anything like that happens."
"I'm more careful of my game face when I'm actually on the stage, because people can see me," she says. "I can't react how I might react in the pit." Conducting, as well, is a different proposition in "Come From Away."
"It's a very fast-paced show, with no intermission," she says. "So we're going the whole entire time. Once you start the show you don’t get a moment to breathe until it’s done." The range of music represented in the musical 20 numbers — including a post-bows performance by the band — also keeps the musicians on their toes.
"There are so many types of music in it — classical, Newfoundland, Irish, Jewish Klezmer music, some Islamic feel," Westphal says. "There's so many different styles and so many different ways of playing, and many different instruments. Each of our players play multiple instruments. So it sort of takes a very unique skill set. It's different than most Broadway shows."
Being at the helm of such an intricate musical was not something a teenage Westphal aspired to. She began playing piano when she was 7 but "went through a period of time where I really hated it." Fortunately, Westphal’s mother didn't let her quit, but cut down the lessons to one per month, letting her find her own way into music. And Westphal did, as a high school senior, when she caught the attention of a piano instructor at Hope College who took her under wing for home lessons and "got me down the path of looking at music as a career."
Westphal earned a bachelor's degree at Hope and a master's at Western Michigan University, moving after graduation to New York and making her way into the Broadway community. Westphal recalls being with "The Lion King" on 9/11, and playing to a nearly empty theater during the first few shows after the attack.
"To hear a trickle of applause when we'd been used to the roar of the crowd was an indication of what was happening, of how fearful people were to come back into the city," says Westphal, who came to U-M in 2004 with leeway to continue working on Broadway, regional and touring productions.
"That was a really crazy time to live in. It's fascinating I'm now doing this show that's so related to those events."
"Come From Away," written by Ilene Sankoff and David Hein and first workshopped during 2012, illustrates a particular moment of light amid the darkness post-9/11. Gander and the surrounding region rallied to house, care for and make the stranded travelers feel welcome. The musical — the longest-running Canadian-created show in Broadway history — builds its story from specific and composite relationships and events that occurred during the travelers' stay there.
And Westphal feels the current political and social divisions around the world make the musical's message even more resonant.
"The thing I love most is that it really is simply a story about human kindness and about communities coming together to take care of people from all over the world — all different countries, different languages, different religions, and doing it wholeheartedly," Westphal says. "No matter what your party affiliation or background is, at the end of the day it's about people being kind to each other.
"In the times we're living in right now, that's an important story to tell."
"Come From Away" runs Oct. 1-13 at the Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit. Tickets are $39 and up. Call 313-872-1000 or visit broadwayindetroit.com.
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