The Grand Falls-born, St. John’s-raised musician left a seven-year stint with the touring musical “Wicked” to join the cast of “Come From Away” as a drummer, and says he’s grateful for so many elements of the job. For one, representing the people and music style of his home province. For another, being a part of such a celebrated show that tells the tale of something so personal to Newfoundland, alongside some accomplished performers.
Another benefit: he actually gets to have a home base for more than two weeks out of every year.
“I have an apartment to come home to and groceries that I can come home to,” he says, laughing. “I can get bulk things for cheaper and I don’t have to throw out the olive oil because I’m only here for a couple weeks and then have to buy a new bottle for $20.”
Di Nillo is one of two Newfoundlanders in “Come From Away,” alongside Petrina Bromley, but being in the band, he’s perhaps a little less known.
He’s not any less accomplished, having started playing music in Kindergarten. His dad came from Italy and was a chef in St. John’s; his mom was born in the Port-au-Port area.
“Her brother was Roddie Lee, drummer from the Carleton Show Band. I watched him play drums at the Arts and Culture Centre with the band lots of times,” Di Nillo says. “I remember being backstage, watching my uncle from stage left and saying, ‘Mom, I want to play drums.’ I was five. I got a drum set that Christmas.”
Di Nillo went on to earn a degree in music performance form MUN, then took a year or so off and played with Ron Hynes. Di Nillo was in his early 20s; Hynes, signed with EMI, had just moved back home and was filling every venue he played. Di Nillo had met him on a Tuesday. Ron gave him some CDs and told him to learn the songs by Thursday.
“I learned them all and then we went to our first gig, at the Ship Inn. Ron would constantly start these songs that weren’t on the albums; he’d go, ‘Blind Willy, Romano, Blind Willy,’ which was actually a song but he meant for me to just keep up.
“We did a bunch of shows, and we did the song ‘Killer Cab.’ I wasn’t particularly personally fond of the arrangement on the album. One day I had an idea to do something different, include congas and stuff. We set up and we got to ‘Killer Cab’ and I started with this totally different vibe. I look at him and go, Blind Willy Ron, Blind Willy, and he loved it. He never gave me shit for it or anything.”
Di Nillo later earned a masters in orchestral performance from McGill University in Montreal, then spent 10 years in Toronto performing with symphonies and the Canadian Opera Company. When the musical “Wicked” came to town in 2006, the drummer for the show asked Di Nillo to sit with him. In 2009, after that guy moved on to the Broadway production of the show, Di Nillo took his place.
Betwen 2009 and 2016, Di Nillo did 2,600 shows with Wicked all around North America.
“I’ve seen every state except the ones without a 2,000-seat theatre,” he says.
The “Come From Away” job came up through an investor friend, and Bob Hallett, who was the show’s music consultant. Bumping into Hallett on a night out in St. John’s, Di Nillo chatted to him about the possibility of getting involved. Two weeks later, he had an audition, and he got the call to join the production in Toronto on Sept. 11, 2016 — the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks “Come From Away” is centred around.
The gig is a dream, Di Nillo says, and he’s hoping to stay with the show as long as they’ll have him. The musical’s seven Tony nominations are merely an added bonus.
“I think we’ve already got the cake,” he says. “Whether there are candles on it or not, it’s an honour either way.”