You know what sounds like a terrible idea? A musical about September 11th. You know what’s actually the the nicest, warmest, most cathartic theatrical experience I’ve had in ages? Come From Away–Broadways’ new musical about September 11th.
Whenever tragedy strikes, you are likely to see popping up on your Facebook and Twitter feeds this oft-used quote by Fred [Mr.] Rogers:
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
Come From Away takes this spirit of kindness and generosity, multiplies it by a million, and sets it to music. The result is a feel good joyful escapism of goodwill and community that New York feels especially ripe for. As I always say, if you ask a New Yorker for directions they’ll roll their eyes. Have a real emergency? New York’s got your back.
Come From Away tells the story of 38 planes diverted to Gander, Newfoundland after U.S. airspace closed on September 11. The “plane people” as they come to be called essentially double the population of Gander and surrounding towns, as residents scramble to accommodate their new international visitors. There’s a quirky small town vibe, with lots of jokes about fish and moose, and friendly good-natured neighbors who all know each other and will gladly invite you home to use their shower if you need it.
The 12-actor cast plays about 40 characters–residents and plane people–with the addition of simple props, costume pieces, and accents. Naturally some characters get more attention (and depth) than others. There’s the local news reporter, who mostly plays Overwhelmed-On-Her-First-Day-Cuz-Who-Knew-This-Was-Going-To-Happen, or the small town mayor who affably greets citizens every morning in Tim Horton’s. But there’s also Beverly Bass (played by Jen Colella), who’s given a deep internal life as the first female American Airlines captain, who never wavers in making sure her passengers get home safely. And Hannah O’Rourke (Q. Smith), who loses her NYC firefighter son. The fact that we suspect that outcome, even as Hannah hopes for the best, is a testament to the goodness of this show. All the characters feel like friends. Even when we see the inevitable coming, we still hope for the best.
Having some characters more fully realized than others is not a weakness of the show, it’s a powerful reminder of the ensemble nature of this cast and communities in general. Trading off characters, alternating key moments–everyone participating in a story that’s about all of us–is a reminder that quite literally we’re all in this together. Come From Away reminds you that when times are hard, it’s not who you are, it’s what you do that’s important.
And maybe some moments might feel too conveniently heartwarming for the cynics out there. Like when the Muslim passenger forgives days of suspicion and ask for the local “fish and cheese” recipe of his new friends or how every resident lets their barbecue grills be stolen out of their yards. (Literally no one objects!) These moments are played for laughs and goodwill inclusiveness.
But even if these moments are contrived, my question is “So what?” It’s musical theater–all the moments are contrived. The point of Come From Away sets is to show people at their best, when the world’s at its worst. Gander was the silver lining to New York’s grimmest day. I saw audience members wiping away tears in the opening scenes but lingering during the curtain call’s rousing traditional music, not quite wanting to leave yet. A hour and a half with the good citizens of Gander was a charming escape. Like the plane people, you’ll eventually have to leave, but it was a nice break from the real world.
Come From Away is playing at at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, with a running time of 100 minutes.