By Christopher Caggiano
Come From Away is more than just a rousing and heartwarming 100 minutes of theatrical entertainment. It’s a poignant reminder, and celebration, of what we’re all capable of as people.
Come From Away, Written by David Hein and Irene Sankoff. Music and lyrics by Hein and Sankoff. Directed by Christopher Ashley. Presented by Broadway In Boston at the Citizens Bank Opera House, 539 Washington Street, Boston, MA, through November 17.
At one point during Come From Away, a Canadian police officer walks into a supermarket looking for supplies to aid the 7,000 airline passengers who’ve been diverted to the local airport on the morning of September 11, 2001. Without a single moment of hesitation, the store owner tells the cop to take whatever he wants off the shelf.
One of the grounded passengers is sent around town, under orders from the local mayor to take the barbecue grills from people’s yards and gather them in the town center for an enormous cookout. Instead of objecting, the Newfoundland locals repeatedly invite the man in for a cup of tea.
Come From Away is full of these tiny moments of humanity, coalescing into a musical mosaic of magnanimity that could move even the most curmudgeonly of cynics to tears. The musical is more than just a rousing and heartwarming 100 minutes of theatrical entertainment. It’s a poignant reminder, and celebration, of what we’re all capable of as people. And in today’s political environment, that’s a reminder we desperately and repeatedly need.
When I saw Come From Away in a staged reading at the Goodspeed Opera House’s new-works festival in 2013, I was struck by the unusual subject matter. On that fateful day in 2001, some 38 planes were rerouted to the Gander airport in Newfoundland, and the good people of Gander and the surrounding towns dropped everything in their lives to care for 7,000 strangers over the next five days.
I was struck even more by the intimate approach taken by the authors, married couple David Hein and Irene Sankoff, an approach that nonetheless captured both the enormity of the day and the humanity that the events brought out of both locals and passengers alike. I wasn’t sure the show had the sort of mass-market appeal that would make it a candidate for Broadway, but I was nonetheless moved by the results.
My personal hesitations were, it turns out, utterly unfounded. (I would have made a terrible producer. I didn’t think Next to Normal, Once, Fun Home, Dear Evan Hansen, or The Twenty-Fifth Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee would turn a profit on Broadway, and I was resoundingly wrong on all counts.) Come From Away has become an international hit, grossing over $150 million on Broadway, and generating as of this writing an additional five companies around the globe.
Despite the dour subject matter, Come From Away is awash in goodnatured humor, and has a genuinely rousing score. But the real asset here is how Hein and Sankoff choose and mix the stories of the people affected that dreadful day, and the compellingly emotional nature of so many of those moments. There’s a thrilling sequence that captures the mixture of religious faiths represented on the planes, and interweaves their collective prayers to an intensely moving climax.
The show is not without its flaws. The creators rely far too much on narration to propel their story forward, which is an unfortunately all-too-common violation of the rules of Drama 101. (Although Lin-Manuel Miranda seems to have no aversion to direct address, at least as evidenced by the smash hit Hamilton.)
There are some rather quizzical moments of comic business, for instance an odd moment involving a group of cardiologists who volunteer to clean the bathrooms at a local school-turned-shelter, and some awkward bits of would-be comedy with a certain airline pilot who apparently is attempting to hook up with one of the female volunteers.
Perhaps the show’s greatest liability ironically comes to light during its most fully realized solo song, “Me and the Sky.” The song features backstory for one of the airline pilots, Captain Beverly Bass, who turns out to have been the first full-time female captain for American Airlines. It’s a terrific song but, unfortunately, it sets into relief the fact that Bass is really the only character in the show who gets this much development.
Director Christopher Ashley deservedly won a Tony Award for his inventive and fluid staging, which uses just a dozen or so chairs and two tables to evoke all the varied locations in the show, from the woodlands of Newfoundland to the air space above Houston. Ashley somehow shifts our attention between dozens of locations and among dozens of characters without ever creating any confusion as to where we are or whom we are listening to. That’s quite a feat.
The seamless direction has a drawback, however: there are very few applause breaks in the entire show. For the most part, that works in a piece that wants to envelope us into its world, but there are moments when the audience wants to applaud, particularly after “Me and the Sky,” and there’s no opportunity for them to do so, which is irritating and uncomfortable.
I’m reminded of when Oscar Hammerstein saw a rehearsal run-through of the musical Gypsy and afterwards spoke to his protégé Stephen Sondheim, who was writing the lyrics, about giving Ethel Merman an applause break after her cathartic final solo, “Rose’s Turn.” Sondheim said that he and his collaborators wanted to preserve the devastating impact of the moment, but Hammerstein wisely said that robbing the audience of its desire to applaud would hurt the dramatic impact of the piece as a whole.
Sometimes you have to break your own rules to give the audience the experience it deserves.
Christopher Caggiano is a writer and teacher based in Boston. He serves as Associate Professor of Theater at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee. His writing has appeared in American Theatre and Dramatics magazines, and on TheaterMania.com and ZEALnyc.com.