With an oddly coherent one-two punch of homey Canadian sensibility and electrifying Broadway wit, Come From Away has come to town. Written by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, the musical has taken the musical world by a storm, wooing New Yorkers and out-of-towners like Justin Trudeau alike.
The New York Times dubs the musical “the catharsis we need in this American moment,” and it is not wrong, for Come From Away manages to lift us out of our modern political turmoil and transport us back to a time of astounding unity — albeit one that was extremely sobering. It takes place during the week after the September 11th attacks, in a remote Canadian town called Gander where 38 airplanes had to land unexpectedly after U.S. airspace shut down. A humanitarian crisis arises at the outset of the show: aboard these planes sit 7,000 people — a number equal to the town’s entire population — all of whom desperately need food, water, medication, and shelter. The musical captures a miraculous display of humanity in which the townspeople all come together, abandoning their personal responsibilities to spend an entire week tirelessly feeding, housing, clothing, and entertaining the passengers. As the small-town locals intermingle with these “Come-From-Awayers” from more than a hundred different countries, we lament that it takes such sadness to make people come together and celebrate life.
Particularly noteworthy is the musical’s ability to highlight the ways in which people of different identities experience their time in Gander. A gay couple, for example, initially feels the need to hide any trace of romance from potentially conservative locals and fellow visitors, but soon enough they find that everyone around them accepts them as they are. One of the pilots involved was actually the first-ever female captain in American history, and she spends the time in Gander ruminating about the last time she was not allowed to fly: when the all-male captains of her youth told her she was not fit for the skies. A Muslim chef experiences the most persistent intolerance, however, as some members of the group associate his religion with the terrorist attack and therefore do not want him to help out with the food preparation despite his expertise. These individual stories of hardship, and sometimes triumph, form a mosaic of humankind that could not stand out more from — or yet fit better into — the backdrop of Gander.
The space itself was a reflection of this mosaic superimposed upon rurality. For the musical, Gerald Schoenfeld Theater transformed into small-town Newfoundland, with thickets of evergreens bracketing the stage like the dense forest that frames rural Gander. On the stage itself, a rotating surface showcases each character from multiple angles, amplifying their individuality even during moments of solemn stillness.
The music served as the driving force behind this recurring paradigm of unification through individuality. The cast shone as a single entity in numbers such as “Welcome To The Rock,” while standouts like “Me And The Sky” sculpted the emphatically different characters in all of their joy, ambition, and desolation.
A grippingly beautiful take on a bleak moment in history, Come From Away is a must-see contemplation of what we can do in our darkest hours when we come together. Those who seek a fantastic feel-good musical that does not gloss over the trials of life should hasten to see it.