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When the 2017 Tony nominations came out this month, the new Come From Away musical on Broadway created a stir. It’s up for seven awards, including Best Musical, and has already won five Outer Critics Circle Awards. Why the commotion? Come From Away centers on the small Canadian town of Gander, Newfoundland in the wake of September 11th, when it became the temporary home of thousands of stranded passengers and crew from grounded transatlantic flights. The Knickerbocker team groaned when we first heard about a 9/11-themed musical. But after seeing it for ourselves, we’ve changed our tune. Come From Away musical is the Broadway hit New Yorkers and visitors need to see. Here’s why.
Calling Come From Away a 9/11 story isn’t accurate, it turns out. The musical is more about what happens after. With air traffic grounded, 38 planes crossing the Atlantic are forced to land in Gander, Newfoundland. The small town of 9,000 must cope with feeding and housing an additional 7,000 people (the “come from aways.”). Over the course of several days, the townspeople and the plane passengers develop tight bonds as they navigate the realities of what’s happened.
To create the characters, show writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein conducted dozens of interviews, totalling hundreds of hours with the individuals who were in Gander that week. Sankoff and Hein distilled their stories into a mere 100 minute show, in which the twelve cast members alternate between playing the locals and plane passengers.
Tony nominee Jenn Colella spends much of her stage-time as Beverley Bass, a veteran pilot who was flying American Airlines from Paris to Dallas. Q. Smith alternates between locals and Hannah O’Rourke, a passenger whose son is a Brooklyn firefighter. She befriends Beulah Cooper (played by Astrid van Wieren) a local whose son is a firefighter in Gander. There’s also Bonnie (played by Petrina Bromley), a Canadian SPCA worker who helps care for the otherwise forgotten animals from the planes.
Throughout the show, couples bicker, and other couples form. But none of it is “for show” or to add dramatic effect. These are real people’s stories brought to life. And a lot of it is surprisingly hilarious. “Many of the ‘come from aways’ felt guilty because they were enjoying themselves in Canada while this horrible thing was happening in the United States,” says Hein in a Paste Magazine interview. That duality plays out on stage, as the mood veers from joyous to tragic, often mid-line.
Come From Away’s creators and actors understand the significance and seriousness of their subject matter. “To exploit this event would go against the grain of all our fibers,” Hein tells Paste Magazine. In fact, the specific events of 9/11 aren’t ever mentioned, referred to simply as “the news.” The sensitivity is welcomed, and critics and audiences alike have embraced the show. So have many of the individuals who inspired the characters: Beverley Bass, the real-life pilot, has seen the musical a staggering 61 times. “I never get tired of it,” she told the New York Times. “I can’t believe I’ve seen it that many times—but I’m ready to go back.”
Folksy, usually upbeat Gaelic rock music makes up the majority of the show, although there are also a fair number of soaring, melancholy songs. Colella’s “Me and the Sky,” on Beverley’s pioneering career as a woman pilot, is a highlight, as is Q. Smith’s pleading “Phoning Home,” as Hannah tries desperately to reach her firefighter son in New York. Listen to the cast album on Spotify here.
There aren’t many dry eyes in the audience during Come From Away. Memories are stirred, and emotions run high as the one act musical progresses. Theater-goers leave the musical at once drained of energy and simultaneously inspired. On the night The Knick team saw the show, a group of Gander residents took up a few rows of the orchestra, proudly waving their Newfoundland and Gander flags. After the show, others in the audience gave them hugs, posed for photos and shared an all-around moment of community. It was a fitting end to a show that, at its base, reminds audiences to welcome “the other.”
See Come From Away at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on 45th Street. For tickets and more information, visit the Come From Away website. Stop by The Knickerbocker for post-theater drinks at St. Cloud Social rooftop to digest the masterful production you just saw.