When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada traveled to New York City to attend Come From Away, it was already clear that the outpouring of affection for the show wasn’t just because of what was happening on the Broadway stage. Our reaction to any show is no doubt influenced by what we bring into the theatre with us, but once in a while a show owes its collective appeal to the world and the times more than any lyrics or lines.
Written by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, a married couple from Toronto who interviewed hundreds of participants, Come From Away fashions a musical out of the true story of the residents of the small Canadian town of Gander, Newfoundland, who for several days took care of some 7,000 passengers and crew in thirty-eight airplanes that were forced to land at the local airport after the attacks of September 11, 2001.
The show relates some of the ways in which the townspeople took to their hosting duties with exceptional hospitality and ingenuity. Having arranged to truck in food from throughout the local region, they did not have the facilities to meet health department requirements of keeping it all refrigerated. So they turned the Gander community center hockey rink into “the world’s largest walk-in refrigerator.”
Before the performance Trudeau attended, he made a brief speech: "The world gets to see what it is to lean on each other and be there for each other through the darkest times."
Under different circumstances, nothing he said would seem especially noteworthy.
But Trudeau makes a point of advocating for refugees and celebrating the arts. This is, of course, in sharp contrast to President Donald Trump. On the very day of Trudeau’s speech in Broadway’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre—as it happens, on the Ides of March—Trump released his budget plan. It calls for the elimination of cultural agencies—the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Institutes of Health, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting—as well as of the Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance Fund.
It’s the times we suddenly live in, in other words, that surely have helped turn Come From Away into a respectable hit, one of just five Broadway shows last week with more than 100 percent attendance. (The others are Hamilton, Book of Mormon, Dear Evan Hansen, and Hello, Dolly starring Bette Midler.) Come From Away allows theatregoers to register their dissent against what’s happening in Washington, at least in their own minds. It seems a clear beneficiary of what I had labeled The Trump Effect, in an article I wrote in December to describe how the election had altered my personal perception of the shows I was seeing.
The irony for me is that it wasn’t the Trump Effect that most affected my view of Come From Away.
I was across the street from the Twin Towers on the morning of September 11, 2001 when they were attacked. When an out-of-town friend visiting New York recently bought me a ticket to the 9/11 Memorial Museum, I couldn’t bring myself to go (“Forgetting 9/11”).
When I saw Come From Away, I was grateful that the musical didn’t wind up being “triggering,” as I wrote in my review of it for DC Theatre Scene. But I have to admit that I couldn’t help harboring some resentment towards the show and its admirers. Why is this first “9/11 musical” on Broadway set 1,500 miles away from New York—or indeed very far from any place that was attacked? Are they implying that you had to travel a great distance to find people acting decently during the crisis? There were many New Yorkers who behaved decently during 9/11, even though their lives were endangered. Some of the most decent lost their lives.
A friend I’ve known since high school, also a native New Yorker, argued that I should look at the show differently—that it would be too soon to set a 9/11 musical in Manhattan, that the very distance is what allows us to consider the tragedy at all. Besides, he said, it is “superbly” put together.
Some critics agree with that assessment of its quality. (“A bracingly kinetic production… the Tony race for best musical of the year just got interesting.”–Peter Marks, Washington Post.) Some very much don’t. (“A gushily sentimental piece of theatrical yard goods that makes every mistake a musical can make.”–Terry Teachout, Wall Street Journal.) I enjoyed the foot-stomping Celtic-flavored music, and the energetic ensemble work of its talented twelve-member cast, who switched back and forth between portraying the townspeople and the “plane people,” as they were called. But, putting aside my personal reaction based on the subject matter, I also thought that the characters were treated too superficially, the music was not varied enough, that the show played it too safe and cute.
All these critical assessments strike me as especially irrelevant. I’m convinced that what draws people into the show above all else is that its heartwarming view of humanity is embodied by heartwarming humans who actually exist.
Ask yourself: Would the reaction to Come from Away have been the same if it were not a true story?
Something of the same phenomenon occurred with Having Our Say, a 1995 play by Emily Mann based on an oral history of two sisters—Bessie Delaney, who at the time of the play was age 104, and Sarah Delaney, who was 106. They were reportedly still cogent, insightful, funny. Initially surprised that anybody would be interested in them, they eventually were coaxed into telling what turned out to be a fascinating tale. Members of a prominent Harlem family, they knew the greats of the Harlem Renaissance, and they themselves were pioneers, both in civil rights and in their own respective professions: Bessie Delany was one of the first black woman dentists licensed in New York. I’m sure the actresses who portrayed them on stage, Mary Alice and Gloria Foster, were terrific, but to me they simply channeled these people I would have enjoyed spending time with. The performances—the play itself—seemed incidental.
Now, this is not a precise analogy. Some of the characters in Come From Away are composites. All are what one New York critic hilariously dismissed as “implausibly pleasant.” But various interviews with the actual townspeople hint that, as Emily Mann did with the Delaney sisters, Sankoff and Hein have captured something palpably extraordinary about these people who insist they are ordinary.
One such Gander resident, Beulah Cooper, head of the Gander Legion, was quoted recently as saying she didn't understand what the fuss was all about; anybody would have done what they did. “When I die,” she said, “I’m going to tell them to put on my tombstone, ‘I brought a tray of sandwiches to the Legion.’”
Jonathan Mandell’s New Crit piece usually appears the first Thursday of each month. See his previous pieces here.