Ben’s Guide to Musical Theater: Come From Away

Welcome to the first installment to the “Ben’s Guide to Musical Theater” series. These articles are aimed at people who love theater, are involved in theater, and even folks who despise theater. My main goal for the series is to showcase shows that most people probably haven’t heard of or don’t get the recognition they deserve. Everyone knows about “Hamilton” and “Les Mis”, but I hope that this series exposes you to the unsung heroes of the musical world and further showcase the wonderful works of art that show why theater is so great. So without further ado, it is time to dissect musicals.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, is one of the most notorious events in the 21st century. These terrorist attacks that caused the destruction of the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and millions of lives in the building and airlines have been represented through multiple forms of media through many different points of views. It’s an event that warrants many stories to be told, and “Come From Away” gives us an inspiring true event in a uniquely staged and light-hearted way. Compared to many other stories in the setting of September 11, this one brings us a new perspective that stands out among many other tellings of the event.

The musical takes place directly after the events of September 11, touching on the closure of US airlines following the traumatic event. Because of this, 38 planes were ordered to land in a small town called Gander, which is located in Canada. This results in the townsfolk being forced to take over 7000 passengers for shelter before they can be sent back to America. The result is an abundance of story arcs and character-driven moments that drive in the message of human kindness in the face of tragedy.

Many of the stories are based on real events during the evacuation, all ranging in tone and style. Often they parallel with each other to showcase the differences we all have as people, like how the slowly growing romance between Nick and Diane contrasts with the diminishing romance between two guys named Kevin, who each handle the stress of the terrorist attacks differently. Much of it is played up in a fast-paced and humorous nature, giving off a tone that’s light-hearted and fun. There is the occasional low brow joke that could rub people the wrong way, mostly based around obvious Canadian stereotypes (lol mooses are from Canada), but it’s easily forgiven as they don’t take up a lot of the story.

“Come From Away” also showcases the tragedy of 9/11 and the consequences. There’s a powerful scene in the song “Lead Us Out of the Night” where the passengers see video footage of the terrorist attacks while being placed in Canada. It subtly portrays the sense of loss and hopelessness that many people felt during the tragedy. It even touches on prejudice with the character Ali, a Muslim who is faced with rejection and speculation, even being interrogated before going to his flight home. In the end, he uses kindness in order to win over those who judged him. The ultimate message behind this musical is that even in the face of tragedy, respect, understanding, and empathy can still shine through. The Gander folks show a great deal of respect for the passengers as they go through a rough time in their country, which soon inspires them to do more good deeds for other people. This is a message that is super relevant in a time where our country seems more divided than ever.

One of the most interesting aspects of the production is how everything is staged and presented. Much of the show takes on a very minimalist approach, using a simple set and a small cast. Despite the real event containing over 7000 people and the show having about 100 to 200 characters, the actually cast equals out to twelve people. Each member of the cast plays about two or more of the large amount of characters, sometimes switching roles on stage in the span of a second.  Many of the smaller roles they play are used for laughs while their more prominent roles show a great deal of depth. The actors even do sounds effects during a few moments, providing some comic relief. This is an extremely impressive feat as it shows off each performers talents in terms of their comedic and dramatic abilities and keeps the production simple enough to follow and relate to. Each performer is unique in their own right and always has a moment to shine even if its only for five seconds at a time. I’d even argue that the use of actors playing multiple roles is symbolic of how despite our differences, we’re all similar in many ways. Many of us have similar goals and if we can get past the prejudices we may have, the world can be better, a theme that is prevalent in the show and relevant to modern day America.

The staging is something that really stood out to me. Despite being in a relatively large theater, the show doesn’t use a whole lot of set pieces, often using a bare stage with a small amount of props, lights and materials. One of the most impressive uses of the small staging is during plane scenes and bus scenes, where all the chairs are positioned in order to simulate the feeling of being on a vehicle. It perfectly captures the feeling without having to see a realistic plane, which is something most big-budget musical would probably do. The small scale nature makes the story feel more intimate and relatable, making everything feel all the more real. It’s one of those shows that you have to see close up because the characters often interact with the audience during the more fun moments of the show.

One notable moment for me when I saw the show was during “Wherever We Are”. During the scene, two flight attendants are shown to be drunk and they proceed to flash the audience. Now keep in mind, I was in the third row in the middle of the theater right in front of the flashing and my innocent little brain was shook. Then one of the actresses looked directly at me and starting pointing at me, with a face that read “oh yeah, I just did what you think I did”. Gotta love a good character break.

There’s a moment during the song “Stop the World” where the characters Nick and Diane are on a roof. The roof is represented by a bunch of chairs and as they walk across these chairs, moving from one to the other as the stage rotates the opposite direction, other actors slowly move one chair at a time to another side in order to seamlessly simulate an endless walk. It showcases the message of the song by slowing down the world around them as Nick and Diane reminisce about their love for each other. It also shows their desire to hold on to the memory of  their time together by any means possible before they leave and go their separate ways. This kind of creative use of staging is something that I love about modern musical theater. They don’t rely heavily on big special effects and visuals in order to move the story, but rather take what little they have to create a more intimate experience.

Like many modern musical, the music takes on a more contemporary sound, using a more folky style that employs a small band. There’s a heavy use of violins and drums, which provides a very upbeat and energizing score that helps create an epic and exciting tone to moments that wouldn’t seem that interesting at first glance. The show doesn’t really contain a lot of typical songs as much of the story is told through monologues and dialogue, so the songs are used to emphasis a phrase or add a dramatic effect to a scene. This makes the show feel more like a play with music rather than a full blown musical, which is unique and highly appreciated. The lyrics are often simplistic and repetitive, which would normally be a negative, but the use of its larger than life music and being mixed in with dialogue scenes that help with the pacing greatly reduces this. When the songs are at the forefront, they become true showstoppers and help move the story along while being entertaining and witty. The opening number, “Welcome to The Rock”, perfectly establishes the light hearted and triumphant tone of the show while getting across its themes and setting. Many songs are more character based, like the ballad “I Am Here”, one of my personal favorites in the show, which tragically showcases a worried mother trying to reach out to his firefighter son. Unknown to the mom, her son died during the terrorist attacks. Other songs take a more thematic approach like “Prayer”, where a select group of characters talk about their wants and need as they pray to their separate religions, tying to a theme that we are different but alike. For the most part, the songs all tie into the messages presented in the show and often provide some wit and hope to inspire and uplift the audience.

The one song that doesn’t really work for me is “Me and the Sky”, in which flight attendant Beverley Bass talks about her history as a pilot and how her world views changed as she got older. While its a beautiful song, showcasing a great message and showcases an insane vocal range for the actresses playing her, this song drives the show to a halt and doesn’t really move anything forward like the other ones do. It’s also disconnected with the thematic element introduced and comes out of nowhere. No other character has had this level of backstory and while I understand the characters importance, this song just doesn’t belong in the story thematically.

One notable thing about the score is the band, who is located off stage in the wings rather than being in a pit like most shows. During a couple numbers in the show, the band members with actually come on stage to perform with the main actors, most notably a scene in the bar where the musicians come on to have fun and party with the rest of the cast. This further adds to the minimalist approach of the musical and adds a lot of character to a usually unseen presence.  During the shows bows, they have their own little moment to shine by performing an instrumental song together and showing off their charisma and skill. Those kind of moments where the show actually acknowledges the people behind the scenes are rare to find and it’s great to see musicians in the forefront when most other shows focus more on starpower and special effects.

“Come From Away” is a unique addition to the world of musical theater and the stories of 9/11. Its minimalist staging and cast creates an intimate and real environment that gets you invested in the many different characters, its music keeps the show at a fast pace while helping develop its themes, and gives us an optimistic view on tragedy that many shows often overlook. It’s a show that encourages us to be good people even if its something small and to not let the trauma of the world ruin our perception of humanity. The show is currently playing on Broadway at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater and is a must see for any NYC trip.  I give “Come From Away” a 7 out of 10.