Broadway in Atlanta is presenting the musical “Come From Away” at The Fox Theatre, with book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, directed by Christopher Ashley (who won a 2017 Tony Award), running through June 30. This is a Canadian show and it is a true story told in 95 bracing minutes.
The date is September 11, 2001. The place is a small town called Gander on the island of Newfoundland, which happens to have an airport with full-size runways which can handle large jets. Newfoundland, of course, is the easternmost island of Canada.
On that fateful day of terror and death, the air authorities of the United States and most of Canada effectively shut down air travel. However, Gander became a safe harbor in a world thrown into chaos, and 38 planes were ordered to land there, bringing 7,000 stranded passengers to a town of about that size. And they couldn’t leave for three or four days.
Gander did not have hotels for 7,000 people. What it did have was a population of extraordinary, generous, funny, and empathetic people who simply did the neighborly thing and found food and lodging for everyone. They opened their homes, immediately began cooking and distributing food for every single person.
“Come from away” is a Newfoundland term for visitors from beyond the island. Bear in mind that on the first day no one knew for certain what was happening or even why the visitors had landed there. But they soon found out.
David Hein and Irene Sankoff remark: “Through this journey, we’ve learned it’s important to tell stories about welcoming strangers and stories of kindness. It’s important to honor what was lost and commemorate what was found.” And by concentrating on the people on an American Airlines flight coming from Paris, bound to Dallas, piloted by Beverley Bass, the nation’s first female airline captain, the audience can more easily identify with the passengers.
What effect do you think the performance of this show has on an audience? If the Fox’s first night is any indication, the answer is—close to ecstasy. You may wonder how a story with a background of such horror can succeed as a musical. I could answer that it’s the music, mixing pop, rock and folk: It snaps and crackles and is sung brilliantly by the cast, accompanied by a crack eight-member onstage band.
Or I could say it’s the musical staging (Kelly Devine) with its sleight of hand deceptively simple choreography. Or the superb double casting of all the actors, especially Becky Gulsvig, Nick Duckart, Andrew Samonsky, Julie Johnson, and Danielle K. Thomas (really everyone).
But the truth is—sometimes things just work in the theatre and all you can do is smile and be grateful. Years ago, nobody thought audiences would be interested in a show about anonymous dancers telling their stories, but “A Chorus Line” became a legend.
“Variety” wrote that “Come From Away’s” creators “have forged a moving…entertaining tribute to international amity and the indomitable human spirit.” I happen to think that in a world of increasing acrimony and divisiveness audiences at this show are almost deliriously happy to see an unabashed display of human kindness and generosity and friendships forged.
I remember on the evening of September 11, the London Symphony Orchestra assembled at Westminster Abbey and played “The Star-Spangled Banner:” a beautiful display of solidarity with America. I have never been so moved to hear the anthem. We all have our 9/11 remembrances.
“Come From Away,” still going strong on Broadway, is very special. I am now a confirmed fan. Try not to miss it.
For tickets and information, visit foxtheatre.org.