Let’s get one thing straight – there are not a lot of Canadian musicals out there. And even those made in Canada by Canadians usually don’t feature it all that much. This is only the first thing that sets the new musical Come From Away apart from most other shows. Created and work shopped at Sheridan college, and currently playing in Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theater, this is probably the best show I’ve ever seen – which is really saying something.
Come From Away tells the story of the town of Gander, Newfoundland, whose population doubled when 38 planes were diverted to its airport following the attacks on September 11, 2001. With limited supplies and an unwavering sense of hospitality, the town’s residents house almost 7000 passengers from around the world. They feed them, clothe them, invite them into their homes, all free of charge. Through the eyes of a number of narrators played by a cast of 10 actors, we see something begin on the day the world stopped – and (spoilers!), it’s not all good.
(The cast of Come From Away, mid-performance)
Though broken by many moments that were so funny I nearly fell out of my seat, a heart-wrenching tale comes to light. A woman desperately tries to contact her son, a firefighter in New York City. A pilot reassures her husband everything is fine, even though she’s definitely not. An Egyptian man is put through search after security search. In those moments when I wasn’t laughing, I was on the verge of tears… talk about an emotional story.
Moreover, this musical is based on a bunch of true stories.
10 years later, those who met in Gander returned for an anniversary reunion. The stories collected during that reunion make up what you see on stage. Stories like that of Beverly Bass, the first woman to make captain of an American Airlines plane, who flew the 36th plane to land in Gander that day. The character based on Beverly at one point sings a song called “Me and the Sky,” which took her description of her life almost verbatim and put it to music.
(Beverly Bass. Read her version of what happened in Gander here.)
Then there are stories like that of Nick and Diane, who met as they were stuck on their plane at the Gander airport for 28 hours straight. After it was all over, they eventually got married, in spite of the circumstances under which they met. It’s the sort of love story that gets all the emotions without hitting any of those typical Love-Story-in-a-Musical cliches. Why? Because it’s real.
I don’t think I could stress enough how amazing it is to bring real stories like this to the stage. Not only is is a great way to learn some history, but it’s a first hand way to see how this played out – almost straight from the people themselves. If there was ever a medium made for different perspectives, it’s musical theater. Just as well, we see how these peoples’ stories fit together (or didn’t fit together so well at times)… and that’s just so cool.
But the stories aren’t just there alone; the music they’re put to is played by a live, onstage band. Traditional instruments such as the bodhran, the fiddle, and even the ugly stick (just google it, because it’s kind of awesome) take to the stage. And those songs will be stuck in your head for days to come – me, I’m still humming the show’s opening number, “Welcome to the Rock.” It’s all just so well composed and well performed on stage, it makes it easy to get lost in the 100 minute long musical.
(The band is specially featured during a musical number)
If you’re not already convinced that this is the greatest musical (ever), here’s something that really struck me about it. Come From Away brings alive a story that, frankly, I had never heard before. And it’s terrible, the circumstances under which these narratives were created. Yet at the same time, is beyond uplifting.
It shows this prevailing of the human spirit that I had almost forgotten about.
I mean, needless to say, we stand pretty divided right now. Polarized by the election, there’s just this feeling of separation. Like humanity is kind of coming apart. I won’t say Come From Away totally dispels that, because it doesn’t. Yet, at the same time, there’s an uplifting quality that made me feel as though there is still some hope for unity in the world.
In the end, I felt like things might be okay. Even though there is a tough world out there right now, there’s still some human decency. There’s still a compassion amongst people that can pull us all together. I needed to hear a message like that. At this point, I’m not even sure I have the words in me to describe what this show did to my spirit. Whatever it was, it was absolutely necessary.
What else is so cool about it? It was made at Sheridan – whose theater program has a partnership with UTM! It was university students who first put on this show, who were the first to bring these stories to life. All this was done by way of an awesome initiative called the Canadian Music Theater Project – meant to foreground Canadian theater written by Canadian authors. People just like you and me participated in putting a story in need of telling onto the stage. That just makes me smile.
(Come From Away’s original Sheridan cast)
So, if you can find tickets (they are going fast), and need something to do over your winter break, head down to Toronto and catch Come From Away. It runs until early January, before it heads to Broadway in February. I promise, this is totally worth the trip – don’t miss out!
(For information on the show and tickets, check out Come From Away’s official website.)