Lately, in this endless self-isolation, I have found myself spending a lot of time with a certain musical. It’s a musical from the 2017 Broadway season that unjustly lost the Best Musical Tony to Dear Evan Hansen (obligatory reminder that I personally will murder Evan Hansen one day). The star of this musical is upsettingly sexy and woefully under-appreciated outside the world of theater. The themes of the musical feel eerily relevant to the pandemic era. The show is set in a small, isolated town with harsh winters. The ensemble looks like a group of regular people, but as the story unfolds you come to see how special they are. And the more I listen to this musical, the more I’m amazed at the economy with which it hits at so many vital truths.
Nope, not Groundhog Day again (although I am still having a good cry at the final song in Groundhog Day at least once a week). This time, we’re talking Come From Away.
I’m on the record as a Come From Away stan. I wrote about it a bit in my recap of favorite moments from the Tonys. I blithely gave you a few paragraphs and then thought I could white-knuckle my way through any remaining urges to keep writing about this show.
And yet, I continued to be fascinated with how confidently Come From Away shifts the lens of history. The show isn’t hiding some secret plot twist. Its whole advertising campaign is its story: Nineteen years ago, at a tragic moment in history, a bunch of Canadians spent five days being extremely nice to a lot of strangers. That’s it. That’s the whole show. But Come From Away unfolds with complete certainty that this is an important, valuable story.
Come From Away is quietly radical in how it heroizes mundane acts of kindness, especially labor traditionally associated with women. At one point, a character states in awe, “I saw a casserole dish I don’t think I could lift.” Other big hero moments in the show include when a bunch of cardiologists clean some bathrooms and when a group of Newfoundlanders tells the astonished Kevins (a gay couple) all about their own queer loved ones. Over and over again, these are the emotional pyrotechnics of Come From Away: hard work, joy, community, compassion, kindness, empathy. They are dazzling.
Of course, the context that sets these acts of goodness into sharp relief is the horrifying events that necessitated the planes being rerouted to Gander in the first place. I think another reason Come From Away works is because, like Groundhog Day, it knows that you must go through the tunnel to get to the light. The show isn’t saccharine or tidy. It encompasses grief, rage, bigotry, and boredom. And yet it’s ruthlessly efficient. Every line, every note, every character beat brings an emotional payoff. It’s a perfectly constructed synecdoche of something so much bigger, in a way I find only theater can be.
I feel fortunate that Come From Away has an abundance of performance clips available on YouTube. I watch them often: rows of mics at volunteer events, or scenes wedged into cramped talk show sets. Even in the earnest world of theater, Come From Away is almost embarrassingly sincere. That sincerity keeps drawing me back in. It shines so brightly in my pandemic loneliness.
So much of 2020 feels impersonal and isolating. Not just the literal isolation, but the (necessary) obscuring of faces, the tension around casual embraces. And on a broader scale, we are all constantly struggling and failing to comprehend the magnitude of what has happened, and what is still happening. With 200,000 Americans dead, our President has said that the novel coronavirus affects “virtually nobody.” The truth is that if we mourned those 200,000 Americans in a proportion commensurate with how we have grieved past national tragedies, we’re not certain we could bear the weight.
Come From Away lets me zoom way, way in. I can’t comprehend 200,000 people, but I can get to know 12. That’s the whole cast, although truthfully it feels bigger, with the band onstage and all the actors more than doubling their roles. They’ll swap accents and a costume piece or two and you’ll honestly forget you’re looking at the same group of people.
The doubling accomplishes something else, too: it ensures that every character is part of a set of uncanny doppelgängers from parallel worlds. A flight attendant on one flight is also a TV news reporter in Gander. New York Kevin is also the restaurant manager who wants to help with the food. Captain Bass is also Annette who works at Gander Academy. In a story about choosing to identify with those you’re inclined to see as “other,” it feels right to see the spirits of multiple characters acted out by the same body. It also blurs the boundaries of the narrative. If these actors can be anyone, it means anyone can be part of the story.
The actors are fully aware of this dimension to their work, and take advantage of it. Here’s a highlight from a delightful April 2019 Playbill interview with the Broadway company at the time:
Two years in, do any of those tertiary characters have as deep a backstory for you as the main characters that you play?
Petrina Bromley: My character on one of the planes, when the stewardess tells us it’s only the carry-on that you go with, I’m concerned because I put myself in the role of being the person who’s in charge of the Bonobos.
Q. Smith: Oh that’s smart.
Geno Carr: That’s like a parfait [because Petrina plays Bonnie who does take care of the Bonobos].
Petrina: “But I have monkeys,” is what I say, which is sort of funny but it’s true.
Jenn Colella: “But I have monkeys!” [Laughs]
Sharon Wheatley: That’s all I’m going to listen for tonight.
Petrina: For a little while, I was thinking about maybe I have a cat down there and then it was like dogs…
Jenn: No, monkeys is strong.
Geno: Go big or go home.
(You should seriously read the whole interview. It’s unbearably charming.)
Let me show you a few of my favorite parts of this show. (Here’s the full soundtrack on YouTube. With a total duration just over one hour, you wouldn’t believe how smoothly it goes down. It has a relentless momentum, one song flowing into the next, a stunning tapestry of human kindness.)
Welcome to the Rock
I’ve already talked about this, but man, what a perfect opening number. I go feral with primal joy when they’re chanting “I’m an islander, I am an islander.”
Honestly, the performance of this song to which I return the most is this incredibly sweet Zoom performance from the Toronto cast. I love their accents, I love their joy, I love their utter commitment to the piece. And Zoom feels kind of perfect for this song. It helps that so much of it is meant to be sung/spoken directly to the audience even when onstage. This format lends it a new intimacy that resonates well with the material.
One more clip of this song. You may recall that last year, a freak power outage forced several Broadway shows to cancel performances at the last minute. So the cast and band of Come From Away poured out onto the sidewalk and sang this song to the crowd outside.
It’s hard to watch this clip and feel like they’re performing for any other reason than that they absolutely love this show. Chad Kimball is the beaming cinematographer, and one of many original cast members who is still with this show that opened in March 2017. (Kimball, in the interview I linked above: “Every night, one of us will hear someone’s 9/11 story. That is also just one of the reasons why we’re all still here. We, every night, are reminded of what the show can do. Also, as actors, why we got into the business—to affect people and also to possibly help people. It’s a blessing to be able to do this show.”)
Heave Away/Screech In
This performance!!! I have watched so many excellent musicals make a go at performing on Good Morning America, and it almost always feels weird and forced. And then you see this performance, which is perfect. I wouldn’t change a thing about it! I can watch it over and over, tracking each individual cast member. Joel Hatch’s “There’s 30 verses in this song!” makes me laugh every time.
And: NICK AND DIANE. Nick and Diane are the perfect case study in how good this show is at getting you invested in its plethora of bit characters. I only know like four things about Nick and Diane, but one of those four things is that I need them to be together.
Me and the Sky
This is an abridged clip of Jenn Colella’s solo song, which she delivers with utmost panache. Apparently the real Captain Bass, whom Colella portrays, has seen the show 68 times, to which I say: BIG MOOD.
38 Planes (Reprise)/Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere
When Jenn Colella sings, “Right below us is the city where I grew up,” you can see her BDE from space.
“Because we come from everywhere, we all come from away.” And in Come From Away, that’s a virtue. It’s good to explore new places, and it’s good to welcome outsiders. From that tension comes genuine connection.
I’ve seen Come From Away twice, in a recent era that now feels like another lifetime. But here in 2020, when the precarity of life and death hangs on the strength of human empathy, I’ve come to appreciate it on a different level. I’ve said before that good theater is like watching a miracle. And someday, when theaters reopen, this is the generous, big-hearted, deeply human miracle I’ll want to see again.
Featured photo: Jenn Colella, Ramano Di Nillo (Percussion), Caitlin Warbelow (Fiddle), and the Broadway company of Come From Away. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy.