When American airspace was closed in the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, more flights were diverted to Halifax, and more passengers to Vancouver, than anywhere else. But the small town of Gander — a former refueling stop in Newfoundland, with a two-person police force — was probably the most altered, its population of about 9,000 swollen for nearly a week by the arrival of 7,000 “plane people” (and a few animals) who had been en route from Europe to the U.S. The enormous job of housing, feeding, and caring for them all is the subject of the unlikely and aggressively nice new musical Come From Away, which opens tonight in a production that reflects a triumph of the human spirit and an honorable mention of the theatrical. It’s by no means the best musical on Broadway, but it’s surely the goodest.
If that sounds cynical, perhaps New Yorkers may be permitted a bit of side-eye about a work that borrows our local tragedy as background for 100 minutes of Canadian civic boosterism. In the show’s book (by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, themselves Canadian), Gander is portrayed as almost teeth-grindingly sweet, with its quaint traditions, Irishy accents, and complete lack of hostility. (As the story begins, antagonists in a bus strike share gossip and breakfast at a Tim Hortons.) If there were townspeople who did not relish the chance to lose five days of sleep helping the strangers, we do not meet them; it is only among the passengers, most of them Americans, that we are shown distrust, prejudice, and a sense of entitlement. Indeed, the theme and organizing principle of the piece is the change caused by the forced interaction. Not among the Canadians, of course; saints cannot be elevated any higher. But among the folks who have, in the title phrase, “come from away,” not one is left unimproved by spending time with the Ganderites. A gay couple from Los Angeles expects homophobia but finds acceptance; a repressed Texan divorcée reinvents herself sufficiently to snag an English boyfriend. When a black guy from New York finally gets home he realizes: “I wasn’t just okay — I was so much better.”
That a story is basically true does not make it more believable onstage, which is why there are so few great nonfiction musicals. The authors of Come From Away have exacerbated the problem by fashioning their representative sampling of characters from composites of real ones. You can feel this in their vagueness. We aren’t so much given the mayor of Gander as a bunch of local mayors superimposed. The nervous young TV reporter who cutely mixes up the Elks and the Moose clubs has no particular characteristics except those that serve the action, partly because she’s based on two different people. Not helping matters is the ambitious number of stories the show wants to tell. The cast of 12 plays at least 40 roles, both locals and plane people, most of them whizzing past our attention too quickly and indistinguishably (despite Toni-Leslie James’s clever quick-change costume elements) to make lasting impressions. Even when they do, the show’s pageantlike structure, in which bits of story are connected by setting and theme rather than by action, prevents those impressions from deepening over time the way they must. There’s a lot of snow in Gander but no accumulation.
To make up for it, the production, tightly directed by Christopher Ashley, with a handsome woodsy set by Beowulf Boritt and fine lighting by Howell Binkley, does its damnedest to knock you into submission. The songs, also by Sankoff and Hein, are pleasant, in a folk-rock-meets-Celtic-revival vein that the show exploits with the mercilessness of a phlebotomist. (Cue the fiddle, bodhran, and uilleann pipes.) There is much spirited if obligatory stomping. (The choreography is by Kelly Devine.) The lyrics, though rarely well rhymed — “kitchen”/ “pins in”? — are unfailingly and sometimes absurdly uplifting, as for instance when the Ganderites describe their home as “the land where the winds tried to blow / and we said no.” Still, the songs are sung beautifully by the cast, mostly chorally but with occasional welcome solos to break up the monotony. The solos also allow two of the actors — Jenn Colella, as an American Airlines pilot, and Q. Smith, as the mother of a New York City firefighter — to develop characters instead of merely restating the themes divertingly.
The whole question of diversion is uncomfortable, though, in a musical about something as fundamentally tragic as September 11. In facing the problem of making its story palatable as a stage work, Come From Away, despite its good heart, has possibly lost its way. A series of campy fantasy intrusions into the narrative — a gym teacher who can translate for Spanish passengers appears as a full-dress torero; a chorus line of stranded cardiologists volunteers to clean bathrooms — seems desperate. The hoary gay material feels like pandering or pinkwashing. (This even though Sankoff and Hein’s only previous musical was My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, based, their bio says, on Hein’s mother’s story.) And in the last 15 minutes, when it becomes clear that the emptying of the town as the airspace is opened cannot in itself produce a rousing finale, the show loses all self-control with several postscript sequences telling us all the hilarious and touching things that happened to everyone over the next ten years. The deaths of 3,000 people in New York and elsewhere are only gingerly mentioned; it’s like the child who cries for equal attention when another child is hurt.
That it may succeed in making the audience cry is a testament to its fine qualities, which are sufficient to position Come From Away as a possible feel-good hit. Many of us are, after all, in a mood to think of ourselves as improvable by contact with Canadians. (Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is scheduled to attend the show on Wednesday.) The message of our common humanity — that we all “come from away,” in a sense — could hardly be timelier. But even openhearted locals may rankle at the glibness of the moral expressed at the end of the show: “We honor what was lost. But we also commemorate what we found!”
Do we? In this cute musical there’s a lot more of the latter than the former. Anyway, all the commemoration in the world cannot turn a civic virtue like kindness into a dramatic one.
Come From Away is at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.
*A version of this article appears in the March 20, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.