On September 11, 2001, the United States airspace closed and Canada started to divert some 238 planes and land them on Canadian soil. Come From Away zooms in on a Canadian town during this time — Gander, in Newfoundland — and tells the story of the townspeople’s hospitality after learning they’d have to accommodate nearly 7,000 guests.
The musical was conceived by Michael Rubinoff in the late 2000s — coincidentally around the time the Canadian public broadcaster aired Diverted, a TV show about the same events. Years of workshopping followed and the complete production opened in 2015 in Seattle, where it broke local records, and moved to Broadway in 2017 where it received acclaim and Tony nominations. The show is now running in Melbourne until mid-November.
Musical theatre and nonfiction are a strange combination. Evita and Hamilton, the two most successful truesicals of all time, have a fair bit in common — both are about historical events of significance to national identities. Maybe that’s not surprising: musical theatre is by its nature mythologising to its subjects, and humans are wired to construct mythologies around our cultural heritage and national identities — we’ve done this forever with folk music. Come From Away, too, turns real events into a narrative that many people have come to incorporate into their understandings of themselves: “Makes you proud to be Canadian,” I keep seeing in comments.
It’s a busy show. A cast of twelve, all with roughly equal lines, all great performers. Kolby Kindle’s expressions and Sharriese Hamilton’s determined and moving presence stand out in my memory. A few of the accents wobbled into Aussie on tricky vowels.
The actors tell most of the story directly to the audience, usually at a brisk pace backed up by a quick beat and interspersed with song. The technique is overly expository and requires little from its actors. The entire cast is visible for most of the performance as the focus sweeps around the stage. It’s ambitious and exhilarating at first, but, after an hour and a half, a little tiresome. Imagine if every song in Les Mis tried to be ‘One Day More’.
I continually wiped away tears for most of the second half, but when the audience shot up in a standing ovation, I baulked. Come From Away floods your senses with feeling but doesn’t engage your mind. The musical never looks directly at the darkness of its subject. At worst, Come From Away borrows a trauma it has no claim to and uses it as the backdrop for a feel-good show.
But still. Here’s a musical that is pure of aim — to find light and hope in one of the darkest episodes in modern history — and one should not be so cynical as not to see value in that. And the story is told with so much passion and power and hospitality that it’s hard to keep up your guard.
Come From Away is currently running at Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre.