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We Come From Away: The Human Connection Project #3

The Human Connection Project
We Come From Away: The Human Connection Project #3
By Olivia Anne Gennaro • Issue #3 • View online
welcome to the rock!

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Today we’re taking a look at Come From Away, the musical about the passengers of the 38 planes that were diverted to Gander, Newfoundland on 9/11, nearly doubling the local population that had to scramble to take them in. There will be some spoilers if you don’t mind, but I highly suggest listening to the album and watching the just-released proshot on Apple TV+.
First up: a reflection on making space for positivity...if that's even the right word
"Welcome to the Rock" — Come From Away, Tonys 2017 performance
"Welcome to the Rock" — Come From Away, Tonys 2017 performance
So while the rest of y'all were dumping on the still-not-yet-widely-available movie adaption of Dear Evan Hansen (I’ll talk about that whole thing with more nuance at a later point), or maybe making fun of Amazon Prime’s Cinderella, there’s actually 2 September movie musicals that deserve way more . One is Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, releasing on Amazon Prime the 17th–I’ll probably talk more about that next week. Then, technically a proshot of the Broadway music itself, there’s Come From Away on Apple TV+, released Sept. 10 just before the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Apple seems to be quite popular now with Ted Lasso and Schmigadoon and all (I haven’t yet started either), maybe because you all got a new iPhone recently like I did, so please please set aside some time to watch this. It’s only a little over an hour and a half!
I’ve wanted to see Come From Away since I’d first heard of it, probably around the 2017 Tony Awards, where it was one of the three front runners in the post-Hamilton craze where younger people were getting into new shows and listening to cast albums around the world, including me.
Come From Away has been very successful, with productions popping up all over the world–fittingly for its subject matter–and. But it has been quieter than its challengers: Dear Evan Hansen has stuck around but lost its critical glamour now that people have had access to the actual rather baffling story instead of just out-of-context songs (seriously, I’ve read the libretto, and Act 2 takes a bizarre left turn narratively…but more on that some other time), while Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 is still mourned by its cult following that has likely increased since the success of composer/lyricist Dave Malloy’s Octet and director Rachel Chavkin’s Hadestown, where she won the Tony. (The 2017 Tonys are in general considered cursed, in part because the host was not good and subsequently known to be a sexual predator within the industry, and because Great Comet and Falsettos in the revival category were utterly robbed. The Tonys as always should be taken with a grain of salt.)
Come From Away director Christopher Ashley ended up winning the tony for Best Direction of a Musical, a break from the Dear Evan Hansen sweep that was happening (a standard pop score winning over Dave Malloy’s operatic pastiche of genres, really?), even if even back then I thought Chavkin should have won it for the way they reconfigured the seating and set (maybe that counts as set design?).
Okay, I’m getting way too bogged down here, but I do have a point to make: the Internet and its most popular memes prefer anger and general simplistic negative emotions. Seems a bit odd considering how much joy as cat videos have brought us over the years, but here I am getting upset that people are upset, and all their negative energy toward DEH and Cinderella are hurting the actually good Come From Away and (most likely, but even just based on stage show alone) Jamie. Sure, there’s name recognition and marketing budget size to be aware of that is leading to this disparity. But that also tells you about where studios want to put their money. Regardless though, I’m up for a proshot over an attempt at a movie musical any day.
(That said, “oh, why can’t we all just be positive?” is in itself too simplistic. It downplays real hurt caused by things that won’t change without speaking up. And, of course, not everything is hunkey-dorey–something Come From Away acknowledges, though it falls into the trap of “wow, kindness solves everything!” perhaps too sentimentally at the end.)
Unlike the bizarre turns the Tony-winning book of Dear Evan Hansen takes, Come From Away is remarkably efficient at storytelling. This is appropriate, of course–the show takes place over just a few days and follows frantic scrambling to accommodate strangers, international flyers stuck on a plane for 28 hours,. The folksy songs bleed in and out of dialogue scenes and into the next song. It isn’t completely a sung-through musical, but the show is a little over an hour and a half and the album is an hour and five minutes.
What’s perhaps more difficult for an audience to get a grasp on is how much longer communication took. Toward the beginning, the passengers trapped on the planes rarely have cell phones, nevermind reception or a charged battery for them to work. They do not know what happened in the U.S., and rumors fly. They do not know if their loved ones are safe–and it’s easy to imagine the flip side, where their loved ones are worried sick about their relatives who were flying.
If I was still teaching, I’d use Come From Away as a mentor text for identifying character motivation–even though each one of the 12 actors plays at least two characters (usually one from Gander and one from the plane, though not always). They distinguish themselves with different jackets, hats and religious headwear, glasses, and (somewhat dodgy) accents, which becomes a bit of a plot point in “Costume Party” to humorous effect as the travelers have to put on strangers’ clothes (well, jackets) after the first night. Somehow, it doesn’t get confusing.
And boy, did I become invested in their near-singular quests. The most poignant is Hannah, a New Yorker whose son is a missing firefighter. Captain Beverly Bass wants the planes flying again, while Jenn Colella’s other character, the townie Annette, really wants to have sex apparently. Bonnie really wants to make sure those animals on the plane are taken care of. The Egyptian Ali, who owns a restaurant, just wants some good food and to not be racially profiled. The Kevins, who are a couple, are nervous about encountering homophobia and are drifting apart. And the single Englishman Claude and divorced Texan Diane want each other, in a blustering, hesitant way.
Yes, perhaps the boiled-down focus of each character means they aren’t as fleshed out as they would be if the story had a smaller scope, and I’m sure some liberties were taken from the real-life people (and a chimpanzee) they are based on (stick around for the end credits to see their pictures)…but because of the nature of the story and its time in history, we see a spectrum of emotion.
Cast of "Come From Away" performs "Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere" for Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
Cast of "Come From Away" performs "Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere" for Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
My impression is that Come From Away is not seen as “serious” as Dear Evan Hansen (though it can be a tear-jerker itself) or as “artsy” and complex as Great Comet. It’s more likely to be described as “heart-warming” and “soul-affirming.” Maybe that’s why Apple bought it–to complement Ted Lasso.
But the show itself doesn’t play into the (falsely remembered) “unity” nostalgia of particularly the U.S. following 9/11. While some may find it a little too Candian nice, Come From Away doesn’t ignore some tough, unpleasant moments and pain. Not only do we have Hannah’s serious and tragic story (and, to a smaller extent, Beverly’s friend who was captain of Flight 93), the ugly paranoia gets its fair share of airtime. The paranoia and outright cruelness toward Muslims is mostly displayed through Ali, the Egyptian chef who most travelers and Newfoundlanders confess they are a little concerned about. It is ultimately him–or perhaps another traveler just represented by the same actor, as is the convention of the show–who undergoes a humiliating “thorough” strip-search that violates the tenants of his own religion. It’s appropriately uncomfortable.
Less successful I believe are attempts at commentary of racism and homophobia. The Kevins, initially unsure if the small-town Canadians would be homophobic to them, try to disguise their relationship until they slip up at the bar, at which point they learn that everyone around them has a sister/uncle/etc. who is gay. It’s effective as a joke on the well-meaning but tiresome “I have a gay brother” response (something the TV series The Other Two frequently mines for comedy), but the story doesn’t appear so self-aware and they feel immediately better about the whole thing. (Calling it the gayest town in Newfoundland is quite a stretch since no one you are talking to is actually gay.) There’s then an awkward moment where, upon a “must be something in the water” joke, the older townie says that’s why he just drinks beer…but the moment passes so quickly I don’t know
Similarly, there’s Bob, a young Black man from New York (wearing a Yankees shirt, of course) who is surprised to find that he is not met with hostility when tasked with “stealing”–the residents help him and invite him for tea–barbecues for a cookout. The racial aspect of this is mixed in with the fear of mugging many New Yorkers have, as he references being worried about his wallet. When he returns to the city at the end, he reflects that things were better in Newfoundland. As has become clear to many of us now, biases run deep, and the notion of being color blind often is at the expense of not accounting for a person’s full experience and identity.
Jenn Collela belting "Me and the Sky" was my introduction to this show
Jenn Collela belting "Me and the Sky" was my introduction to this show
"No, I can't watch the news anymore!"
This brings us around to the thorny time in international and especially U.S. history.
That near-singular quest everyone on the show is on? Well, that feels appropriate considering how drastically life changed after 9/11., and how much the news became about that. It transformed American security, foreign policy, and outlook.
Like Hannah, families of first responders and those in the Towers or the general area that day waited to hear from loved ones. Increased airport security. Major ethnic groups and an entire religion were thrust into the spotlight under increased scrutiny, as represented by Ali and a turbaned African traveler in the show. I’ve heard there were long lines to give blood and to fill up cars with gas out of the fear the price would go up–akin to the frantic townies buying supplies and cooking foods for the arrivals in the show.
That’s the time period I grew up in. I was 4 on 9/11 and the “smokey news” was just part of my environment. I must have been less than 10 years old when I learned what waterboarding was, too young to understand. Now, I’m reading and listening to all these retrospectives and analyses for the 20th anniversary (and the “end” of our involvement in Afghanistan), and I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. As the characters express in “Something’s Missing,” nothing is quite the same. Except for those my age and younger, we never really got to know the “before.” The consequences that has had and will continue to have in all aspects of life still remains to be seen. I’ve been particularly obsessed about whatever this “post-postmodernism” stage/movement we are apparently in means for art, but there doesn’t seem to be much of a consensus yet. And perhaps that is just it: with the advancement of technology especially, there are many niches bubbling up instead of anything close to a monoculture. Schools of thoughts have become democratized. The flip side is that it can cause us to feel removed and isolated from each other and make it easy to ignore world events–like the fact that we’ve been at war.
Come From Away does an excellent job of alternating between moods, often within or between songs. You might be surprised at the amount of humor and upbeat dancing, but if my ongoing love for “dramady” TV shows are any indication, everything is more real when we acknowledge that humor and levity is integral to the full spectrum of humanity. I personally find it refreshing to see a story about 9/11 that isn’t a complete tear-jerker. Besides, people still cry at this show. A lot of my favorite musicals mix in humor and joy with pain and tragedy–Rent, Falsettos, Next to Normal–and this is no exception. In its efficiency it may veer into the oversimplistic, but not without displaying some of the harsh realities of the new era that dawned that day.
Recommended Reading (well, listening)
60 Words, 20 Years | Radiolab | WNYC Studios
What's making me smile
As I enthused about last week, I got to see Phoebe Bridgers (with MUNA) in concert! I’m holding the details close to my chest because I have a great essay idea, but…
Meanwhile on the Insta...
…I did share a clip of her encore, which was actually “That Funny Feeling” from Bo Burnham’s Inside and we all had a sing-along moment. Further reflection in that post.
Also, if you want to see my initial Come From Away thoughts as I watched live, I live-tweeted my viewing.
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Olivia Anne Gennaro

Exploring how the cultural tissue of storytelling in various mediums brings us together. Every Tuesday.

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