Blame Canada: The Plucky and Charming 9/11 Musical Come From Away

Jenn Colella and the cast of COME FROM AWAY, Photo by Matthew Murphy

by Tony Phillips

I defy anyone who’s made art using the mass slaughter of September 11 as its subject not to be embarrassed by it at some point late career. And the sooner they rushed their terror porn to market, the more embarrassed they should feel. That’s right, I’m talking to you, Adam Sandler.  But almost two decades since our national tragedy, those terrorist fireballs may just be turning up sepia around the edges, a baby step toward the time when an event this enormous is even partially digested and ready to be brought back up as art.

Enter enterprising Canadian newcomers, the husband and wife team of Irene Sankoff and David Hein, with a high-energy, one-act ensemble musical inspired by true events that could have just as well expressed itself in a tourist board campaign for Canada’s eastern-most provinces. Namely, the rural and rocky Newfoundland town of Gander, whose one claim to fame was as a pit stop for early jet-setters before the advent of the continental nonstop until they became an airspace rest stop almost half a century later for grounded jets on 9/11.

Photo by Matthew Murphy 

Those who decided to stay on Gander after the 1960s basically murdered YQX are of hearty stock and tell us so in the opening number “Welcome to the Rock” with its “fish and chips and shipwrecks. We’ve seen these people before in Sting’s shipyards and Billy Elliot’s coalmines, but their refusal to be killed and drowned coupled with a commitment to persistence sets up a n uncanny echo-chamber for the common, bootstraps approach to the overwhelming tragedy of that day.

After meeting locals from Joel Hatch’s mayor, who runs the town out of his local Tim Horton’s, to Petrina Bromley’s SPCA chief Bonnie, intent on rescuing cargo hold-stranded animals, we meet the weary travelers themselves. The passenger manifest hews dangerously close to 70s airline disaster movie tropes running the gamut from Q. Smith’s distraught mother of a NYC firefighter to Chad Kimble’s one-half of a bickering gay couple.

Songs like “38 Planes”—the number of aircraft landed in Gander–and “28 Hours”—the amount of time our passengers spend before deplaning–read less like musical theater numbers and more like index cards scrawled by Kendra Kessenbaum’s rookie television news reporter. All that’s missing is a number called “6,700 Passengers”—the number of frequent fliers who doubled Gander’s population that day.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

But the songs are put across, largely by the talented, 16-member cast led by Broadway stalwarts like Kimball and pioneering pilot Jenn Colella and Broadway’s most energetic, eight-piece orchestra that’s all fiddles and accordions, up and out of the pit, scattered throughout Beowulf Boritt’s austere, tree-lined stage. Oddly, the show’s most touching moment, “Me and the Sky,” doesn’t have much to do with 9/11, but rather focuses on Colella’s Beverly who smashed the glass ceiling for female pilots two decades prior.

The musical has pluck. And it’s hard not to admire the hard work poured into this show’s lean 100 minutes, but Come From Away is the most aptly named show currently on the boards. It’s really not for us, New Yorkers who survived the largest terrorist attack on American soil. And in that way, like the big jets it chronicles, it could be built for the long haul, or rather that particularly noxious brand of visitor–the 9/11 tourists–who certainly come from away. As they hightail it downtown, ready to shell out $24 for the perfect, ground-zero selfie, this show just might give them something slightly more dignified to do. 

Come From Away is playing at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W 45th St. Call 212-239-6200 or visit www.comefromaway.com