Phoenix Theatre, London
A note on this piece: I could have written a rave review of Come from Away. But what I couldn’t get out of my head was how important a piece it feels in terms of recording history. As a former history teacher, and as an academic who looks at theatre’s response to real-world events… I wrote an essay instead.
Come From Away: Memory, Memorial and Hope: Come from Away is important, because it recorded those stories. It’s important because it gives us another way of telling 9/11 stories. We grow fatigued quickly with both tragedy and history narratives. And 9/11 is so deeply interwoven into our consciousness now it is easy to become passé about it. It’s also distant enough – and so much tragedy has proceeded it – that’s it’s easy to miss the magnitude of the event, and its ramifications.
Come from Away doesn’t directly remind us of the impact of that day on our world – though no doubt it causes us to reflect on it. What it does instead offers a reframing of that global event into both a personal and ultimately hopeful one. And this revisionist approach to history and historical narrative is imperative to our understanding of our recent past and our present.
What is also fascinating about Come From Away is how it balanced storytelling for those who remember the day, and those who have just heard about it. It’s a strange and delicate balance telling lived history and Come from Away while erring on the side of telling another perspective of a well-worn narrative. There are four moments of pause in the piece, where the audience is invited to reflect on 9/11.
In these moments the music cuts out and there is almost an intake of breath as the audience ‘sees’ that moment. What the audience ‘sees’ are those images that are engrained on anyone’s mind who is old enough to remember 9/11 and familiar enough to anyone who wasn’t. Though these are the handful of moments arguably more powerful for those who do remember it – because there’s a kind of visceral link to remembering that moment and placing, as we do, ourselves back at that moment even for a split second.
The first comes in ’38 Planes’ with the final repeat of ‘Turn on the Radio’ for a beat the music cuts out, and the audience is taken to whatever moment they first heard that news.The second in ‘Lead us out of the Night’ when the ‘Plane People’ see the TV for the first time. ‘I didn’t even think, they haven’t seen any of it yet’ at that moment, that thought is turned on the audience; they too need reminding there was once a moment when people hadn’t seen those images.
At the moment when the actors look out to the audience, and the music cuts out for a second, we all see those images in our minds. ‘We just stand helpless watching it’ sums up a world’s memory of that day. And that long forgotten time when it hadn’t happened yet. The third in ‘Me and the Sky’ when Beverley sings ‘The one thing I loved more than anything, was used as the bomb’ the rest between that and the next line creates an additional moment of silence. And in Beverley’s case draws us into those who were professionally connected to everything that happened- and who could so easily have been the ones involved. This leads to the final and perhaps most ‘expected’ moment of silence in ‘Something’s Missing’ when we learn that Hannah’s son has died. Only two of those in Come From Away end up with a direct connection to anyone lost- Beverley to one of the pilots, and Hannah’s son. And while the story doesn’t dwell on either, it’s a beautifully handled coda of Hannah’s loss, that despite the world recovering, with so many positive stories out of those stranded, that also there was such loss that day.
These ‘moments of silence’ in the music collectively add up to no more than a few seconds but could be interpreted as the musical’s ‘moment of silence’ in the more traditional way. Because there is one more when the people of Gander in the story pause for the moment of silence in the USA. Not included in the recording and offers an additional moment of reflection within the musical. It’s the only time really that it becomes direct, on the nose and a moment of mourning. The rest of the story is about the hope pulled from adversity and tragedy. That’s why those three ‘beats’ of silence are so important- the piece is almost entirely sung through, and at an energetic pace that pulls it through the 100 minutes at almost breakneck speed. These moments feel like upbeats of inhalation, the brief moments to pause in those intense days it depicts. More than that they are moments of reflection for the audience, but only just long enough to be reminded of, and feel the impact and reality of what they are watching, not so long to feel melancholy about it. And that is what works- it doesn’t dwell on those moments, it leaves them with an audience to do what they will and weaves it into something else moving on, in the sense that the world was constantly moving on, things changing while they’re all ‘caught in a moment’ up there, it’s a really interesting way of weaving the stories of that day from a different point of view.
Because that’s a fine balance that Come From Away is creating; reflection and hope. That they use ‘Make me a Channel of Your Peace’ as a refrain midway is a clue to this. Come from Away is not a religious piece, it’s certainly not a religious piece, but it does preach a lesson of acceptance and goodwill to one another. And that’s a clever way of subverting the religious undertones that govern our discourse on 9/11, the moment of finding a ‘common language’ in the Bible is a clear message to this; even in religion, we are more similar than we are different. And, of course, showing the coming together of religions is a clear message about moving on post-9/11. But it’s not one that is entirely idealistic or naïve about the role of religion in the world either. From the historical references to the Jewish man, feeling he has to hide his faith for decades, to the Muslim man uncomfortable praying in front of others, there’s plenty of awareness and subtle nods to the power of religious intolerance that permeates the larger themes. And while small town Canada is a microcosm, that they could manage to live and worship in harmony feels, like much of the story, as a lesson to the wider world. And it is after all one from the real world, the real people involved.
And it’s a story so much about women. One in which women get to take centre stage- who is organising things? Women of the town. Who speaks for the people stranded- not the Mayor, not the other men of the town (who generally seem a bit ineffectual) but women, be it organising the churches and halls to speaking up for the animals. Of the people stranded, yes there is more of a mix, but we hear 9/11 from the point of view of the Mother worried about her son and the central ‘romance’ of a piece from a middle-aged divorcee. All of this is a pleasing subversion to the usual musical theatre treatment of women. And it feels like such a refreshing change to see women at the centre of the story, and women not reduced to romantic love interests.
And then there’s Beverley Bass. A woman who deserves 10 plays, books and musicals about her. The third female pilot recruited by American Airlines, and the first female Captain. In 1986 she flew the first all-female crew in commercial aviation. And she was one of those stranded at Gander on 9/11. And telling her story is so important. There were obviously many pilots stranded in Gander, and for once we have the story of a woman put front and centre. Even without her being part of 9/11 Bass would be an important story to record, but her ending up a witness to history in that way compounds it. Her retirement flight was back to Gander 10 years later which in itself is the perfect musical theatre ending.
It is Bass’ ‘Me and the Sky’ in London belted to the rafters by Rachel Tucker, is a glorious 11 O’Clock number, that is a thing so rare it makes you want to applaud: a woman’s love letter to her career. Situated in the place, musical theatre speaking, of a big bold last-ditch love song, instead it celebrates a woman’s professional history. She sings, in defiance not of her father telling her who to love, but that she’s going to fly planes. It’s structured in the same way as a traditional reflective musical theatre love song, but it’s all about her professional achievements. From learning to fly heading an all-female crew. It’s a celebration of everything a woman has achieved, not the men who have loved her. She ‘comes alive’ not through the love of a man, but through the love of her job- and being good at it. The song soars like, well a plane obviously, and it’s a beautiful sentiment, the refrain of ‘there’s nothing between me and the sky’ becomes this aspirational, hopeful almost rallying cry to women. It’s this gorgeous feminist song, from a woman who is all about who she’s made herself and what she does. And the moment she sings ‘No one saying, “You can’t” or “You won’t” or “You know you’re not anything ’cause you’re a girl” is a moment to stand up and applaud this declaration of what women can be.
It is a love song. It’s a love song to a woman’s passion, but that passion is her vocation not another person. And that’s why the line ‘the thing I loved more than anything was used as the bomb’ it’s like a knife blow. Because after everything Bass overcomes, and when her love- in this case flying- has been so pure, something evil has corrupted it. She goes on ‘Suddenly there’s something in between me and the sky’ the obstacle in this love song is the thing that changed everything, and Bass becomes our microcosm for that. It’s a chilling but also heart-breaking moment. Something about the way Bass had overcome everything else, only to feel like the thing she loved was no more in that moment. It makes Me and the Sky one of the most profound musical theatre love songs, as well as a glorious feminist hymn.
It’s a testament to a beautifully crafted piece that Come From Away is that it feels both real without all the troublesome elements that make true stories so difficult to fictionalise. It’s a verbatim work created out of interviews from the real people involved, but it has been woven as such to make all the ‘rough edges’ of verbatim work seamless. Do you know how weird people are when you interview them? do you know how crap and brilliant all at once their stories are? and to make a verbatim piece out of whatever mess of stories they got…genius. So, while yes it skims over the stories at times, they aren’t caricatures, or too slight. Instead, perhaps see them as a mish-mash of characters like in any town as you’d get on those planes.
And from the mish-mash of interviews, they created a wonderfully crafted piece of musical theatre. It might not have a collection of the most sing-along-able music, but it has an increasingly rare thing; storytelling through song. It’s not quite sung-through but the majority of the storytelling is done through song. Something that often newer musical theatre neglects in favour of memorable pop-rock songs. Come From Away keeps a contemporary sound but returns to a story-through-song model of musical theatre. This serves it well, the sweeping scope of the story being what it is, it returns to that core of musical theatre; what can’t be said is sung.
It’s 100 minutes of perfectly condensed storytelling. Pulling together disparate strands of stories, relying yes on some general knowledge to fill in the gaps. But it’s intelligent in that way, it doesn’t spoon-fed an audience. You want more on Beverley Bass? On Gander? Moose? Fine go away and read about it after. Come From Away is ‘the start of a moment’ or really a moment captured. What it does is thread those stories of the ‘Plane People’ and leave them for an audience to find out more about. That’s why the doubling of actors, and the more ‘character sketch’ approach to characters serves it well- the idea of seeing a snapshot of the Canadians, and the Come From Aways gives an impression, and more importantly an emotional resonance, the rest is up to the audience.
The ending of Come from Away is so desperately hopeful it manages to capture a moment but also be a kind of innovation for the present. The idea that-literally- out of the ashes of disaster can come something hopeful. When the passengers reflect in ‘Something’s Missing’ whether it was the people they met; ‘the only reason we met was that this terrible thing happened’ or who they became ‘I wasn’t just ok. I was so much better’. It is possible to be cynical and say nobody is really changed so fast. But those caught up in the day in New York were changed by tragedy, why not those who narrowly avoided it, and instead had an experience that was filled with hope and dare we say it, love?
It is in part, of course, that, aside from Hannah none of them- whose stories the musical tells at least- were directly affected. But that’s not the point Come from Away makes. It’s not about finding hope in a personal loss so much, as that out of adversity and tragedy there can be beauty and hope. But the crux is that the ‘Plane People’ became ‘Come from Aways’ and maybe ultimately became Newfoundlanders. What it’s really about is finding acceptance and common ground, no matter what the circumstance. And it’s also about remembering the good, and the humanity in the midst of tragedy.
That the ‘Come from Aways’ really did create a scholarship for Gander worth millions. That they did form relationships, friendships and have a lifelong kinship with Newfoundland. That’s hope ‘out of the darkness’. And one that actually seems more poignant so many years later. We look back now at 9/11 as a watershed moment when things seemed to unravel towards so many moments of ‘darkness’ so much loss beyond the day itself. That a small slice of humanity can be so filled with hope, gives us all something to cling onto.
And that’s the whole thing isn’t it- full of devastating moments, that utterly cut to the heart of humanity, and the devastation of not just 9/11 but any personal tragedy. Come From Away is an act of oral history and an act of memorial to 9/11 and it is as important as any other piece of art as a response to the tragedy in that. It’s an act of recorded memory, imperative to our historical, collective memory and artistic response.
But it’s also such a beautiful hymn to what humanity can be. And you cry at the sadness but also at how beautiful life and people can be…and couldn’t we all do with a little more of that?
My Come From Away tickets were gifted. But I’ve booked my own tickets, and let’s face it will be spending a small fortune seeing this show again. You can too, tickets here.
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