“Come From Away” is based on the real stories of a plane of passengers forced to be grounded in the wake of the events of Sept. 11, 2001 and the residents of Gander, Newfoundland, whose location and airport made them the closest stop for many flights. Over the span of a little under a week, the town of roughly 800 people hosted roughly 1,000 guests whose flights were grounded as far into nowhere as you can get.
The musical was written in 2013 and it shows. The pop culture references to 2001 were outdated and unfunny. I understand there’s a balance between making jokes relevant to the setting and making ones relevant to the present, but humor has moved on from what I would have admittedly found funny in 2013, like belting Whitney Houston’s iconic refrain from “Titanic.”
The musical’s use of these unfunny jokes often distracts from the serious portions which in term end up without the respect they need to create emotional weight.
Near the beginning, the passengers are stuck on the plane for over 24 hours. This could have instilled a connection to the characters by helping the audience imagine the excruciating, torturous boredom and cramping of being on an airplane for that long. Instead, any amount of tension is quickly discarded as the musical finds its way into being about the passengers having fun drinking. Then, it introduces an uncomfortable romcom subplot. This repulsion to weightiness makes it difficult to trust serious moments as the play continues. Yet, the pattern remains, even creating disrespect for the serious topics they attempt to discuss.
At one point, the town is looking to set up a central cookout at the community center as a fun way to be a good host. The mayor instructs Bob, a Black American man, to round up all the grills by just taking them from yards. Instead of giving respect to his hesitancy to do so for fear for his own safety, the tone quickly becomes fun and quirky as if it was ridiculous at all for him to assume the worst of rural white people. The lack of weight granted to the implied past experiences of the Black character detracts from both the realness of the character and the musical’s effort to discuss this topic in a way that resembles respect.
The character Ali, an Egyptian Muslim chef, experienced Islamophobic discrimination numerous times. In one scene, he is singled out and strip-searched, which had traumatic religious implications. The next scene involves the townsfolk and guests getting drunk and partying.
There is harm in the musical’s resistance to being serious for a meaningful duration. This acknowledgment of the post 9/11 Islamophobia elephant in the room was more to check a box than to have a genuine reflection on the dark side of the time period. Twenty years after the event, with all the hindsight we have, there is no excuse for a story about 9/11 to be no more than, “It was so scary but we all held hands and felt love for our fellow humans.” The same post 9/11 community and patriotism the musical showed as an unquestionable positive led to hundreds of thousands of deaths abroad and untold numbers of domestic hate crimes and profiling.
I did genuinely laugh at Ali offering to help cook after being served cod au gratin, a traditional Newfoundland dish of fish and cheese. It’s a joke that grants depth to his character and, combined with the town’s resistance to allow their guest to help cook, highlights a cute intercultural dynamic. But, most every joke other than this was tokenizing, outdated or outright unfunny.
I was a year old on 9/11, which means my lack of emotional ties to the crux of the plot exposed this lack of earned emotions in the writing. The character Hannah spends her time in Gander trying to get in contact with her son, a firefighter in New York City, whose fate is unknown. The climax of Hannah’s story, a phone call between Hannah and her confidant in Newfoundland about her son’s fate, should have been a tearjerker but wasn’t.
None of the numerous mini-plots earned empathy through well-established settings and character development. Instead, the sentiment that seemed to be felt throughout the mostly gray-haired — if at all haired — audience was due to their own “Never Forget” nostalgia. Trying to get in touch with family or watching live news for hours on end were both experiences those who remember 9/11 strongly relate to, but I don’t. While all stories are a transaction between the writers, performers and audience, “Come From Away” expected its audience to provide the emotional weight of the story and is unable to provide any of its own.
The plot’s lack of emotional density was not the fault of the twelve actors. The ensemble had a difficult task, changing between characters in Gander, characters from the plane and more. Newfoundland accents aren’t easy. Despite the writing making it difficult to connect with the character and the song feeling confusingly out of place, Marika Aubrey’s performance of “Me and the Sky” was incredible. The cast was undeniably talented. It took me over half the show to realize Ali Momen was bouncing between two very different yet both memorable characters.
With the strength of the cast, almost any of the characters could have served as a main character to root for or to be a lens into this story. This, in place of narrow windows into individual lives, would have made it much easier to follow the plot and connect to the characters.
Yet, the stellar performances of the actors and band, while practiced, strong, muscular and trimmed of fat, are a pile of flesh lacking the skeletal structure of a well-organized plot. While the real events were chaotic and uncertain, that doesn’t mean the story cannot commit to having a single throughline to guide the audience through the mess of events and emotions.
The lack of organized structure made it easy to lose place in the story. “Come From Away” is a 90 minute show with no intermission or acts. Any of the musical numbers in the final third of the show might have been the finale, including the celebratory and fun “Screech In.” It’s an indictment of the writing when it’s unclear what the conclusion of the show is: Is the finale when the passengers say goodbye to the town? No. Is it when they take off to fly home? No. Is it when they all get home? No. Is it when the town is looking back on their sleepless week and thinking about getting back to normal? Still, no.
Having no main character, no central goal and no familiar structure to lean on makes it excruciatingly difficult to ascertain when the story is done. And, unfortunately, asking “Is this the finale” to every song towards the end impedes the ability to sit back and enjoy the stellar performances.
While the story as a whole is good enough, subjecting it to scrutiny reveals glaring issues. What could be emotionally impactful or historically enlightening is instead a fun little romp. If it wasn’t for this cast, I would have no reason to recommend seeing “Come from Away,” yet their talent makes even their two dimensional characters excruciatingly charming and delightful, transforming this from a pile of nothing to a pile that was fun to watch.
Jeffrey Brown is a former Arts Editor for the Daily Cardinal. He writes for The Beet occasionally and does some drawing and photography too. He is a senior majoring in Sociology. Do not feed him after midnight.