Ollie Gratzinger | Opinions Editor
On April 9, the award-winning musical Come From Away came and landed in front of an almost sold-out crowd at Pittsburgh’s own Benedum Center.
Set in the tiny town of Gander in Newfoundland, Canada, the musical takes place in the week following the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. When planes full of passengers are rerouted around the newly closed U.S. airspace, Gander’s population doubles overnight, and the town’s residents jump into action to care for and accommodate thousands of frightened flyers as well as the airline crews and pilots.
Based on a true story, Come From Away tackles one of the most horrific tragedies in America’s recent memory with sensitivity, compassion and stunning humanity. Despite the complicated subject matter of 9/11, there were one-liners that made the crowd erupt into laughter, and minutes later, a song with a haunting melody finished without a dry eye in the house.
The subtle humor didn’t downplay the tragedy, but instead, it made the show all the more realistic. The duality, the range of emotion, the frank ridiculousness of 38 airplanes from around the world settling into one small town — it all came together to tell a full, human story, rife with highs and lows, losses and gains.
The townspeople of Gander welcomed the “plane people,” as they called them, with open-armed warmth that made them wary at first. But as they adjusted to the very Canadian kindness, it became clear to both the characters and the audience that this was not going to be about terrorist attacks and tragedy, but rather the humanity and fellowship that can rise up from the depths of despair. The musical’s theme — unity in the face of horror — remains relevant today, almost 20 years after the Twin Towers fell.
The show also addresses the new wave of Islamophobia that came to light after 9/11. One passenger, Ali, is an Egyptian Muslim, and he’s constantly suspected of malintention. While everyone eventually warms up to him, he faces a series of prejudices that don’t afflict the other passengers, including a humiliating strip search that violates not only his privacy, but also the terms of his religion.
For as fantastic as the show was thematically, it’s music was just as astonishing. Taking a cue from Newfoundland’s Irish roots, the melodies were comprised of an on-stage band with a violin, accordion, piccolo, guitar, drums, electric bass and a varied array of other instruments that gave the score a unique sound. It blended a more traditional vibe with modern amped-up rock, with haunting harmonies that carried in it the characters’ feelings. From unease (“Darkness and Trees”) to celebration (“In The Bar / Heave Away”) to spirituality (“Prayer”), the audience was deeply involved in the way the characters were being impacted by their respective situations. There were cheers and claps and sniffles and a silence so tense an exhale felt too loud. The music, coupled with brilliant acting, brought the story to life.
Likewise, the actors on stage mastered the Newfie accent — a blend of the Irish-English and Canadian inflections. The accent gave Gander the quaintness that made it unique, and while it was often the butt of silly jokes, it gives Come From Away its personality. A lot of musicals feature British accents or Americanisms, but it’s rare to hear a Canadian dialect.
The structure of the show was also a refreshing deviation from the typical plot. Instead of having one central character around whom the plot revolves, several storylines come together to unite characters whose only other common ground was the fact that their plane had been grounded in Gander.
American Airlines pilot Beverly Bass adores her craft, and she laments a loss of innocence after the attacks (“Me and the Sky”). Hannah, a New York native, sits by the phone waiting to hear from her son, a firefighter in the city (“I Am Here”). Bonnie, an animal lover and worker at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), fights to care for the animals aboard the grounded planes, including a rare Bonobo monkey. A romance blossoms between two unlikely friends from different corners of the globe who wouldn’t have met if 9/11 hadn’t happened (“Stop the World”). Another relationship dissolves under the stress and strain. Separate lives create separate stories, but they’re all united by something as simple as time and place.
After the “plane people” leave Gander, the town struggles to readjust to the new quiet, while the Americans return to a changed world (“Something’s Missing”). The show ended with a well-deserved standing ovation from the audience while the band played on. It may not be as well-known as Hamilton, Dear Evan Hanson or other big names on Broadway, but Come From Away is a genuine, honest musical with a talented cast and a message that almost anyone can find meaning in.