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A musical about 9/11? ‘Come from Away’ is the latest hit show

This year’s winner of arguably the biggest prize the Olivier Awards gives out, Best Musical, was Come From Away. But what is this show? Well, in case you’ve missed the heaps of five-star reviews it’s received recently, here is all you need to know about this hit show.

Come From Away takes place in the days following 9/11 and is set in a small town called Gander, Newfoundland in Canada, where 38 planes were diverted after American airspace was closed following the attacks. A town of only about 10,000 people welcomed in the 6,000+ crews and passengers that unexpectedly dropped in. The show tells of the unbelievable kindness of the Newfoundlanders as they prepare and take care of the ‘come-from-aways’.

It was put together using interviews with locals, passengers and crew in the style of verbatim play The Laramie Project – but set to music! It’s rare that musicals have this drive for authenticity and focus on the local. It’s a story about the ordinary and the extraordinary crossing paths.

The show tells of the unbelievable kindness of the Newfoundlanders as they prepare and take care of the ‘come-from-aways’

The primary focus of Come From Away, as explained in every interview with the cast and crew, is to authentically and sincerely pass this story on to the audience. As such, the music does not have the standards of other shows because the songs are thrusting the story forward, and are therefore pretty much unextractable from the show.

In the show, however, they are powerful in conveying the sense of the story and the emotions of the characters. The opening in particular, “Welcome to the Rock”, never ceases to make my heart beat a little faster in anticipation. It blends the folk elements, which are taken from the traditional musical style of Newfoundland, with choral elements, to create a powerful sound from the whole cast. Its use of stop-and-start as the characters slowly absorb the news of the 9/11 attacks introduces the grief and terror which run through the rest of the piece.

Each song in the score feels cohesive, but each also has its own feeling – from folk song, to upbeat, to a soliloquy, to a prayer. I’m not an expert on music so all I can say is that the album is both entertaining and emotional to listen to, with interesting lyrics dotted with the kind of detail unique to this musical’s roots.

The primary focus of Come From Away is to authentically and sincerely pass this story on to the audience

If you decide to come see the show, you will see when you walk into the theatre an essentially bare stage with a blue wooden backdrop, some bare trees (two are broken to symbolise the Twin Towers), two tables and twelve chairs. This is all that the small cast of twelve needs to tell the story. Using suggestive furniture and staging, we are transported to a plane, a hotel room, a bus, a bar, a school, and a Tim Horton’s.

Despite the fact that the cast are not made up of Broadway-trained dancers, the Olivier Award-winning choreography makes use of simple movement to convey setting and emotion. The cast are all multi-rolling and they each do a great job of swiftly blending into each new character without attracting the audience’s eye – even though they usually only have a single costume item to suggest a different role. We connect with each of their characters easily, probably because most of them were based on a real person.

I was only two years old when 9/11 happened, so I have no memory of the event itself, but our generation has grown up with the awareness of the international trauma that the event carries with it. Regardless, we have all had moments where we are faced with extreme tragedy, whether that be personal or public. The parts of this show that moved me the most were the ones where the characters had to come face-to-face with the disaster, and the show does an excellent job of dealing with the complexity of people’s feelings following the attack – especially the hatred faced by Muslim passengers.

It would, however, be a mistake to characterise Come From Away as a musical about 9/11, as it sometimes has been in the press. The show is fundamentally about the power of kindness towards strangers. It is easy to be cynical about human nature in the times we live in, but the citizens of Gander and the cast and creatives of Come From Away remind us that we are all capable of making a difference and stepping up in times of struggle.

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