Musicals don’t come much more low-key, wholesome or Canadian than ‘Come from Away’. Writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein cook up the straightforward world of the Newfoundland town of Gander using a very straightforward set of ingredients. The cast wear sensible shoes and lumberjack shirts. They tramp across a wood-decked stage that evokes the huge skies of their tiny island. They sing their way through a set of folk-tinged songs that tell stories of the five days after 9/11, when 38 planes made emergency landings on the island’s huge, disused airstrip. And it’s all totally, soul-feedingly wonderful.
‘Come from Away’ has been a massive sleeper hit across North America, Broadway included, and it’s easy to see why: it mixes down-home authenticity with the desperate intensity that comes in times of crisis. This is a moment where 7,000 temporary arrivals join a community of just 9,000 people. Logistics might not be the sexiest of topics for a musical, but one of the many surprising joys of this show is how gripping it makes things like the struggle to rustle up transport at a time when the local school bus drivers were on strike and had to be coaxed into crossing the picket line. Then there are beds, food, medication and interpreters to be sourced for passengers from across the world: one non-English-speaking couple communicates by cross-referencing Bible verses.
Based closely on interviews with real Newfoundlanders, this is a picture of a community that stretches itself to breaking point to accommodate the stranded travellers. Like the local animal shelter worker who battles to rescue furry cargo from the planes’ holds, including cats, dogs and a pregnant bonobo ape. Or the schoolteacher who offers comfort to a New Yorker whose firefighter son is missing.
It feels so organic that you almost don’t notice how carefully it’s been crafted. Individual stories are woven through rousing, foot-stomping, all-company choruses. Actors swap between playing locals and incomers with a fluidity that shows it’s just chance separating the two. It makes you look inwards to ask: what would I do in their place?
The show’s message about the power of doing good is underscored by darker notes. Among the waves of queasy post-9/11 fear, a Muslim traveller is treated with suspicion along with kindness, and subjected to a humiliating strip search. Another young New Yorker feels so welcome on the island that it makes him mourn the community and safety he’s missing back home.
‘Come from Away’ creates a kind of temporary utopia: a little world where (almost) everyone is forced, by earth-shattering events hundreds of miles away, to come together and build a community based on principles of generosity and care. It’s seductive in its resolute unsexiness, and its gentle uncynical warmth spills off the stage, extending a hug to an audience that wouldn’t dream of turning it away.