I had my first real taste of musical theatre back in February when I was asked to do some social media work for a production of Jesus Christ Superstar. To prepare, I had to actually watch the movie.
I thought it was one of the most brilliant things I had ever seen. What came next was endless weeks of marching around the house singing “Herod’s Song” at top volume 24/7. I was a little obsessed.
Up until then, I thought musicals were all Grease and Mamma Mia and a certain level of cheese that even I’m not willing to ingest. But then I saw the light.
Here’s a really quick synopsis about Come From Away, for those of you who aren’t from Newfoundland:
“This New York Times Critics’ Pick takes you into the heart of the remarkable true story of 7,000 stranded passengers and the small town in Newfoundland that welcomed them. Cultures clashed and nerves ran high, but uneasiness turned into trust, music soared into the night, and gratitude grew into enduring friendships.”
Come From Away tells the real life stories from some of the people who were stranded in Gander during that awful week of 9/11.
First of all, I’d like to say that I was hugely skeptical about all of this up until pretty much a few months ago. Part of me felt like the whole thing was too voyeuristic, and another part of me felt uncomfortable with the idea that someone out there is profiting from these stories.
I felt a similar discomfort when Adventure Central sent me on the new Beyond Words bus tour in Gander, highlighting some of the town’s landmarks that played a key role in those tumultuous days, like the ice rink (used for storing food), and the airport.
But then I heard some of the stories and saw the murals plastered over the walls of the Community Centre where “plane people” from all around the world had written kind words and thank-yous to the people of Gander, and I realized that broadcasting a town’s kindness en masse isn’t such a bad thing after all.
(The tour is lovely, by the way, and very tastefully done. You’ll meet people like Oz Fudge — a police officer who played a big role during all the chaos. It was fun to see him personified in the musical.)
I was on the fence about seeing the show while in NYC, as I didn’t know what my schedule would be like. Plus I hadn’t realized how busy the week after Thanksgiving in the U.S. would be. The show was sold out for weeks. But finally, on Thursday morning, me and my colleagues showed up for rush tickets, and we just managed to get standing room tickets. My coworkers, both Americans, hadn’t heard of the story up until then. But they were good sports about it, and I certainly appreciated their company.
And THEN Adventure Central offered me a seated ticket, and I left my poor colleagues standing with the other plebes. They were totally fine with it. I gave my ticket to Erica’s boyfriend.
Let me just say that I never thought in a million years I’d be sitting in a jam-packed New York City Broadway theatre watching a musical about Newfoundland. My Newfoundland — that big ‘ol island in the North Atlantic that nobody ever seems to know anything about. To say it was a surreal experience is an understatement. I think I started crying the second Janice the reporter (whose character is based on my friend, by the way) stepped onto stage.
The cast and the writing are both brilliant. I was instantly hooked on the characters: from the woman tending to the stranded animals to the mother trying to find her missing son, to the American woman and British man whom both find love in the craziest circumstances…they’re all based on real stories.
There’s one scene — and you’ll know it if you see it — where all the visitors get invited to a party at the Legion, and then the band descends upon the stage in one big riotous Newfoundland kitchen party, and it is SO MUCH FUN. I had to fight myself to stay seated instead of getting up to dance. It was beautiful. It was true to the experience.
At the end, when the cast all came out, the two rows in front of me all whipped out these Newfoundland flags and started waving them around — and then they rushed closer to the stage to dance with the band. You can’t keep Newfoundlanders in their seat during a good jig, after all.
And my colleagues loved the show; Raimee said it was one of the best Broadway performances she’s ever seen. The joy in the room was palapable. After the show, we stayed behind for a Talk Back session with some of the cast members who took questions from the audience. People were naturally curious about Newfoundland, and asked questions about the dialect and the music.
(Here’s a great teaser video with Seth Meyers, by the way.)
A lot of work and study went into Come From Away. The cast devoted dozens of hours to perfecting the accent and the music.
What I loved the most about it (and which someone in the audience commented on) is the fact that the show’s band is always a presence onstage. They’re as much a part of the story as the actors are. One of the cast members explained that this is because Newfoundland music is a part of our landscape; it’s always present, in everything we do.
One of my coworkers asked me if Newfoundland is really like how it’s portrayed in Come From Away. And sure, all communities and the people in them have their differences — but for the most part, yes. Gander is special because it didn’t hesitate for even a second to help those people in need, and this story went untold for years and years. I didn’t know anything about it until the Vancouver Olympics.
But when Newfoundlanders are called upon to act, we do it. There are no strings attached. There is only the knowledge that surviving in this place often means relying on others and your community.
I left the theatre feeling buoyed on kindness and art. Newfoundlanders, don’t be surprised if this summer you end up meeting scores of tourists from the United States, all motivated to come here thanks to a brilliant musical about the kindness of strangers.