History, at least theater history, isn’t always kind to the winners of the Tony Award for Best Musical on Broadway.
Sure, it’s unlikely any of our future friends will be baffled by Hamilton winning over Tootsie or The Band’s Visit besting The SpongeBob Musical. But decades later, you can still raise the temperature in a musical theater chatroom by reminding people that Sunday in the Park with George lost to La Cage aux Folles, that Follies was bested by Two Gentlemen of Verona, that The Sound of Music and Fiorello! shared the honors in a year that also included Gypsy, or that Contact, which only featured recorded, pre-existing music, won at all.
I expect the same sort of head-shaking will happen when we look back on Come From Away losing to Dear Evan Hansen.
I suspect both will have a long life in regional, college and high-school theaters, and a film adaptation of Hansen hits movie theaters in a few weeks. But thanks to a shot-from-the-stage film, there’s now first-hand evidence of just how special Come From Away is ON STAGE.
And it translates beautifully to the home screen.
I’ll admit to being leery when I first heard about Come From Away. A feel-good show focused on diverted passengers on 9/11 flights and the residents of the tiny Newfoundland town of Gander, where they spend a few grounded days? Written by a team whose highest-profile credit was a Toronto Fringe Festival-birthed show called My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding?
But the musical, which became a surprise hit on Broadway in 2017, proved to be the little show that could, running through pandemic closures in March 2020 with performances slated to begin again Sept. 21.
For a while, there was talk of a feature-film adaptation of the show to be shot, in part, in Gander. Wisdom (and a pandemic) prevailed instead, though, and production shifted to capturing something closer to the theatrical experience. Anyone who has seen the ho-hum film version of the theatrically thrilling Jersey Boys or the not-quite-there The Prom might see how regrouping onstage and shooting in the theater was the right move.
Much of the original cast regrouped, supplemented by the Broadway replacements of others, in the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater in New York, to capture the show, which will debut on AppleTV+ on Friday.
The result is warm, wise, surprisingly funny, awkwardly human, relentlessly sincere, joyful and possibly even healing.
I thought I was at least partially immune to it, having seen Come From Away twice on Broadway and once on tour. Still I found myself laughing and holding back tears through most of it. Only in the opening and closing “Welcome to the Rock” songs did it feel as if it was trying too hard and catering to theatrical expectations. But it felt that way in the theater as well.
The rest offers a kaleidoscope of characters, with a jacket change or an accent shift being enough to transform an actor from one character to another. We meet the local mayor, the career pilot, the newbie reporter, the anxious parent and so many more, all kept from being mere types through sharp, specific performances and a remarkably efficient, quirky script. They weave in and out of monologue moments, short scenes, group numbers and solos with barely more than some chairs and tables as props.
There is no villain here, just people trying to figure out how to do good by their fellow citizens. You’d think that might get dull after a bit. It doesn’t. Quite the opposite. It’s inspiring.
Among the returnees, Jenn Colella gets the big 11-o’clock number, “Me and the Sky,” but it’s the quieter dignity of the extraordinary ordinary folks offered by Sharon Wheatley and Q. Smith that leave even stronger marks. Joel Hatch remains a delight as the mayor and Caesar Samayoa’s range would be show-stopping if this show ever actually stopped moving forward. Of the replacements, it was a delight to see Jim Walton, from the ill-fated Merrily We Roll Along and the TV airing of the better-fated Crazy for You, playing (among others) a displaced businessman finding a spark. His niece, Emily Walton, is equally strong, primarily as the local reporter in over her head but managing to keep her feet on the ground.
In addition to being flat-out wonderful, Come From Away also makes a strong case for the evolution of Broadway into the home. It’s nothing new. PBS’s Great Performances and Live from Lincoln Center along with, of course, Hamilton and others have been here before.
The difference is that Come From Away does it with a show that isn’t on the radar of most folks who don’t follow theater. And I’m excited not just for theater buffs, but for that largely untapped audience that now has a welcoming musical being delivered into their homes — one not built on an existing song stack but on the grace of relatable human beings.