One of the most delightful, impressive, heart-warming and optimistic productions you will ever witness comes to Apple TV+ this weekend. "Come From Away" is a Tony-winning musical that was filmed and made into a movie (just like "Hamilton" was for Disney+ in 2020), and it comes just in time for the 20-year anniversary of 9/11.
Yes, the "feel good" movie of the year centers around one of the worst, horrific tragedies in American history, and if there was ever something that this divided nation should be able to agree on, it's that "Come From Away" is an absolute treasure and should be seen by every American...despite it taking place in Newfoundland, Canada.
First to be clear: This is not a movie remake of a Broadway musical. It is the actual Broadway musical, recorded and presented as a movie. Does a video-recorded stage production count as a movie? Who knows, and in this case, who cares. It just needs to be seen, and while I've never experienced "Come From Away" live in a theater, I can only imagine how powerful the experience would be, since this Apple TV+ version is - not to exaggerate or over-sell your expectations - life-changing.
Like, for real...I'm pretty sure "Come From Away" has changed my life, or at the very least, it has unlocked feelings that I had stored away for so long, I didn't even realize I was still carrying them.
"Come From Away" made it to Broadway in 2017, where that year it was nominated for seven Tony Awards (including Best Musical), winning just one (Best Direction of a Musical for Christopher Ashley). If you're wondering who it lost to for Best Musical, it was "Dear Evan Hansen," another musical that is getting big-screen treatment - although "Dear Evan Hansen" will be dramatized - this Fall as well.
"Come From Away" tells the true story of a small town called Gander, in the province of Newfoundland, Canada. A town of 7,000 people needed to figure out what to do when nearly 7,000 travelers and their airplanes were directed to make emergency landings at their airport, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Needless to say it was a logistical nightmare, but the good people of Gander rallied together and put aside their own problems and differences to help their displaced human (and animal) companions.
It's one of the best ensemble casts you'll ever see, with 12 main actors/actresses all playing three to four (and sometimes more) roles. The story and music is fast-paced, and I've never in my lifetime experienced such incredulous, jaw-dropping choreography. All 12 main cast members are on stage for nearly the entirety of the play, er, movie, and create a wondrous universe full of love, laughter and compassion. The music is great, but unlike "Hamilton" you might not remember any particular tune once it ends...it all sort of meshes together to create a rich tapestry made up of the very best of what humanity can be.
Emotions are bound to bubble up when you relive what it was like on that terrible day back in 2001. For American audiences, it feels like a breath of fresh air to see this unforgettable event from an outside perspective: What it was like finding out about what was going on, and the chaos that followed...how insignificant your problems were on September 10th in comparison. In some ways - sadly - it almost feels like watching a planet full of aliens...can our current divided country even comprehend the choices and thought-patterns that existed among us in the days following 9/11, when the country - and most of the entire world - came together as one?
The film version begins by placing the stage production in context: We're now 20 years removed from 9/11, and when this play returned to Broadway it had done so after 14 months of a pandemic shutdown. It's not only full of charm, and full of laughs, but it has such a contagious spirit of hope, and heart. Its fast pace has you laughing and then crying and then laughing again, sometimes all within the same moment. The performances are winning, and the cast's diversity - representing the fine folk of Gander - range from old to young, black to white, gay to straight, and everything in-between.
While it's an optimistic tale, it also addresses head-on the racial profiling that followed 9/11, the pain of a parent or sibling who didn't know whether or not their loved ones survived the attacks, and just the issues of the time (cell phones and information was not as prevalent as they are now, same-sex relationships were not as accepted, etc). The stories and characters portrayed are all based on real people or things that happened, and there are so many characters to care about and relate to across the spectrum.
From a technical standpoint, "Come From Away" is nearly impossible to even fathom. What this cast does with minimal sets, costumes and props is nothing short of astounding. It's a brilliant, brilliant production.
Even if you fancy yourself as a pragmatist or someone who doesn't feel comfortable confronting your own emotions, "Come From Away" is also fascinating in just the details and logistics of what needed to be done in order for a small town to host a diverse population all in need of lodging, food, transportation and comfort...all the while still dealing with the unknown aspects of the attack (should all of these airplanes be considered bomb threats?). Gander was in the midst of a public bussing strike, a conflict that was brushed to the side as neighbor helped neighbor...stranger helped stranger.
In many ways, "Come From Away" exists as a beacon, a reminder that there is good in the world...and if you live in the world currently, we all know how damned depressing it is to think about where we are now and how we got here. But what a much-needed reminder.
I'm not sure what it says about the state of movies when I think that my favorite film of 2020 was "Hamilton" and my current favorite film of 2021 is "Come From Away"...both stage musicals not made into dramatic film musicals but simply presented on stage as intended. One similarity I can recognize is that with film, the intention is usually to simmer: Things are slowly introduced and slowly burn, maybe eventually exploding here and there. Both "Hamilton" and "Come From Away" exist on different wavelengths from traditional films, where the rapidity of the spoken word can overwhelm the viewer's senses with a barrage of meaning, meant in the best possible way.
One of my personal heroes, Mister Fred Rogers, was once famously quoted as saying, "When I was a boy and I would see something scary on the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." It's a tremendously refreshing way to think about life, and he's not wrong...what else can one do, really?
It's entirely cliché to say that I laughed, and I cried, while watching "Come From Away," but I did both, often simultaneously, and for lengthy stretches. Man it has been a long time since I've felt this good about something...this, for me, was like a life preserver thrown out to me just as I was getting tired of treading water.
In this sea of dark dreariness that we call life, we must never forget that Gander was and is a real place...there are actually people who will do for others, who aren't inundated with selfishness or greed. And while in truth, to paraphrase Shakespeare, I believe that "all the world" is not actually a stage, I'd like to believe that the very best of our world and us "players" are represented up on that platform in "Come From Away."
Genre: Musical, Comedy, Drama.
Run Time: 1 hour 46 minutes.
Starring: Jenn Colella, Jim Walton, Emily Walton, Paul Whitty, Sharon Wheatley, Caesar Samayoa, Tony LePage, Q. Smith, Joel Hatch, De'Lon Grant, Petrina Bromley, Astrid Van Wieren.
Based on the stage musical by David Hein and Irene Sankoff.
Directed by Christopher Ashley ("Lucky Stiff," "Jeffrey").
"Come From Away" is on Apple TV+ on Friday, September 10th, 2021.
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