This review is a companion piece to M. Deitz’s “‘Come From Away’ understands we cannot move on from tragedy.”
The movie musical is a well-trodden format. From originals like “La La Land” to remakes like “A Star is Born” to adaptations like “In the Heights,” the genre has experienced something of a revitalization in the past ten years. However, the movie musical’s counterpart, the pro-shot (live-on-Broadway performances committed to film), is far rarer.
Although the commercial success of Disney+’s “Hamilton” very well might be changing the tides, stage productions that are immortalized on film are still relatively few and far between, in part because of the technical challenges they pose. The ones that exist have to join together mediums that aren’t made to interact, and their quality varies greatly. Despite best efforts, something is usually lost in the mix of the two — neither the intimacy of film nor the spectacle of theater can be fully captured when they’re put together.
One day before the 20th anniversary of 9/11, Apple TV+ released “Come From Away,” the latest addition to the small but growing list of musicals to be given the pro-shot treatment. Though the show doesn’t always escape the stiltedness which often burdens the niche genre, its small scale makes it more uniquely suited to the pro-shot medium, and the universality of its themes reach well past both the screen and stage.
The cast of “Come From Away” consists of only 12 members, all of whom play multiple roles throughout the show, moving from the townspeople of Gander, Newfoundland to “plane people,” as the town’s locals dub them, in the blink of an eye. There are numerous character changes that can be dizzying at times, even for those accustomed to the way Broadway actors often do double-duty on stage.
The limitations of the filmed-live format are especially evident in some of the more transitional numbers where cast members cycle through two or more character changes within minutes. Costume changes that denote those switches are harder to notice when it’s impossible to see the entire stage at any given time.
However, the switches are essential and effective in impressing upon viewers the sheer scale of the event: some 7,000 passengers traveling into the United States were grounded at the Gander International Airport on Sept. 11 as part of Operation Yellow Ribbon. Although there are only ever 12 people on stage at any given time, the changes make the company feel much larger.
Another benefit of the cast doubling, tripling, even quadrupling up on characters is that it multiplies the musical’s capacity for unique storytelling. Most notably exemplified by the presence of a fictionalized Beverley Bass (Jenn Colella, debut) — American Airlines’s first female captain and the pilot of an international flight diverted to Gander — is the fact that the play’s characters are based closely upon real people. Among them, Hannah O’Rourke is a New Yorker who lost her son, a Brooklyn firefighter, at Ground Zero; Claude Elliott was the mayor of Gander and coordinated the massive efforts necessary to accommodate thousands of people; Nick and Diane Marson, a Brit and an American on the same flight from Paris, met in Gander and eventually married.
“Come From Away” is intensely concerned with remaining grounded and human, and using real-life stories is an infallible way to achieve both. But additions of more composite characters are no less effective; Ali (Caesar Samayoa, debut) is a Muslim man who becomes the victim of other passengers’ Islamophobia and is consequently humiliatingly strip-searched by authorities. The inclusion of his character is a necessary linchpin of the musical, its recognition that while the events of Sept. 11 were a tragedy, the rampant Islamophobia and xenophobia which followed, and still ail American thought and behavior today, cannot be ignored or excused.
The seemingly inherent clunkiness of the stage-to-screen format is not completely overcome with “Come From Away”; some of the best parts of both mediums are still forfeited when they’re combined, even with the more minimal show. In particular, the ineffable feeling of breathing with hundreds of other people in a theater and witnessing a live performance can never be fully captured on screen.
Despite its limitations, the pro-shot is an invaluable format. Broadway will always be hard-pressed to completely shed the mystique of “high culture” that repels many from it, especially when the experience of seeing a live show can be so incredibly inaccessible. Allowing theater to reach the homes of anyone who wants to witness it will only ever have positive effects.
In “Come From Away,” Newfoundlanders, the citizens of Gander and “plane people” interact to tell stories about love, friendship, mourning and, most importantly, genuine goodwill, all of which are piercing and effective themes that transcend the occasional clumsiness of the format. In the case of this show, universality is found easily in specificity.
The stories of the 38 grounded flights illuminate unique perspectives rarely seen before, and there are so many lessons everyone can take from them.
Daily Arts Writer Katrina Stebbins can be reached at email@example.com.