Grace Under Pressure


The Motors: Airport

My family and I went to see the Broadway musical Come From Away a couple of weeks ago, and it was great–I highly recommend it.  My understanding is that it is vying with Dear Evan Hansen, which I saw a few months ago, for the Tony for Best Musical on Sunday, and honestly, I would be happy if either show won. [Edit–Dear Evan Hansen won for best musical.]

For those who don’t know what Come From Away is about, it takes place on 9/11 and the days afterwards when, due to the closing of U.S. airspace following the attacks, 38 civilian and 4 military flights were forced to land at the remote airport at Gander, Newfoundland.  Gander’s airport is huge, but significantly underutilized since it lost its status as a major refueling stop as technology permitted trans-Atlantic flights without refueling. The airport itself lacked sufficient facilities to deal with the 6,600 plus people (and the handful of animals) who were stranded at the airport.

The town of Gander, about 11,000 strong, and a few smaller nearby towns stepped up, arranging for transportation, shelter, clothing, food, and, apparently, liquor, for what the play refers to as the “plane people,” until the airspace opened again, and flights were able to leave.  Some of the planes were there for as long as 6 days.

Most of the members of the show’s cast play multiple roles, as Newfoundlanders, passengers, crew, and even George W. Bush, and it is 100 minutes of nearly non-stop, often breathless, activity.  We learn about the incredible hospitality and generosity of the local citizens, who stepped up and sacrificed to provide the plane people with comfort, sympathy and friendship, how the passengers, most of whom in the pre-mobile Internet and limited cell phone era, were initially unaware of the reason for their diversion, moved from fear and annoyance to appreciation and admiration, and how the crew members dealt with the disruption.

The creators of the show, Irene Sankoff and David Hein, whose prior project had the wonderful title, My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, attended the 10th anniversary reunion of the plane people in Gander, and conducted interviews that they used to develop the play.  Although there are moments of tension, and there are some unhappy endings, the overall feeling of the play is upbeat and positive.  Is it a fairly tale?  Maybe, in part, but the basic details are rooted in fact.

While it may seem odd to create a musical, which is, for the most part, very funny, about the tragic events of 9/11, I think the main point of the play is to highlight how in difficult situations, people can come together and do what is right.  And even though the play doesn’t shy away from sadness, and prejudice against Muslims, and even sexism, it is a very uplifting experience.  And, at the end, after the curtain calls, the band comes out for a rousing, extended Celtic influenced Newfoundland jam (and I do love my Celtic music), with the sellout crowd standing and clapping (and at the performance we saw, waving Canadian and Newfoundland flags).

I was working in downtown Manhattan on 9/11.  My office, which was basically due east of the World Trade Center, was on the East River, and I could see the top third or so of the towers over the intervening buildings.  I saw the first tower burning, the explosion when the second tower was hit, and watched horrified as two 100-plus story steel towers crumpled like houses of cards.  I waited until the white cloud of who knows what dissipated before walking slowly with thousands of others through the shocked streets of Manhattan.  I reported back to work a little more than a week later to a much quieter, dirtier, downtown, breathing the acrid, burning air.

But one thing I noticed during the period immediately after the attacks was that notoriously impolite impersonal New York had become friendlier and considerate.  People held doors for each other, said “excuse me” on the subway, talked to each other, and even listened.  Faced with unexpected terror, New Yorkers dropped their guards, softened their edges, and helped each other cope, emotionally and in other ways.

Of course, it didn’t last, and before long, New Yorkers reverted to their more stereotypical brusqueness.  And that may be why Come From Away has so much resonance.  We miss that type of kindness and consideration, particularly now, when we seem to be at each other’s throats with added vituperation.  (Thanks, Roger Ailes and Donald Trump).

In the show, after the plane people leave, the locals are relieved that things are back to normal, mostly meaning quiet, and with time to sleep, but in New York, where we saw the play, it is kind of sad, as my astute wife noted, that “normal” means a reversion to  harder edges and confrontation.  But, at least in the world of Gander and the plane people, connections have remained, with continued friendships and financial contributions.

The Motors’ song “Airport” seemed reasonably appropriate to feature for this piece, because it is about the mix of melancholy and alienation that exist at airports–people are saying goodbye, and waiting in antiseptic terminals with strangers.  It leaves out the part about the joy of picking up friends and loved ones, though, which is OK, because songwriter Andy McMaster was writing a four and a half minute song, not a sociological analysis of all things airport related.  Come From Away, though, is more ambitious, as befits a 100 minute long piece of musical theater.

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1 Response to Grace Under Pressure

  1. I love what you have written, having seen “Come From Away” twice — the first time was the very first preview on February 18th, when I had no idea what to expect. If you don’t already love Canadians, you will after seeing this show. I also saw “Dear Evan Hansen” and admire it, too, though I think it would be fitting if such an uplifting musical like, “Come From Away” could win Best Musical later today. I know that if it doesn’t win, Canadians will shrug and say it’s not a big deal, in their self-effacing way, but I do believe it deserves to win.


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