You know how Oslo won the Tony for Best Play? And we were like…how? It’s because people loved the story it told, about the Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and the PLO. It is riveting subject matter that reminds you of an important time in history. You’re moved by the memories and by realizing that all of this actually happened, and so you feel a connection with the humanity of the history. And so audiences leapt to their feet quicker than you can say ‘she’s from Haifa’, even though the play itself was actually mediocre. People couldn’t separate the true story from how the play told it. Well I never thought I’d say this, truly never, but, same for Come From Away. Well, not exactly same - Come From Away is much better. The true story it tells about Canadian kindness during 9/11 is incredible and moving. But the actual show, the actual portrayal of it, is just okay. The magic comes entirely from knowing it’s a true story.
One big problem for me is the score. Most of the music fails to fulfill the main requirements of a musical score: to move the story and/or the character development forward in a way that couldn’t be achieved in the same way without music. It all feels very perfunctory. Music has the ability to add emotional depth to words and story, but this score fails to augment the action most of the time. And almost none of it is used to delve into characters. Since the versatile ensemble constantly shifts so everyone plays multiple characters, it ends up feeling like a nondescript mass of people instead of individuals we’re supposed to care about. The one song in the whole show that is entirely intended for character depth – the best song in the show, “Me & The Sky” – consequently feels out of place. When the singer, Captain Beverly Bass (the fantastic Rachel Tucker), begins by sharing her childhood memories, it feels like it was lifted from a different show. This song, superb as it is, has the same problem as the best song from the musical Catch Me If You Can, “Fly Fly Away”: it’s the strongest melody overall, so clearly that’s why it couldn’t have been cut, but it is out of place. It doesn’t go with the rest of the score. No other character gets a solo that shares their entire life story or reveals profoundly what they’re thinking and feeling at this moment, other than the fear they directly tell us they’re feeling.
That’s my other issue, that the story is primarily told directly to the audience, with the characters telling us what happened, what they did, what they thought and felt. Unlike most shows, where we are watching other people live the story, and learning about them through action and dialogue with each other, their dialogue is with us. That’s a valid structure, sure, but subverting the usual mantra of ‘show, don’t tell’ lowers the ability to achieve real character development and relationships between the characters if we don’t get to really see them interact with each other. And what is Come From Away if not a show about the relationships and connections that form between these real people? It loses the chance to show us this most important and compelling part of the story and instead merely tells us that they connected. The best characters, Nick and Diane, who meet and fall in love in Gander, come off the best but that’s mainly because I knew that they ended up together (which like, give them an entire show, you know? Incredible story). It would have been lovely if not breathtaking to see them fall in love by talking to each other more instead of narrating it to us.
Audiences were going to adore this story no matter what was done with it, and they continue to do so. But it’s a shame that such a story will never get the stronger bones it deserves in terms of book and score. And even though they had a slam dunk on their hands, the creators still added cheap laughs. Too often, when creators don’t trust their material to stand on its own, or just to hedge their bets, they insert unnecessary ‘jokes’ or sight gags to get a random guaranteed laugh from the audience. It’s clearly appealing to the lowest common denominator and betting on an unsophisticated audience for cheap laughs. Come From Away does this, for one example, with the Spanish teacher who flamencos into the scene in full costume and says some naughty things in a bad accent. Why? It’s like a race to the bottom but for musical theatre.
Obviously Come From Away is not a bad show, it’s very decent. But for a musical that is guaranteed to sweep the Oliviers this season, it should be better. The story is amazing, and it’s hard not to focus on that in order to see that the bones of the show aren’t as strong as its subject matter. You have to recognize that a play is more than just the story it tells. The art form is the telling of that story. And while the story here is astonishing, the telling is merely good.
Come From Away is at London’s Phoenix Theatre, probably forever.
It runs 100 minutes with no interval.
The Phoenix Theatre needs a refurb.
Programmes are £5 and are enormous.