by Brenda W. Clough
What do you do, how do you respond, in the face of a titanic tragedy? Well, I can tell you what creative people do. On Sept. 12, 2001 I am certain that Word documents were opened all across the nation, and the first trite sentence keyed in, “September 11, 2001 dawned bright and sunny…”
There will be a great work of art about 9-11, some day. It hasn’t come yet, and it may not be created for many years yet. To pull great art out of the furnace take time. A case has been made that LOTR was a World War I novel, for instance. In the meantime many works have appeared, and the latest effort is Come from Away, a musical about Gander, Newfoundland, on that terrible day. When air travel shut down thousands of travelers were stranded in that town and the Canadians’ hospitality was fantastic. It’s a cinch for drama, and the creators have done a superb job bringing this heartwarming story to the stage.
We attended the performance on Sunday at the historical Ford’s Theatre in downtown Washington DC. (Yes, it is that Ford’s Theatre, and Abraham Lincoln’s box is preserved as it was on the last evening of his life.) It is a perfect small venue for an intimate and personal show. I knew I had to attend the September 11th performance, and I was not disappointed! It’s superbly well done. A dozen gifted cast members double and treble all the roles of both Newfoundlanders and ‘plane people’. The set is nothing but chairs and a table or two, which become everything from oceanside cliffs to plane seats to the interior of school buses. The writers interviewed everyone they could get their hands on and condensed seven thousand passengers and several hundred townspeople into an archetypic handful of storylines. And some of the passengers, and an airplane pilot, were actually in the audience on Sunday! Hear some of the score here, on the NPR review.
The creative team evaded all the pitfalls that make me twitchy — there is no maudlin exploitation of tragedy. There is (thank God) no rebroadcast news footage. Nor is there any Pollyanna-ish imposition of an upbeat interpretation to diminish the loss. Yes, they did it right! The show is moving from DC to Toronto later this year, and will open on Broadway in 2017. It’s not a musical for the ages — the score lacks the ‘hummable tune’ that Stephen Sondheim complains of — but I could easily see it as a Groundhog Day, one of the things that has to be seen every year on the anniversary.
An effort to make a good thing out of tragedy comes naturally to us. What else can we do, but attack reality with the tools we have? I began this review asking what an artist should do, with a huge tragedy. The answer is, exactly what she should do, with joy and sorrow and courage and failure. Art is the answer. Life, all life, everything that happens, is the raw material for art.