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No curtain is necessary to open a play with a perfect “curtain speech.” Neither is a physical theater. On the evening of Friday, Sept. 10, when Ford’s Theatre welcomed roughly 6,000 people to a concert staging of the musical Come From Away on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, there was no curtain and no theater, nothing between the stage and the sky.
A solitary jet roared overhead as Kirsten Hillman, Canada’s ambassador to the United States, delivered a speech before a performance of the Broadway musical, an unlikely hit show about the tragedies of 9/11 and the world-changing aftermath.
“The story that you’ll hear tonight is not just about big planes trapped on a tiny tarmac,” Hillman said, referring to the 38 jets that landed at a former refilling station in Gander, Newfoundland, on the clear September day when U.S. airspace was closed. For five days, Canadians fed, clothed and comforted thousands of passengers from around the world.
“This is a story is about shining a light in the darkest of days, an anthem of ordinary people, and your neighbors wanting to pull you through,” Hillman said.
Canadian composers and lyrists Irene Sankoff and David Hein began developing Come From Away about 10 years after the tragedy, interviewing townspeople and “the plane people” who landed in Newfoundland. They created a musical that honors lives lost while celebrating the potential for complete strangers to care for their fellow humans.
“That warm embrace,” Hillman said, referring to that silver lining of the 9/11 legacy. “It still lingers today. And I think you’re gonna feel it tonight.”
She was right. From the defense contractors and airline executives seated up front to the theater fans lining the Reflecting Pool watching on jumbotrons, Come From Away offered Washingtonians a communal sanctuary to collectively remember 9/11 while also celebrating the return of live theater.
The concert staging also solidified Come From Away’s place in the canon of contemporary musical theater, and the show’s legacy in D.C. After tune-ups at La Jolla Playhouse and Seattle Rep, the musical debuted at Ford’s Theatre five years ago. Opening night was a rare bipartisan arts event (Congressman Ron Paul sat in my row). From there, it was off to Toronto and then Broadway, where the show took home only one award—best director for Christopher Ashley—out of seven 2017 Tony nominations.
And yet, in the years since, one could argue that Come From Away has secured a much firmer future than Dear Evan Hansen, which launched from Arena Stage and beat Come From Away for the best new musical Tony. On Friday, the same night thousands saw Come from Away on the Mall, a filmed version of the Broadway production dropped on Apple TV+ to rave reviews. Meanwhile, up in Canada, a feature film of Dear Evan Hansen tanked at the Toronto International Film Festival. The musical about high school lies, anxiety, and suicide hasn’t aged well, nor has star Ben Platt, who was criticized for still playing a teenager at 27.
Come From Away, however, still has momentum. Sweden pressed ahead with plans for the Scandinavian premiere, even though only a few dozen people could attend last year. In Australia, the musical was back onstage in June. Closer to home, Me and the Sky, a children’s book by pioneering pilot Beverley Bass, a main character in Come From Away, was named a top picture book by the Maryland Association of School Librarians, introducing kids across the state to the Come From Away story.
Come From Away has fans, but no doubt the musical made new ones Friday. “I heard it’s very funny,” remarked a 30-year D.C. resident I chatted with while walking to the Lincoln Memorial. He had never seen the show, but was on his way to join one of two Meetup groups. There’s no better musical to unite a gaggle of D.C. strangers.
Ford’s Theatre’s crew pulled off the tech logistics without a hitch. Perhaps appropriately, only airplanes disrupted the sound system. An outstanding mix of Broadway vets and national touring cast members filled the stage erected on the Lincoln Memorial steps. Most actors play multiple characters: One or two from the group of Newfoundlanders, one or two Plane People and perhaps even a cat, dog, or orangutan stuck in a cargo hold.
Christine Toy Johnson was particularly poignant as Diane, a middle-aged woman from Texas who falls in love with an Englishman (Chamblee Ferguson) en route to a conference in Dallas. The real-life Kevin and Diane were among those with ties to Come From Away who attended, and whenever their characters kissed, cheers went up from crowd sitting around them.
A similar celebratory spirit took hold when Julie Rieber sang “Me and the Sky,” an anthem that traces Bass’s life story from plane-crazy kid to mortician pilot making $5 an hour to American Airlines’s first female captain leading an all-women crew.
“Suddenly I’m in the cockpit, suddenly everything’s changed,” she belts. “Suddenly there’s nothing in between me and the sky.”
The song peaked when female members of the ensemble donned caps and marched across the stage while the crowd went wild. “Me and the Sky” has become something of a fourth-wave feminist anthem, a chance for younger women to applaud those who broke barriers before them. But the song goes on to follow the captain through that fateful day she was flying Paris to Texas.
Deftly, Come From Away threads a tragedy and comedy, logos and pathos. It’s horrific when some passengers fear the Quran-carrying travelers who were onboard the diverted planes and hysterical when, instead of a terrorist, one Muslim turns out to be a four-star hotel chef who seriously elevates the food offered to refugees staying at Gander’s elementary school.
Hillman alluded to the lingering prejudices exposed in Come from Away in her curtain speech. Yards away from Lincoln’s seated statue, the ambassador asked listeners to spend 9/11 reflecting on six words from his second inaugural address: “Malice towards none, charity for all.”
“Tomorrow, whether you meet with discord or division, tragedy or triumph, think about those words. Think about the ‘Come From Awayers.’ Let’s remember: Malice towards none, charity for all,” Hillman said. “Please take care of each other.”