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‘Come From Away’: Can historical methodology and theatre co-exist?

By Charlotte Coyne (@charlottecoyne_)

Recently, there has been a rise in the number of musical theatre productions which choose to depict historical events. Many even delve into discussing historiography and the process of creating history as a major theme of the show. Most lauded among these is, of course, Hamilton: An American Musical, to which biographer Ron Chernow’s role as historical consultant arguably added a stronger claim of historical authenticity. However, despite this proliferation of ‘history musicals’, and though considerable research has also been done on the strengths of historical re-enactment in promoting public engagement with history, there are still academics who argue that theatricality and historical veracity are too disparate to coexist effectively: Nancy Isenberg has notably claimed that “history cannot be reduced to song and dance”.[1]

Enter Come From Away, a Canadian musical which depicts the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks from the perspective of the small town of Gander in Newfoundland, which temporarily accommodated thousands of airline passengers after the closure of United States airspace forced their planes to be diverted. The musical focuses on the generosity and hospitality of the town’s residents and the merging of diverse communities that occurred in the midst of the crisis. Whilst its songs, cast and message have garnered praise and award recognition, less has been said of how the writers of the show, Irene Sankoff and David Hein, came to develop their script detailing the diversion to Gander. Their source material came not from adapting biographies or memoirs, as previous ‘history musicals’ have done, but rather from lengthy interviews- conducted by Sankoff and Hein themselves- during a Canadian ceremony commemorating the tenth anniversary of 9/11. In total, 16,000 stories were collected during the interviews from residents, passengers and pilots which were then fashioned into the script, layering quotes from individuals within songs to create complete scenes and a cohesive narrative.[2] Barry Freeman has likened the effect as being akin to the cast “telling stories to the audience at a local shed party”, with the fourth wall broken, a choice which arguably recollects the oral tradition from which these stories were divulged to the show writers in interview.[3] Far from demonstrating the gulf between methodology and theatricality, here we see musical theatre writers deftly handling a research tool often utilised by modern historians today. It also serves as a reminder to the audience that the creation of histories is not solely the province of academia, but can be driven by ordinary people like themselves.

One may certainly ask: why a musical? Was it a decision made by artists working with the medium that they knew best or was it the ideal vehicle for telling this history? It may be wise at this point to acknowledge that the collation of multiple stories to form a musical is not unique to Come From Away. This technique was also utilised in A Chorus Line, which took audition stories from the real testimonies of performers.[4] This technique’s success in multiple shows suggests that the musical theatre stage is an effective medium for presenting a multi-layered oral history, with the implementation of narrative technique providing structure and uniformity to numerous, diverse stories, and music aiding in expressing the heightened emotional resonance of the events being depicted.

Further to this, in the case of Come From Away, the historical exploration is not limited to the stage. Before entering the auditorium, theatre goers will also find background information printed onto the walls around the entrance, including details of the history of Gander as a military airfield and quotes from the Mayor of Gander describing the impact of the diversion- providing necessary context for the audience. After the performance, copies of flight passenger Kevin Tuerff’s memoir can be purchased at the merchandise stall. The encouragement to reinforce and consolidate learning is comparable to what you would find in a museum. There is clearly a desire that audiences engage deeper with the historical content depicted on stage beyond the two to three hours that an audience member may usually spend in a theatre. This respect for historical methodology and education from the theatre should therefore be met with excitement by academics seeking potential collaboration to bring more histories to life on stage, rather than disdained as simple entertainment.

References:

[1] Nancy Isenberg, “‘Make ’em Laugh’: Why History Cannot Be Reduced to Song and Dance,” Journal of the Early Republic, Volume 37, Number 2, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), 295.

[2] Irene Sankoff and David Hein, “Irene Sankoff and David Hein, The Writers of Come From Away Look Back at their Visit to Newfoundland which Inspired Their Story,” Theatre Programme for Come From Away at the Phoenix Theatre, London (Ambassador Theatre Group, 2019), 8-9.

[3] Barry Freeman, “The Need of a Good Story: Understanding Come From Away‘s Warm Reception,” Canadian Theatre Review, Volume 171 (University of Toronto Press, 2017), 54.

[4] Signature Theatre, “Behind the Line: The Creation of A Chorus Line,” Signature Theatre. (October 17th 2019), https://www.sigtheatre.org/about/press-and-blogs/2019/october/behind-the-line-the-creation-of-a-chorus-line/.

Image: Author’s own photograph.

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