Hamilton vs. Come From Away
Winner: Come From Away
Am I committing an act of musical-theater sacrilege by not naming Hamilton the best musical of the decade?
To begin with some similarities, both Hamilton and Come From Away are sung-through musicals exploring key moments in American history. They both begin with toe-tapping expositional songs (“Alexander Hamilton” and “Welcome to the Rock”) that introduce not only the characters and settings but also unique narration styles. They both have show-stopping power-ballads (“Wait for It” and “Me and the Sky”) in which characters connect their passions to their fears. They both have songs that explore the pressures of time (“Nonstop” and “On the Edge”) and songs that divert from the style of the show to relieve tension (“What’d I Miss” and “Screech In”).
Hamilton is the more extensive musical – it’s an hour longer and covers a span of 28 years. It explores the political maneuverings needed to secure a strong federal government back in 1790, and by extension manages to communicate a great deal about the divided politics of today. For many, the casting of Hamilton emphasizes the degree to which America is and always has been a land of diversity.
Come From Away is much smaller in scale – it is under two hours with no intermission, features a cast of 12, and uses a limited set comprised mostly of chairs and creative lighting. Yet, while Hamilton persuades us to reexamine events that define America, Come From Away inspires us to find hope within the tragedy that defined an entire generation. I am sure everyone 30 years and older remembers the moment he/she first learned of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001. I was 23 on that day, working as a graphic artist in New Jersey, when our art director’s phone rang. While listening to his wife, he told me, “Someone just flew a plane into the World Trade Center.”
What makes Come From Away so exceptional is its exploration of how the shock and horror following the attacks engendered unified experiences. It turns out there is no better place to explore community than Newfoundland. As “Welcome to the Rock” tells us, Newfoundlanders have survived harsh weather, grueling waters, and loss of loved ones, and yet they maintain overwhelming optimism grounded in their pride for being Islanders. From the moment that Bonnie says to Oz, “Jesus H, Oz! Turn on your radio!” Come From Away moves through the moments following September 11 that exist in our shared memories. Here are just five scenes that invoke significant emotional reactions:
- In “Bedding and Blankets”, Newfoundlanders feel stir crazy from the constant, repetitive news coverage: “Can I help? Is there something / I need to do something / To keep me from thinking of / All of those scenes on the tube.”
- In “Phoning Home”, the stranded passengers forego exhaustion and hunger for the chance to assure their loved ones that they are okay.
- In “On the Edge”, Ali endures unwarranted hostility from other passengers because he is Muslim.
- In “Costume Party”, Beverly (an American Airlines pilot) announces to the passengers on her plane that the United States airspace is still closed, and no one knows how long it will be before it reopens.
- At the end of “Something’s Missing”, a song about how quiet Gander seemed after the passengers departed, Hannah calls Buelah to announce that “It’s over,” meaning that there is no longer hope that her son, a NYC firefighter, survived.
Even with scenes that so effectively pay tribute to all that was lost because of the terrorist attacks, Come From Away is more about generosity than despair. The 7,000 plane people discovered that they had landed in a world of front doors that are never locked, casserole dishes too heavy to lift, and even an alcohol-induced initiation involving kissing a cod fish. Irene Sankoff and David Hein wrote the book, music, and lyrics after conducting interviews at the 10-year anniversary in Gander. This anniversary event becomes the setting for one of the most rousing final numbers in musical theater history. For days I was actively bobbing my head and singing aloud the show’s anthem: “I am an Islander.”
Hamilton is extraordinary, but Come From Away – a small-scale Canadian musical – holds its place as my favorite musical of the decade. Its inspirational storytelling and quality songs create the perfect depiction of how the modern world finds hope within the shadow of tragedy.