Heading to the parking garage Wednesday night after seeing the musical “Come From Away” at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, I had a flashback.
A few days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, I went downtown to see the original touring production of “The Full Monty” at the Shubert.
The Loop was eerily quiet. Barricades had been put up near buildings, ostensibly to prevent anyone from driving a car bomb into one. I parked in the Monroe Street Garage, and noticed that what was then called the Standard Oil Building nearby looked a bit like one of the towers at the World Trade Center that had fallen.
Yes. It felt really weird to be seeing a Broadway musical that week. Duh.
But I am glad I did.
Because “The Full Monty” is about a bunch of everyday Joes, down on their luck, in a downtrodden economy, living in Rust Belt Buffalo who get out of their sad sack ways by deciding to raise some money – and other things – by becoming local Chippendales.
I found it inspirational. No, I didn’t buy a g-string and tearaway pants.
And I didn’t know Best Fest Buddy Tom yet, so there’s that. No partner in crime, so no one was blinded by the light, or by anything else.
It was nice, in times of trouble, to see a modest, comedic musical about everyday people finding a purpose and pulling together (so to speak) to help each other in times of need.
Which brings me back to “Come From Away.”
Downtown once again felt a little strange. Sure, there were (almost) post-pandemic signs of life, with dinner at the Randolph Tavern having a just-out-of-college vibe about it before the show. And the theater seemed pretty much full on a frigid night.
As we watched the musical unfold, though, another world crisis was unfolding. The Russian military had started its invasion of Ukraine.
There on the stage, 12 energetic actors took on more than 60 roles, reenacting stories from the days after Sept. 11, 2001 up in Gander, Newfoundland, albeit with song and dance.
For after the terrorist attacks, with flights grounded, 38 planes carrying about 6,600 passengers were diverted to the airfield near Gander, an airfield once used for planes as a fueling stop on transatlantic journeys.
As with “The Full Monty,” everyday people pull together for the better in “Come From Away.” Gander and the rest of the small towns of Newfoundland came up with the logistics ASAP, then provided food, shelter and clothing for their unexpected guests.
Some locals let people stay in their homes. Some held barbecues. Some lent phones. They provided comfort to those trying to track down loved ones across the globe.
They forged friendships and made some weary travelers honorary newfies by having the newbies kiss a codfish and down a shot of Screech rum (with Screech in Newfoundland apparently being akin to Jeppson’s Malört in Chicago, but better-tasting).
Apparently nobody played the hero.
Newfoundland is part of Canada, however reluctantly. Canada is a nation where people are known for being modest – and hanging at Tim Hortons.
As for the generosity. It’s just what people do. Or should do.
Maybe the kindness here had something to do with the Irishness of the place. The Irish, after all, keep being named in online clickbait pieces the most generous people in the world.
A large percentage of Newfoundland’s population is of Irish ancestry. In “Come From Away,” the first sound you hear is someone striking a bodhran drum. The musical numbers have a decidedly Celtic feel to them. And local accents are an amalgam of Irish, English and Canadian ones, with local turns of phrase thrown in for good measure.
In fact, “come from away” is a term used in Newfoundland when referring to someone who is not a local. “Come From Amway” – that would be an entirely different musical.
Either way, what’s on stage in Chicago provides a modest, uplifting tonic for today’s troubles.
While it comes close in a couple places to veering into “Up With People” territory, the musical makes up for that with a strong, adept cast grounding the show, and each actor taking on multiple parts, telling the tales of those ordinary people in extraordinary times.
Cripes. It’s been more than 20 years since the infamous Sept. 11.
Back then, there were fewer cell phones and no smartphones. The internet was way less full of trolls. Nobody was going around calling themselves social influencers on social media. Or practicing keeping a social distance, for that matter.
In some ways it was a simpler time, yet still the time ushering in this, the golden age of a-holes in which we find ourselves.
September 2011 was 10 years after the annoying REM song “Shiny Happy People,” which these days could be called “Whiny Crappy People” given what can be found any given day on Facebook.
“Come From Away” reminds us that people can be kind to each other, which seems like a radical concept in this snark-infested era.
Nobody in “Come From Away”’ wears a cape or even wants to don one (and don’t even get me going on how damn dumb Gotham City people must be not to figure out Bruce Wayne is Batman). Nobody even looks for or like a movie-type hero. They just do what needs to be done.
Sure, with a set designed featuring big trees, “Come From Away” might seem sappy, and maybe a bit Brigadoon, the magical Scottish town that only comes to life once a century.
We could all use a little sweetness every now and then, right?
Come to think of it, as St. Patrick’s Day approaches, instead of reveling in silly Irish stereotypes, this March just try being nice to folks, nice to folks you might not even like.
Don’t be a Putin. Be a Newfoundlander.
Sure. Have a Guinness (but not a green beer. Ick). Put aside what an extra pint would cost and do something for the greater good with it. Be that kind of Irish.
I’ll stop here, before I get all Tom Joad.