When Truth Enhances Fiction: Theater Based on True Stories…
By Barbara & Scott Siegel
If the true story upon which the new Broadway musical Come From Away had been made up out of whole cloth, it would be consigned to the category of pure, wish-fulfilling fantasy. In our modern, cynical world, the very idea that a small, isolated community would stop everything in their own lives to help nearly 7,000 stranded travelers from all over the world for the better part of a week would absolutely strain credulity. That they would feed them, house them in their own homes, literally give them the clothes off their backs, without asking for a dime in return, is hard to believe. But it’s true. It happened on 9/11 and during the harrowing days immediately thereafter.
Thirty-eight passenger airliners were diverted from landing in the U.S. and sent to a huge, but little used, airport in the tiny town of Gander, New Foundland, a land mass in the North Atlantic that had once been used for refueling transatlantic flights. It’s this truth that anchors Come From Away, giving it a documentary-like power that is enhanced a thousand-fold by a driving musical score, the best ensemble acting you will see on any stage this season, and direction by Christopher Ashley that doesn’t deserve a Tony Award, it deserves a Nobel Prize.
Come From Away was created, in the tradition of Studs Terkel’s groundbreaking book, Working, by interviewing those who lived through it: both the people of Gander and the people who landed there and who found refuge from a hostile world. The result is a work that is, considering the events it depicts, restrained, delicate, and piercing.
The honesty and dedication to the core truth of its story – that the events of 9/11 changed everyone who lived through them – comes brilliantly to the fore in the show’s greatest song and in its singularly most powerful performance. It’s late in the show when Jenn Collela, playing, in this instance, the female pilot of one of the airliners forced to land in Gander, sings what appears to be a stirring anthem of how her dream of becoming an aviator came to fruition with the rise of women’s rights (“Me and the Sky”). In the middle of the song, when her triumph is clear, the audience burst into applause. But the song doesn’t end there, where it might’ve in a lesser musical. Instead, she continues to sing of how her world changed when she learned that the thing she loved so much – an airplane – had been turned into a bomb. It’s a shattering moment in the song, and, creatively, it sends the show into its most moving phase, in which all of the characters come face-to-face with how this experience has changed them.
Come From Away is at once a cry-fest and an absolutely joyful expression of what is best in the human animal: compassion. And also that thing that comes in a close second: the ability to turn life into art.
On a much smaller scale, in the tiny 50 seat Theater C at 59E59 there is another play based on what is a rather incredible true story; that playwright Samuel Beckett drove a twelve year-old boy to school for one year, a boy who would grow up to be the famous TV wrestler, Andre the Giant. The play is called Sam and Dede or My Dinner With Andre The Giant.
Beckett drove Andre (whom friends called Dede) to school because he owed the boy’s father a favor, but Beckett and the boy became friends and continued to stay in touch thereafter. How much of the story is true might be open to conjecture, but the very idea that these two people from such wildly disparate worlds might have been friends is certainly intriguing – and in the writing and playing of the piece – wonderfully insightful.
The show’s key scene is inferred by the show’s subtitle, a sly play on the cult/famous play (and movie) My Dinner with Andre. In this case, it is “My Dinner With Andre The Giant.” After the school section, followed by a scene in which a teenage Andre comes to see one of Beckett’s plays, the work fully pays off when they meet for dinner together, when Beckett is in his mid-sixties and Andre The Giant has grown up and is a world famous TV wrestler in the era of such gaudy characters as Bruno Sammartino, Haystacks Calhoun, etc.
The clash of Beckett’s constant uncertainty versus Andre’s clear-headed, blunt way of managing his over-sized life, make for great theater as the Giant playfully peppers his old friend with questions. And by way of fidelity with the truth, the actor who plays Andre the Giant, while not nearly the gargantuan size of the real Andre, is still a huge actor.
Brendan Averett plays Andre in all phases of his life and he is simply brilliant, his voice getting deeper and more commanding as the play goes along. While the show’s dialogue is occasionally stilted, Averett’s sensational performance keeps the show continually engaging and ultimately revelatory.
With both Come From Away and Sam & Dede, or My Dinner With Andre the Giant, it’s the basic truths (the fact that they actually happened) that – regardless of whatever fictions might be used for dramatic purposes – convinces an audience, the moment that the play begins, that what they are seeing is credible. While most shows have to earn that, plays and musicals that have that element built in can only lose an audience. Happily, these two shows take their truths, put spotlights on them, and make them shine!