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“Come From Away:” A Musical Tribute To the Aftermath of 9/11

September 11, 2001 is a date Americans will never forget. The world fell still as tragedy struck the United States. 1,465 miles north, however, the town of Gander, Newfoundland had another story to tell. 

What really happened

After the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City at 9:26 a.m., the United States airspace was shut down until September 13, with limited service in the following days. 4,000 planes in the air were ordered to make an emergency landing, and flights across the world were canceled. Many of the inbound flights from Europe, amongst others, made emergency landings in Canada. Canada commenced Operation Yellow Ribbon, an emergency effort to ensure planes be removed from the U.S. Airspace and away from potential targets.

Enter Gander, a small town in Newfoundland, Canada. The small town almost doubled in size as 7,000 scared and confused passengers of 38 different planes were diverted to an old run-down airport in the town. The townspeople quickly assembled food, clothing, and shelter for the dozens of planes that were suddenly grounded in their otherwise quiet town. 

For five days, people from around the world were stranded in an unknown town with little access to phones or other communication. Many of these diverted passengers attempted to get in contact with loved ones from home, some sitting through hard days of uncertainty and silence waiting to hear about anyone they knew in New York.  “Cultures clashed and nerves ran high, but uneasiness turned into trust, music soared into the night, and gratitude grew into enduring friendships.” 

September 11th continues to be one of the most devastating days in history, but what happened in Gander shows that humanity and kindness can serve as a light in the darkness.

The creative team and story

Husband and wife Irene Sankoff and David Hein are the co-authors of “Come From Away.” “[The] creators told over 16,000 stories over the course of 5 days in a 100-minute musical using 12 actors.” The two conducted interviews on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 in Newfoundland, often talking to townspeople for hours at a time about their experience in 2001. Actors from the show were able to meet the real people that inspired their characters: meet them in this video.

Come From Away” takes place in Gander on September 11, 2001. It begins with the citizens of Gander frantically preparing for over 7,000 guests then helping them through the fear and confusion they have when they realize what happened in New York. The musical follows the characters through happy times when they meet new friends from across the world, and of course, sad times when they struggle with the events. Spoiler alert: The musical ends with the characters returning to Gander on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and celebrating the friendships they were able to make in the midst of such a dark day in history.

The characters in “Come From Away” are based on real people and their stories from September 11. Captain Beverley Bass, portrayed by Jenn Collela, was the first female captain of an American Airlines plane. The song “Me and the Sky,” sung by Collela, is entirely based on Bass’ real-life experiences. Bass published her children’s book, also named “Me and the Sky,” in 2019.

Kevin T. is another character based on a real person, Kevin Tuerff. Tuerff was one of the passengers aboard a plane that got diverted to Gander. He says of the people of Gander who welcomed him, “my eyes were opened to a better side of humanity.” On the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Tuerff launched Pay It Forward 9/11, an organization devoted to doing good deeds for strangers to show the good in humanity. Like Bass, Tuerff wrote a book about his experiences in Gander, called “Channel of Peace: Stranded in Gander on 9/11.”

“COME FROM AWAY” on broadway

On March 12, 2017, “Come From Away” finally debuted on Broadway in the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. The show was nominated for seven Tony Awards (including Best Musical) and won for Best Direction of a Musical. “Come From Away” was even nominated for Best Musical Theater Album at the GRAMMY Awards.

“Come From Away,” save the COVID-19 shutdown of theatre, continues on Broadway in New York City. The show has since gone on to tour and appear in North America, London’s West End, Dublin, Canada, and Australia.

our personal experiences with the show

Maeve: As a Broadway fan, of course, I had heard of “Come From Away” and could identify its bright and recognizable poster. We have a family friend who lives in New York City, and she told us that the show was going to win the Tony – but I didn’t take the bait to learn what it was even about. Say what you will about Pandora, but the Broadway stations are great ways to stumble across new shows you’ve never considered listening to because one song can totally hook you without you even realizing what show it’s from. That was me with the song “28 Hours / Wherever We Are.” Listening to this song out of context was obviously confusing, but I couldn’t get enough. I immediately opened Spotify to binge the soundtrack, only to discover this was an inspiring, incredible true story about the aftermath of 9/11. 

After absolutely falling in love with the show (with its amazing ability to move me to tears through just listening), the touring production was luckily coming to Denver. I convinced my parents to get tickets for our whole family, as I knew they’d appreciate it. While I myself can’t recall a memory from 9/11 because I was too young, my parents lived in northern New Jersey at the time with me and my sister. I didn’t tell them much about the show in advance, but needless to say, they were enthralled with this 100-minute show as much as I was. I was so surprised by their genuine reactions to the show, as I’m typically the only one crying/fangirling/singing/researching over shows. I’m so happy we can watch it again on Apple TV+! 

Jordyn: In my senior year of high school, I went on a trip to London with my school’s performing arts program. My band director had gotten us tickets to “Come From Away,” a show I had never heard of and was honestly not very excited to see. Before the first song even ended, though, I was hooked. I was less than a year old on 9/11, but my dad was with me on the trip and said it brought back all the memories of that day. A lot of our chaperones were crying, remembering how awful that day was.

I had of course learned about 9/11 my entire life in school, but for some reason, I had never learned what happened in Gander. What happened on 9/11 was absolutely devastating, but “Come From Away” shows how humanity is able to come together on even the darkest of days.  

My favorite song from the musical is “Prayer.” The song begins with the characters singing “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace,” a Christian hymn, and then slowly adds in prayer chants and songs from Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism. It’s absolutely beautiful and became one of my favorite Broadway songs of all time. Even though I was too young to remember 9/11, this show touched my heart, and I think everyone should definitely give it a watch.

where to watch

There was previously a film adaptation in the works, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, creative teams decided to produce a live recording of the musical on stage with the original members of the Broadway cast (similar to the release of “Hamilton” on Disney+ last summer). 

Now, audiences everywhere are able to be transported to Gander along with the 7,000 passengers who landed there unexpectedly. 20 years after 9/11, “Come From Away,” a stage recording of the Broadway production is now streaming on Apple TV+

Maeve is in her last year as a Leeds School of Business student and as a Her Campus writer (sad). When she's not singing Disney show tunes while her roommates aren't home, she can be found thinking about the cold brew she had with breakfast, humming the Hamilton soundtrack, and thinking about Captain America.
Jordyn is a senior at CU Boulder and the Editor-in-Chief of HCCU. She loves hiking, reading, and playing with her silver lab puppy, and can usually be found exploring restaurants and bookstores around Boulder.