When I tell you that Come From Away, a heartwarming, upbeat musical, is centered around the events of 9/11, you might think I was making some crazy joke. Afterall, it would be an insane notion to call the tragedy that took place on September 11, 2001 “heartwarming.” The musical itself knows this, which is why it directs the watcher’s focus northward, to a tiny Newfoundland town called Gander.
Irene Sankoff and David Hein, a married writing team from Canada, fixate their musical on a peculiar development that occurred in Gander 20 years ago. When the American airspace was closed in response to the attack, 38 nearby aircrafts were forced to make an emergency landing in Gander’s large airport. As Hein puts it in a promotional video for Come From Away: “There were almost 7,000 people who landed here, and there was almost 9,000 people in town at the time, so we wanted to tell 16,000 stories in a hundred-minute musical!” Yes, that’s right—the town nearly doubled population overnight, leaving the residents of Gander left with a decision on how to accommodate these scared, unexpected guests.
Come From Away depicts the town residents and the passengers joining together in mutual kindness and concern for each other. Community buildings are converted into shelters, strangers are accepted into people’s homes for showers and a comfortable lunch, and new relationships are forged from the events of a world turned on its head.
The musical has a powerful 12-person cast, with each actor playing both a townsfolk role and a passenger role. When writing these characters, Sankoff and Hein interviewed the people of Gander and the passengers of those 38 airplanes and wrote these characters to directly match the people they were based on. Many of the character names are actually a melding of two or more people who were a part of this event. For example, Beulah Davis (a character in the show who organizes the Gander school into a large shelter) is based on real Gander residents Beulah Cooper and Diane Davis. Other musical characters are completely based on their real-world counterparts, such as Beverley Bass, the first female captain of an American airline.
While the musical is overall uplifting, Come From Away doesn’t shy away from the tragedies of 9/11. One passenger is desperately trying to get a hold of her son, who is a New York firefighter and isn’t answering the phone. Another passenger is from Egypt, and faces Islamophobic comments and harassment in the wake of a terrible wave of American anti-Middle Eastern sentiment. The show depicts the highs and lows of human decency, creating a complicated, realistic picture of the lives that were changed by this great tragedy.
Come From Away is ultimately a human story. It may not be as flashy or grandiose as other musicals, and it is not trying to be. At the end of the day, the show is a reminder of the miraculous time a town opened its arms for some strangers in need. It’s a story of people breaking and rebuilding together. As the musical’s concluding song aptly puts it:
“Tonight we honor what was lost
But we also commemorate what was found.”
If you are interested in experiencing this wonderful show, you can watch the filmed stage recording of the production on Apple TV+. The musical soundtrack is also coherent and delightful, if you are searching for a cheaper option.