In 2017, Broadway and the team behind Come From Away asked if America was ready for a musical about the tragedy of 9/11. After seeing it, most lamented that it hadn’t come sooner. As Broadway reopens this month, national tours come back alive and a new version of the musical debuts on Apple TV on September 10th, the story of Come From Away has new resonance and lessons for those who take the time to watch it and reflect.
Of the tens of thousands of heartbreaking plotlines that arose on 9/11, Come From Away focuses on one fairly outlandish one: the true events that took place in Gander, a small town in the remote Canadian province of Newfoundland, which used to house one of the largest airports in the world — as is explained in its opening song, “Welcome to the Rock.” The musical follows the stories of some dozens of the roughly 6,700 passengers in the 38 planes that were rerouted to Gander when international airspace was shut down in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks in New York, the Pentagon and in a field in Shanksville, Pa. It also follows the efforts of the people of Gander to rally to support the “Plane People” who were stranded in their town, as they raced to put them up in schools and churches in their town of just over 9,000.
In Come From Away, viewers watch the passengers and crew, who hail from across the country and world, learn of the attacks and contemplate their impact on the world and their individual lives. They struggle in a world before the iPhone — remember trying to reach people on 9/11? — to connect with loved ones and check on those who may have been in harm’s way. The tragedy brings the passengers and those they encounter in Gander together in ways that, sadly, only tragedy can. And, in some instances it drives them apart.
READ MORE — Man’s best friend rushed to Ground Zero twenty years ago
The musical harkens back to the moments of unity that followed 20 years ago. The nation had just been through the closest presidential election in history, decided by just 537 votes in Florida, and was seemingly irreparably divided. The attacks on 9/11 brought America together with a singularity of purpose and resolve. In fact, the only mention of a domestic political figure throughout the show is a unifying moment during the song “28 Hours” during which the pilot plays President George W. Bush’s address to the nation from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana over the plane’s intercom. Just as happened in real life, at that moment politics didn’t matter. The plane went silent, and Bush’s closing words from his statement, provided verbatim in the show, creates an impactful moment. It personifies the fact that in the aftermath of 9/11 we were all Americans, the President was our leader, and we were rooting for him.
Come From Away handles this incredibly difficult subject with a combination of compelling dialogue, catchy songs and disarming humor without delving into the political battles and acrimony that would follow in the years after (the musical does allude to tension between racial and ethnic groups, however, particularly in the case of one Muslim passenger). The staging of the musical is also worth noting. Actors play a variety of roles throughout the musical, both as stranded passengers and citizens of the town, and the sets are left to the viewer’s imagination, with various arrangements of chairs and tables serving as the main features.
Over the last two weeks, the American public has witnessed horrific images from Afghanistan, where we went to war over the Taliban’s role in harboring Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. Twenty years after our invasion of Afghanistan, with the images of 9/11 merely a section in a history book for younger Americans, many wonder why we went there in the first place and stayed the last twenty years.
Come From Away is a timely reminder of the unprecedented shock and horror of 9/11, in a world where visuals of terrorist attacks have become too common, and Islamist terror has simply become a part of our world, from Europe to New Zealand to the Middle East. It reminds us all that the events of 9/11 changed everything. It changed the United States and the Western world’s posture to extremist threats. It changed the course of our domestic politics and our foreign policy. Bush’s popularity skyrocketed and days later the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed Congress with the goal of rooting out terrorists and those who harbor them, with just one dissenting vote. That AUMF is still in effect today, though the U.S. House just voted to rescind it earlier this year.
Come From Away is a timely reminder of the unprecedented shock and horror of 9/11, in a world where visuals of terrorist attacks have become too common.
Perhaps most poignantly demonstrated in Come From Away is how 9/11 changed the way we interact with each other as humans, and seeking common ground through a variety of means.
Come From Away makes a special point of highlighting the unifying power of religion. The first moment comes in the reprise of “Darkness and Trees” as a Gander resident is trying to communicate with an African who does not speak English, and is paralyzed by fear and is refusing to get off the bus. The resident notices that his wife clutches a Bible and gestures to see it. Knowing the number system would be the same as his, he turns to Philippians 4:6: “Be anxious for nothing.” The African and Gander resident say together, “And that’s how we started speaking the same language.”
The song “Prayer” beautifully intertwines the Prayer of St Francis inspired hymn “Make me a Channel of your Peace” and Hebrew and Hindu intonations as passengers, some of whom admit they hadn’t been particularly religious of late, search for answers and comfort during their stay in Gander.
In just under 100 minutes, Come From Away captures the real-time emotions of those who watched the attacks of 9/11 unfold on live television. It inspires the feelings of love of country and calls to service that many felt after the attacks, most poignantly in the character of Hannah, a stranded mother whose son is a missing New York City firefighter, and who describes her anxiety over her son’s fate in the song “I Am Here”. The show powerfully invests its viewers in the stories of these Plane People and the residents of Gander, so much so that you feel relief and pain as you learn of their story’s resolution.
The musical’s penultimate moment for me is found in “Me & the Sky” sung by Jen Colella, who reprises the role of Captain Beverley Bass she originated on Broadway in the Apple TV version of the musical. Using her powerful voice, Colella takes you on a soaring journey through Captain Bass’s groundbreaking career as American Airlines’ first female pilot, her lifelong love of flying and aviation, and her devastation at the moment of understanding that “the one thing [I] loved most / was used as the bomb.”
These moments and so many others make Come From Away a powerful and impactful way to spend an hour and a half in the theatre, or at home on Apple TV.
As the nation pauses to commemorate the 20th Anniversary of the terrorist attacks on 9/11, Come From Away can serve as a way to introduce the subject to those who were too young to remember the attacks. It can inform and rekindle what it was like to live through those days, when we didn’t know what exactly was happening, what would come next, and the new world that we were stepping into in its aftermath.
Ben Wren is an Associate with Long Nyquist & Associates and a Fellow with the O.V. Catto Leadership Initiative. He has participated as a performer and Director in Theatre for over 25 years, and is currently the Chairman of the Board for Split Stage Productions. (Opinions expressed only reflect his own and not necessarily those of his employer or affiliated groups). @benwren
For More Information on How to See Come From Away