As the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks approach, there’s no shortage of documentaries, limited series, news specials and more made now to remember the tragic event a generation ago. Many of these are insightful in the way hindsight allows one to be; unlike their counterparts released in the years following the event, these all have the benefit of years of perspective, investigation and history to shape their narratives, and many will likely prove valuable particularly to those who weren’t alive for that harrowing day and need to be educated on its significance. Standing apart from all these somber releases is Come From Away, a new filmed version of the wildly popular Broadway show that zooms in on the very specific experience of the citizens of Gander, Newfoundland (population: 11,000), and how they responded to an influx of grounded planes as the world scrambled to understand what had happened that day in the United States.
Come From Away (book, music and lyrics by creative partners and spouses Irene Sankoff and David Hein) premiered on Broadway in 2017, after a few years of out-of-town tryouts and a special presentation in Gander. Though nominated for seven Tonys that year, it only won for Best Directing of a Musical; Dear Evan Hansen, which coincidentally opened directly across the street from Come From Away, dominated that year. But the show nevertheless managed to find its footing with audiences and critics, standing out as something unique among the many Disney stage adaptations, classic revivals and so on otherwise populating the Great White Way any given week. The show doesn’t revolve around a romantic relationship or a fairy tale ending; it’s not a modern adaptation of a foreign opera or Shakespearean drama. Instead, at its heart, Come from Away is a moving, inspiring portrait of community, of the power of humanity when differences are set aside and people come together for the greater good. If that all sounds a bit Pollyanna for you, Come From Away manages to mitigate that with a sharp wit, creative casting and driving, infectious musical numbers that navigate the tumultuous emotions running high in the days after September 11.
Gander, Newfoundland, is a small town on the very far northeast corner of Canada where the local airport usually gets about a half-dozen flights coming or going per day. On the morning of September 11, the United States ordered every plane to land at the nearest airport, immediately, regardless of their final destination; as a result, Gander International Airport saw nearly 40 planes, many of them jumbo-jets with hundreds of people aboard, land on its runways, all of them in need of food, shelter and basic essentials while they waited to hear about getting home safely. In response, the Gander community not only rose to the occasion but flung open their doors and welcomed these temporary refugees into their town. Schools, community centers and more were converted into lodging; cafeterias and restaurants were commandeered to make enough food for everyone; locals opened their homes to people in need of showers or working phone lines. In the end, thousands of people stranded in Gander were taken care of by a community who would not let a single soul go without being tended to, no matter the need or special request.
This spirit of generosity and community is not only captured in Come From Away, it is the lead character. An ensemble cast of about a dozen actors each play multiple roles, sometimes residents of Gander (the mayor, the local vet, the novice journalist on the ground in the middle of it all) and sometimes the wayward travelers (the gay couple nervous about being “out” in this small rural town, the mother waiting to hear from her son at Ground Zero, the divorcée who unexpectedly makes a connection with a fellow passenger). The set is simple, chairs and tables often rearranged by the actors themselves, sometimes spinning on the stage’s rotating center, creating everything from the inside of the plane as the passengers learn something has gone very wrong, to the local pub where local and traveler alike let loose for once. At the center of it all is Sankoff and Hein’s rich narrative, pulsing musical numbers that never let up and a pace that’s so sharp it keeps one on the edge of their seat from start to intermission-free end. In person (I saw the show in Toronto in 2018), this is all exceptionally captivating. On film, not an inch of the show’s charisma or power is lost, as the original Broadway cast reprise their roles (and director Christopher Ashley returns to the helm) for a version shot in May 2021.
Come from Away is not an overly choreographed show (what is there is from Kelly Devine), and as such this filmed version isn’t relegated to a series of wide shots to be able to see all the action. Cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler has a number of musicals on his filmography (Beauty and the Beats, Dreamgirls), and it shows here, as his cameras follow the emotion of any given moment; we’re granted views no theatrical audience member could manage, including shots from right on stage as well as a few from backstage looking out onto the action. It all seamlessly marries the two formats, live theater and cinema, making this poignant and moving show more accessible than ever. With noteworthy performances from the likes of Tony nominee Jenn Colella (watch for “Me and the Sky,” Colella as Beverly Bass, a pilot helming one of the flights rerouted to Gander that day) and Astrid Van Wieren (as Beulah, a local teacher who steps up and becomes a sort of matriarch of the effort), the filmed version of Come From Away is not a documentary of that time. It is not a news report or investigative journalism about how it happened or what went wrong.
Instead, it is perhaps the most essential, consequential piece of art to result from the most tragic day in American history, the story of neighbors helping neighbors, strangers becoming fast friends and lives forever changed thanks to the kindness of those compelled to help. Come From Away reminds us of that historic day and the awful loss of life, but more than that, it reminds us that humanity is ultimately capable of so much more: of connection with those we’ve never even met; of facing tragedy and overcoming it; and of persisting and surviving even the worst day of our lives.
Come From Away begins streaming on AppleTV+ on Friday, September 10.
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