Come From Away
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It’s the filmed version of the Broadway musical Come From Away, based on the true story of a small Canadian town that took in around 7,000 stranded airplane passengers following the terrorist attacks on 9/11.
If you’re familiar with the Broadway production you should recognize some of the faces in the cast, including Jenn Colella, who was nominated for a Tony award for her performance. Christopher Ashley, who won the Tony for his direction of the musical, also directs the film.
If you’re feeling tragedy fatigue after all the news coverage of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, this uplifting production will restore your faith in humanity. It’s still packs an emotional punch, though, so keep the tissues handy.
To expand a bit on the plot synopsis, with American airspace closed in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the Gander airport—once the largest airport in the world—became an alternate destination for 38 diverted planes carrying about 7,000 passengers from all around the globe. The population of the small town in Newfoundland, Canada almost doubled overnight, and the townspeople immediately went to work to find the displaced “plane people” food and shelter for what would turn out to be five extraordinary days. But they didn’t just provide for those basic needs; they offered so much more—hospitality, compassion, kindness, and comfort in a strange and stressful situation.
The musical’s origins actually date back to the 10th anniversary of the attacks, when married writing-composing team Irene Sankoff and David Hein traveled to Gander to attend a reunion celebration. They interviewed many of the townspeople and passengers about their experiences during that time. Afterwards, Sankoff and Hein incorporated their true and fascinating stories into the stage show Come From Away, which opened on Broadway in 2017. Now, as we commemorate the 20th anniversary, Apple TV+ has released a filmed version, so you don’t have to visit a theater to experience this moving, well-crafted show (though I still highly recommend it if you ever have the chance).
Befitting the theme, Come From Away opens with a welcoming song that illustrates the spirit of Newfoundland, an island populated by proud, resilient, hospitable folks. We meet several Gander residents—the mayor, the town constable, a teacher, a news reporter on her first day, and others—as they go about their ordinary routines. They soon learn that the day is anything but ordinary, as the shocking news breaks over the radio. Notably, the show doesn’t directly mention the terrorist attacks themselves, but the subtext is immediately clear.
That subtext carries over to the simple stage design as well, a framework of rustic wood and trees, with two prominent broken trunks situated upstage left, symbolizing the twin towers. A few wooden tables and chairs—seamlessly moved around by the cast—become a bar, or a bus, or an airplane, as needed. It’s the kind of stagecraft that could be lost in a film adaptation, so it’s nice to see that preserved here by the show’s original director, Christopher Ashley. The new production also has some interesting camera angles and movements that you wouldn’t get from a theater seat, like shots from above or out into the audience, which make it much more than just a filmed version of a stage show.
The cast of 12 terrific and versatile actors feels much larger than it is, and they all look like real people you might pass on the street. Each one has a complicated and intricate track, taking on multiple roles of townspeople, passengers, and flight crew. With a quick change of a hat or a jacket, they transform before our eyes through a bit of stage magic and the willing suspension of disbelief. This is an ensemble show, with no stars or lead characters, but if there is a standout among the cast it’s Jenn Colella, who takes on the role of Beverley Bass, one of the pilots forced to land in Gander that day. As we learn from her soaring number (pun intended) “Me and the Sky,” Bass rose through the ranks to become the first female pilot in American Airlines history and took the attack very personally. Her passion is palpable in every note. The song’s climax never fails to choke me up, but it’s just one of many such moments in the show.
Yes, there are tearful moments, but there are also flashes of joy, laughter, human connection, and a whole heap of genuine charm. This show will make you feel so many things, but most of all it made me feel grateful that it will now reach a bigger audience through Apple’s streaming platform.
The filmed version of Come From Away manages to capture everything that was great about the stage show, and even adds to it. If you want to commemorate 9/11 but all the coverage is getting you down, this should lift your spirits and renew your hope.
You don’t have to like musicals to appreciate the emotional messages in the show, but it certainly helps. The few instances of profanity (an F-bomb or two) have been censored for the streaming version, so it’s safe to watch with the kiddos.
This production was originally supposed to be staged for filming on location in Gander before an audience of the very people it’s about, but that plan had to be scrapped due to Covid-19 restrictions. Instead, it was filmed live on Broadway before an audience of 9/11 survivors and first responders. Also, stick around as the credits roll for some photos of the cast members alongside the real-life people they portray.