There are many sorrowful memories that return when we recall the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US, yet out of that tragedy and loss has arisen this extraordinary, life-affirming, multi-award-winning musical.
It had an all-too-short run at the Capitol Theatre in June – and if it hadn’t been cut off by COVID, I would happily have taken my whole family to see it. It’s really that good. Now, a Broadway performance of Come from Away has been filmed and released just in time to commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
For those unfamiliar with the true story behind the show, it takes us to the town of Gander, Newfoundland – a small community on an outpost island off the east coast of mainland Canada. Or, as locals call it, “The Rock”. It’s hardly the kind of place you’d expect to play a major role in the aftermath of terrorist attacks, but it was here that 38 planes were forced to land and wait, for days, for the US to reopen its airspace.
This meant several thousand people of all ages, races and faiths suddenly needed to be catered for in a place that definitely wasn’t prepared for them.
On the face of it, the story doesn’t seem like good material for a musical. How do you write songs about 7000 people stuck in a Canadian town? Where does a coherent storyline come from? And how can there be anything but sadness in reliving events that only occurred because of 9/11?
However, this doesn’t reckon with the people of Gander. In 2001 they didn’t just put up with the influx of airline passengers – they welcomed them with love, care and consideration. They opened their homes and community. They brought in the stranger – those who had “come from away” – and, without giving it a second thought, turned their lives upside down for them.
And it was a mammoth effort. As one character, Beulah, says in a phone call as the town gets ready:
I thought I’d see if I could help whosever in charge of getting the school organised... How many passengers can we take? Uh – well, we fit about 400 students. Yes, we could probably do 600... Yeah, or sure, 700, if we really pack them in. When are they coming?... Could be any time now? Well, I’m glad I phoned!
Each of the ensemble cast plays a range of characters, changing in a blink from the local bar owner in Gander, an animal welfare worker, policeman or mayor, to an international businessman, anxious parent, Muslim passenger or the first female captain of an American Airlines commercial plane, Beverley Bass. And while some of the characters we see are blends of a few different people, they are all real people, and all true stories.
The threads of these very different lives and experiences are cleverly interwoven in word and song by Irene Sankoff and David Hein – who also deal sensitively with the negative Muslim effect of the attacks, creating a song that manages to include the faith practices of Christian, Jewish and Hindu passengers. Then there’s the openness with which the Gander people care for the Muslim “enemy”, and everyone else for that matter.
No, the musical doesn’t suggest that all faiths are the same. It also doesn’t suggest that all are wrong or that one is right. It just recognises the faith is there and lets the characters tell stories from within their faith experience.
The big takeaway for us as Christian viewers, apart from having a rollicking good time watching it while we’re stuck in lockdown, is to recognise that the response of Gander’s residents is one Jesus would want us to emulate as we live to honour him: treating others as we would wish to be treated; caring for our neighbour or the stranger in our midst; turning no one away.
Come from Away is incredibly uplifting and joyous, while still carrying the sorrow caused by 9/11. The rip-snorting, Celtic-influenced score is performed live on stage by a small ensemble throughout the performance, and the only drawback is that you can’t be in the theatre whooping and clapping along with the audience – because, trust me, if you like musical theatre at all, you’ll totally want to.
At this stage it’s only available to Apple TV+ subscribers but, hopefully, it will be on other platforms or free-to-air TV before long.
Image via AppleTV.