Canadian husband-and-wife writing team, Irene Sankoff and David Hein, visited Gander, Newfoundland in September of 2011 to commemorate and remember what happened in that town on 9/11 and the days following. The people they met during that trip had been there on that fateful day ten years earlier and their stories, stories of humanity at its best on a day when the worst was also in evidence, have come together in an amazing theater production that comes to the screen via Apple TV on September 10th, the eve of the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
The folks in Newfoundland, pronounced NOO-fuhnd-lahnd, call visitors "come from aways" and Gander got 7,000 of them overnight on 9/11 practically doubling the population of the town. "Come From Away," the award-winning musical that came to Broadway in 2017, collects the stories of the Ganderites and the "plane people," as the locals called them, as they lived and interacted over the next five days.
Sankoff and Hein originally intended to make a film adaptation of the musical, shot in Gander and using the townspeople as extras, but when the Covid-19 lockdown hit, plans changed. Instead, once the lockdown ended, they gathered the original Broadway cast, had a special performance which was filmed, and will gift it to television viewers to commemorate 20 years since September 11, 2001.
Using only twelve actors playing multiple roles who totally nail the various accents they have to do, "Come From Away" begins on a morning like any other in Gander, people meeting at Tim Horton's for their morning coffee. There's an argument between the mayor, Claude (Joel Hatch), and Garth (Tony LePage), who's leading the bus driver strike. When the town constable, Oz (Paul Whitty), comes running in the door with news, the small town network immediately springs into action.
With seamless transitions from the locals to the plane people, the stories begin to unfold. On the side of the locals you have the scramble of the Ganderites to gather enough cots and food for their unexpected guests; Bonnie (Petrina Bromley), the local SPCA representative, trying to care for the animals in the holds of the planes, including a rare bonobo chimpanzee who, to complicate an already complicated situation, is pregnant; Beulah (Astrid Van Wieren), the elementary school teacher who becomes den mother to as many as they can fit in the school; Janice (Emily Walton), the local television reporter who is experiencing a really rough first day on the job.
Caesar Samayoa as Kevin & others in "Come From Away." © 2021 Apple TV+. All Rights Reserved.
The plane people are, initially, forbidden to disembark, having to remain on board. When the crew starts giving out free booze, Nick (Jim Walton) seeks peace from the resulting exuberance in an empty seat next to Diane (Sharon Wheatley) and they strike up a conversation that develops into more over their time in Gander. When finally able to get off the plane after twenty-eight hours (ugh), the 'come from aways' greatest desire is to find out what's going on and to find phones to call their loved ones.
One of the most impressive realities that I never really thought about was that the passengers on the planes, having been airborne when the attacks happened, cut off from live news, had no clue what was going on, what had happened, or why they were being forced to land in Canada. The musical chooses Captain Beverly Bass (Jenn Colella) to represent the flight crews and she's even given her own song, "Me and the Sky." She was the first female pilot to become a captain for American Airlines and she's a dedicated flyer, trying to keep people calm and informed with as much information as she's given. An interesting aside: the real Beverly Bass has seen the show over 100 times!
Jenn Colella as Bevery Bass & others in "Come From Away." © 2021 Apple TV+. All Rights Reserved.
As the local Newfoundlanders and the plane people interact, some bond while others come under suspicion. Beulah and Hannah (Q Smith) both have sons who are firefighters. Hannah's from New York City and she hasn't heard from her son yet. Ali (Caesar Samayoa) is a chef from Egypt who, being Middle Eastern, is shunned by many he meets. He keeps offering to help Beulah with the food but she politely declines. A gay couple on board one of the flights feels the tension in the air all around them, wondering if the locals will be as kind to them as they have been to others.
One especially moving song, "Prayer," features "Make Me a Channel of Your Peace" that we Catholics know as the Prayer of St. Francis. This song embodies the desire for peace amidst the uncertainty the world was feeling in the aftermath of 9/11. The plane people were a microcosm of the world and this song is a beautiful witness to people of different religions coming together in prayer.
"Come From Away" respects the gravity of any entertainment dealing with 9/11 but at the same time finds levity when the locals decide to offer some plane people to become honorary Newfoundlanders. They gather in a bar to be "screeched-in," a ceremony that involves partaking of the local rum and, yes, kissing a fish.
The cast of "Come From Away." © 2021 Apple TV+. All Rights Reserved.
If you choose to watch the film with family, be aware there might be some things that deserve some conversation with younger members, such as the 'normality' with which homosexual relationships are depicted and joked about and a bit of rough language.
As we come upon the 20th anniversary of 9/11, it is good to echo Gander's mayor: "Tonight we honor what was lost, but we also commemorate what we found." This sums up well all that makes up the heartwarming stories of "Come From Away."