‘Come from Away’ finds solace in community amid tragedy

Twenty years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Apple TV+ has released a film rendition of the 2017 Broadway musical Come from Away.

During the aftermath of the attacks, the U.S. closed its airspace, diverting 238 planes to Canadian airports. 38 of those diverted flights arrived in the small town of Gander, Newfoundland, where they remained for five days, with passengers experiencing confusion and compassion. The musical depicts the Gander townspeople’s efforts to aid the thousands of stranded passengers.

Critically acclaimed stage director Christopher Ashley received his third Tony Award for the musical’s direction, and for good reason: The small 12-person cast and simple staging creates an intimate setting, as each cast member plays multiple local and passenger roles. This emphasizes the feeling of a social bubble while also showing similarities between foreigners and locals. Additionally, the musical’s use of narration to show characters’ internal monologues and to add historical context enhances the feelings of terror and confusion felt by the “plane-people,” the Newfoundland hosts, and ultimately, the audience. 

Aside from its thematic emphasis on finding community after a traumatic experience, the musical also illustrates how the 9/11 attacks promoted a rise of anti-Arabism in the West. During a frustrated internal monologue, an Egyptian passenger (Caesar Samayoa) expresses the increased hostility he feels from others, due to his Middle-Eastern identity. The show focuses on others whose lives were disrupted by the attacks, including a mother frantic to locate her son who was on shift as a firefighter, and a pilot whose co-workers were on the hijacked flights. It is their grief and anxiety that pervade the musical, even as Newfoundlanders bring everyone down to the bar to try to comfort those suffering and divert their attention from the tragic news. 

In the face of such immense loss, the musical’s inclusion of folk music, karaoke, and humour highlight the social bonds forged during the chaos. The music breathes positivity into the story, pushing the narrative toward hope as the characters find friendship and love amid uncertain circumstances. Infusions of staples of Canadian culture, such as Tim Hortons stage props and moose crossings, transform Newfoundland into a bubble away from the chaos within the United States. For the stranded passengers, Newfoundland has become an unlikely refuge.

By transitioning this theatre piece to film, the show both gains a wider following while losing some of the intimate feeling that made live-shows special. Although the initial footage of the audience entering the theatre helps bridge the gap between the in-person versus at-home viewing experience, it also adds a sense of detachment from the show as a whole. Contrasting with its themes of togetherness, Apple TV+’s film version only adds to the feeling of loneliness as the audience experiences both the pandemic and 20th anniversary of 9/11. The final moments of the show bring the audience to 10 years post 9/11, giving the characters and audience time to reflect on how their lives have changed since their stay in Newfoundland. 
Overall, Come from Away is a celebration of resilience during a horrific historical moment. The musical honours incredible connections between neighbours and strangers, while respecting the lives lost and permanently altered by a tragedy whose aftermath continues to resonate today.

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