From NYC to TV: Meet Come From Away

A Canadian-born Broadway smash heads to the small screen for audiences everywhere to enjoy

A Canadian-born Broadway smash heads to the small screen for audiences everywhere to enjoy

Come From Away, the Canadian musical about what transpired when all North America-bound flights were grounded following the terrorist attacks on New York City in 2001, and 38 planes were ordered to land in Gander, Newfoundland, is not a 9/11 story. “We like to call it a 9/12 story, because it isn’t really about the events of the day, it’s about what happened after,” says original cast member and Newfoundlander Petrina Bromley, who portrays Bonnie, among other characters in the Broadway production.

As Gander had once been a refuelling stop point for transatlantic flights, and a stopover point between the U.S. and Europe during the Second World War, the airport had landing strips long enough to accommodate big jets. When the airspace closed on 9/11, more than 6,600 people stepped off these planes, into a village of about 11,000. The surrounding communities offered up their town halls, churches, school gymnasiums, classrooms and own homes to passengers needing a place to stay. “The show talks about how the community rose to the challenge, and how the people who had been diverted there actually found a haven in the midst of all this tragedy,” says Bromley.

Two decades after the attacks, the Tony- and Olivier-winning musical finds an even broader audience with Apple TV+ airing a version, staged and filmed over five days last May, for survivors of the 9/11 attacks and frontline workers. The opportunity to broadcast the musical for an audience that would otherwise not have access to the performances is a silver lining to an otherwise difficult year, plagued by the pandemic that closed down Broadway theatres in the spring of 2020. “We had this great opportunity to not only capture our show, which was something we wanted to do for a long time, but also bring our team back to work,” says the musical’s co-creator David Hein. “To be able to do that in the middle of this [pandemic] was wonderful. We get to go to 100 countries and share this little story about Newfoundland with the world. I mean, who imagined that people on the other side of the world would be talking about Gander?”

The musical got its genesis a decade after the attacks when Hein and his wife/co-creator Irene Sankoff visited Gander to meet with the community, who were hosting a celebration attended by many of the passengers who had once been stranded there. “The 10th anniversary seemed like a unique opportunity with all of these ‘Come From Aways’ returning to reunite with the lifelong friends they had made out there,” says Hein. “We spent almost a month out there. They wouldn’t let us pay for hotels because they kept saying, ‘Just come stay with us.’ We got to see a lot of the same generosity while we were out there, and we interviewed every single person we possibly could. Every story was better than the last one.”

What stood out to Sankoff about their time in Gander was that even though she and Hein had been in New York City for 9/11, the experience of people pulling together for the greater good was a universal one. “We started talking to each other, at this residence with students from 110 different countries around the world. Seeing that the same type of thing had been happening with people from around the world, we were like, ‘We get this. We understand the feeling of what happened here,’ the fear turning into hope and gratitude, and sadness being taken care of by your neighbour,” she recalls.

The musical, which focuses on the way people unite when the world seems at its worst, is a reminder of hope prevailing, even in times of great uncertainty. “When we first started writing this, we were responding to our experience being in New York on 9/11, seeing kindness and seeing people respond by coming together. It feels like it’s become more and more resonant, partly because it’s a response to tragedy, and it can be a response to any tragedy,” says Hein. “Particularly in the pandemic, it feels like people are trying to take care of each other, and this is a story about taking care of each other.”

Hein and Sankoff will return to Gander for the 20th anniversary of the attacks, this time being able to share the on-screen version of their story with those it represents. “Ten years ago, we were in Gander meeting all of these people and this year we’re going to be back with our friends, screening the show about them,” says Hein. “There’s something very meta and wonderful about coming full circle and saying thank you to this community that shared so much with us. And now we get to share their story with the world.”

Come From Away streams on Apple TV+