“Come From Away:” The World 20 Years After 9/11

The film version of the Broadway musical “Come From Away” memorializes the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. (Courtesy of Facebook)

The film version of the Broadway musical “Come From Away” memorializes the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. (Courtesy of Facebook)

On Sept. 10, 2021, for the 20th anniversary of 9/11, AppleTV released “Come From Away.” The film is based on the Tony-winning Broadway show, created by Irene Sankoff and David Hein. It tells the story of Gander, a small town in Newfoundland, where people from all over the world found themselves stranded after the twin towers fell, through whimsical songs that expertly mix humor with heartbreak. Along with the beautiful music, these characters capture the ultimate theme of the musical: human compassion trumps hatred. Always. Twenty years after 9/11, with our world still dealing with the ramifications of the tragedy, the musical’s message doesn’t just remain relevant, it’s a necessary reminder.  

Minutes after the second plane crashed into the towers; Gander International Airport received an alert that the United States air patrol had redirected dozens of international flights bound for major airports. The citizens of that small town watched as thirty-eight planes landed on their small tarmac and welcomed their 7,000 passengers and crew into their community. Yet, rather than waiting for someone to tell them what to do, the people of Gander worked with the two nearest towns to find shelter, food and clothing for their stranded guests. The guests, who the townspeople referred to as “plane people,” hardly understood what had happened in NYC. 

The credits of the film scroll past images of cast members and the real people of Gander, as Sankoff and Hein based almost every character in the show off a real person. The film shows the complications and conflicts of finding love and companionship amongst tragedy. The difference between every character’s experience — some falling in love while others break apart; some praying together while others hide their faith — struck me. No one experiences tragedy in the same way, but all of us can find someone to bear the pain with, just as the characters in this musical do.

My favorite three songs in the entire show capture how the depth of despair can being people together. The opening, “Welcome to the Rock,” introduces the island of Newfoundland as “the Rock.” The song explores how the locals rely on each other so strongly because of the hostility of their environment. The song “Something’s Missing” comes at the very end of the musical, when the plane people return home and the weight of 9/11 fully settles onto the cast of characters. This song broke me. I never really understood how 9/11 changed the world, but I know what it’s like for your idea of the world to fall away. “Something’s Missing” captures how 9/11 left these characters cold and vulnerable in light of a new world. 

“Prayer,” the third song on my list of favorites, explores the caveat in many people’s compassion in the wake of 9/11. This song comes much later in the musical when the townspeople and plane people have grown closer and come together in their faith. They sing hymns and chants from Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and Islam. Unfortunately, the community they forged cracks when one character, a Muslim man, expresses his anxiety over praying in public. Sankoff and Hein could have shown a fantastical version of the story, where people put aside their fear and prejudices to welcome everyone, but they don’t. And it hurts. This character clings to his faith like so many other characters, and they abuse him because of it. 

As someone born a month and ten days after this earth-shaking event, I never really understood the trauma 9/11 imposed on my parents, my teachers and every generation before mine. I grew up in its ashes, always anxious about TSA checks, always curious why people were so cruel to my friends of different faiths and always curious about the world I never saw. The tragedy felt huge but never real. “Come From Away” and its band of characters shows the world before and after this terrible event and how it changed them. For once, I feel like I can grasp a fraction of what the world went through that day. For the first time, I feel I might understand.