With arms wide open: 9/11 musical ‘COME FROM AWAY’ writers and composers find love, laughter in the wake of a crisis

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

Do you remember where you were on September 11, 2001? The chances are that if you were alive during that tragic chapter in history and old enough to recall it, you will. 

Like millions of others, I was on my way to school, and the radio’s music stopped to say a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. It was a day full of tears and confusion but also love. Everyone in my class hugged each other and called families to see if all was safe.

Following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that morning, the U.S. airspace shut down—every plane in the air had to be diverted and grounded immediately. As a result, hundreds of aircraft carrying thousands upon thousands of bewildered passengers landed with a scarce warning, and the people on the ground frantically tried to figure out what to do.

The tragic events of that day may seem like one of the oddest subjects for feel-good entertainment. However, despite the odds, Canadian writers and composers Irene Sankoff and David Hein made it possible with Come from Away, dubbed the “9/11 musical” (although it’s more 9/12). 

Sankoff and Hein song-and-dancify the true story of the 7,000 people stranded in the small town of Gander, Newfoundland, after all flights were grounded on September 11, 2001. But just as much as the musical centers on the passengers and pilots, it’s also about the townsfolk who graciously welcomed the travelers with open arms and helping hands. The beautiful and joyous tale finds love and hope in the unlikely and lasting bonds these people forged.

A filmed version of the 2017 hit musical is now available to stream on Apple TV+ ahead of its return to Broadway this fall. Directed by Christopher Ashley and produced by Bill Condon, the film was recorded in May at the Gerald Shoenfeld Theatre with 9/11 survivors and frontline workers in attendance.

As we prepare to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, take in this musical and allow it to sweep you off your feet and expand your heart. You can prime yourself for the endearing experience by watching our video interview with Sankoff and Hein below. They discuss their approach to telling the story and how the filmed version has deepened their understanding.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.