When you first hear about the premise for hit musical “Come From Away”, which won four Olivier Awards in 2019 after moving to the West End’s Phoenix Theatre, you would not be alone in wondering how a musical about 9/11 was described as “heart-warming”. After going on Monday 6th January 2020, it’s safe to say I fully understand. Fascinated by the snippets I had heard; I was curious about the true story it was based on. 


The lobby of the Phoenix Theatre has a map on it, where pins are stuck with the names of the thousands of people who see the show every night. Outside it, billboards exclaim “because we come from everywhere, we all come from away!” Signs outside the bar ask whether you would like to “kiss the fish” in bright blue and yellow. It was fair to say I was not entirely sure what to expect about a musical that covered such atrocities but seemed so joyous. Surely nowhere on September 11, 2001 was experiencing the best of human nature, seeing as they were such dark times? 


The short answer is I was proved very wrong. The musical is based on the actions of the inhabitants of a small town in Newfoundland, Canada named Gander after the events of 9/11 in New York. When the U.S airspace closed, 7,000 lost and confused travellers ended up in a town with a population of just 10,000, nearly doubling its population. Yet volunteers flocked to help the “plane people” (as they were called) over the three days they were grounded when the U.S airspace closed. The vibrant characters are portrayed by just 12 actors, with just 12 chairs as set. Personally, I thought the show was magnificent, with spectacular singing, dancing and staging, which made you flit between laughter and tears and left you entirely uplifted at the end. Caitlin Kinch, 15, when she went to see it on a school trip, said “I have fallen in love with the music and I keep on listening to it and noticing new quirks. It always has something new to offer,”, while Rohini Kumar, also 15, said “I loved it and it is included in my list of 'all-time favourite musicals!” 


But many people upon first watching it may be surprised to learn not only is the narrative a true story, it is based on hundreds of in-depth interviews show writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein had with locals when they visited the town on the tenth anniversary of the attacks.  


“We amalgamated characters and storylines to keep it concise, but every detail came from a true story,” says Hein, in an interview with the Salvationist. Every detail- from the men of the town having to get sanitary pads for female travellers to a throwaway line by an airplane captain upon seeing the crowded runway (“Where am I gonna park this thing?”)- was gleaned from a series of interviews with the residents of the town on the tenth anniversary if the attacks. The fear felt by the cast as they play new arrivals in the town is palpable in the theatre, and it is accurate to many character’s emotions, particularly that of Hannah O’Rourke. Hannah’s son was a firefighter in New York who unfortunately died during the aftermath of the attacks. However, she made firm and life-long friends with Beulah Cooper, a volunteer at the Legion’s club, who also had a firefighter son. “[At the opening night] She held both our hands and leaned on us and cried,” said Sankoff in an interview with the Daily Beast. “Then she laughed as it went on.” But the locals were welcoming in other incidences as well. An airline pilot recalls being greeted by crowds of people with platters of sandwiches, juice boxes, and packed lunches and knowing she was in a safe place. 


Indeed, when they visited a house overnight, they were told to lock their doors. “Not because anything bad would happen,” Sankoff told The Daily Beast, “but because someone might drop in for tea.” The kindness and the willingness to share of the people of Gander meant that the show’s creators had a lot to work with. Endless snippets were cut, and characters were amalgamated to fit as much in as they could in a 100-minute musical. They were fascinated by how natural these acts of kindness came to people- but as characters at the end of the show repeat, the people of Gander believed: “You would have done the same thing”. 


And it’s the true-to-life kindness that really is the beating heart of this show. The creators have recalled in several interviews that a young person who helped make food for the “plane people” “never wanted to look at another sandwich again”. Not only that, but on one of the thirty-eight planes that arrived in the city were several “Make-a-Wish" children, who had been on a trip to Disney World. A local police officer’s daughter helped to put on a party for them instead, dressing up as the local mascot “Commander Gander”. Other acts of care shine throughout the show and the real-life story- a Jewish man who fled to Canada as a child opening up to a rabbi; a vet who helped care for the stranded animals- including two rare Bonobo chimpanzees; thousands of people offering their houses and showers to those who needed them. The show portrays the best of humanity in a way “feel-good” doesn’t really capture, yet the people of Gander themselves are still sceptical of the praise. According to an article by Konrad Marshall, mayor Claude Elliot couldn’t fathom a stage show about blankets, showers and soup. 


This show is so vital, especially with the rise in anti-immigrant sentiment worldwide. And yet it was written in before any of this was so prevalent, back in 2012. You could say that this is because the message is so universal. “I will take away the knowledge that even if it seems humanity is stuck in the darkness, there is always hope.” said Caitlin. “The fact that it is a real-life event... it can happen again,” Rohini said she had learnt “to appreciate and enjoy every moment you have as life is unpredictable,” Personally, I've taken away that we could all be in that situation and need to give or receive the unbidden kindness of strangers. As they say in the show- “because we come from everywhere, we all come from away,”. 


  • Come From Away is on at the Phoenix Theatre. Book tickets here: https://comefromawaylondon.co.uk/ 
  • Websites used: https://www.thedailybeast.com/come-from-aways-journey-from-911-to-the-tony-awards https://www.smooth.com.au/stage/true-stories-behind-hit-musical-come-away ; https://www.smh.com.au/world/north-america/the-tiny-town-behind-a-heartwarming-9-11-tale-20190326-p517pe.html 

By Esther O'Neill, Newstead Wood School