Remembering September 11th with the Musical "Come from Away"

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There are so many stories about 9/11. 

It's been 16 years since that fateful September 11th, and I still remember how blue the sky was. In fact it seems like each anniversary day has identicial weather -- a brilliant, clear blue sky, bright sun, a slight chill in the air hinting that fall is right around the corner. And of course I remember looking up at that sky reflexively as I drove to work in 2001, listening to a special report on NPR that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center, and wondering how a pilot could possibly make a navigational error like that on such a bright, clear day. 

Then everyone listened to the news for the rest of the day, as the horrifying events unfolded.

Of course, after an event of this magnitude, hundreds of stories emerged--as novels, heroic biographies, documentaries, and movies of the week. The good ones helped us process the event; helped us grieve, by shedding light on the individual lives of first responders, those who were killed, and the family members of the victims. One of the most touching, and surprisingly uplifting stories of 9/11 debuted on Broadway 16 years after the fact. It's the musical "Come From Away," by Irene Sankoff and David Hein.

Hand-picked for the project by Toronto producer Michael Rubinoff, the writing team traveled to Gander, Newfoundland on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. There, Sankoff and Hein interviewed members of the community and some of the nearly 7,000 airline passengers who were forced to make an emergency landing after U.S. airspace was closed due to the terrorist attack. In an extraordinary act of generosity, the people of Gander had flung open their homes, along with every church, school, library and public building, at a moment's notice. They welcomed people from more than 20 countries, who were temporarily stranded in their small town. 

The stories that Sankoff and Hein collected were translated into a compelling and clever score, delivered by a diverse cast of characters; some based on real people, some an amalgam of experiences. With a cast of 18, actors take on multiple roles--portraying everyone from a TV news reporter, a teacher at Gander Academy, and the local police officer, to a Middle-Eastern chef, the mother of a New York City fireman, and an American Airlines pilot. The music and lyrics oscillate between poignant and funny, livened up by a distinctly Celtic beat. 

If you saw the Tony Awards this year, you've already seen one of the show's most rousing numbers, "Welcome to the Rock." 

 

Other standout songs include "Me and the Sky," about a woman's lifelong love of flying airplanes, and "I Am Here," a mother's desperate plea for her son to pick up the phone and let her know that he's alright. 

When the musical opened on Broadway, chief theatre critic for The New York Times Ben Brantely called it a "big bearhug of a musical," saying "even the most stalwart cynics may have trouble staying dry-eyed during this portrait of heroic hospitality under extraordinary pressure."

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I admit I was dubious of the premise when I first read about "Come from Away," and even more skeptical when I learned that much of it would be based on actual accounts. Too often these stories are shallow and manipulative -- they depend on our own memories of a tragedy to do the emotional heavy lifting and sacrifice a strong story for bits and pieces of interviews, skimming the surface and reducing people to stereotypes. 

Then I listened to the Broadway cast album on repeat for about six weeks straight. Not only am I a convert, I'm now a big fan of the show, even though I have yet to see it in person. 

So as I think about 9/11 today, my hope is that "Come From Away" launches a national tour next season. It has already wowed Toronto, Seattle, Washington D.C. and New York. I look forward to welcoming the come-from-aways to Madison sometime soon.