From stage to TV, Come From Away continues to sooth painful memories with messages of hope

By Louise Talbot
With restrictions easing in coming weeks, the Australian production hopes to be back on the road soon. Photo: Come From Away

With the Australian performance schedule of global documentary-style hit musical Come From Away temporarily on pause due to the extended COVID-19 lockdown, the cast’s Broadway counterparts in the US have swung into action to commemorate the September 11 terror attacks in a unique and heartfelt way.

At first, it might seem unusual a musical has taken on the unenviable task of capturing some part of the 9/11 horror.

But, Come From Away has been officially recognised globally since 2013 for reminding people that in the face of the worst of humanity on that day, there was also the best.

All based on real life stories, the stage show immortalises the moment the small close-knit music loving town of Gander in Newfoundland, Canada, found themselves with 6597 frightened passengers on their doorstep, having disembarked from 38 planes suddenly grounded immediately after the four attacks across America.

The town of 10,500 took them in, cooked for them, shopped at Walmart for supplies and opened their homes for the following five days. They even shared their “bad rum” and taught passengers how to “kiss a fish”.

In what will be an emotional tribute, members of the Broadway and national touring companies of Come From Away will commemorate the 20th anniversary with a one-night free concert performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on September 10 (local time).

“There isn’t a more fitting or inspiring location than the Lincoln Memorial to stage this wonderful story that honours the better angels of our human nature,” said Ford’s Theatre director Paul R Tetreault.

“On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, we are honoured to present this story of courage, communion and compassion. And we are grateful for the chance to do so in-person.”

As Australian original cast member Katrina Retallick, in lockdown awaiting a return to the stage to continue its national tour, told The New Daily on Thursday it will be a hugely emotional moment for her US counterparts.

“It would be so emotional. It’s emotional every night, even for the Australian company, we’re not in the city that it occurred in, but it would be very powerful. And the healing continues, and it needs to continue.

“I think Come From Away is part of that healing,” she says.

The gymnasium at Gander Academy, an elementary school on September 13, 2001, where hundreds of passengers lay sleeping, far from home. Photo: AAP

‘From strangers to family’

After American airspace was shut down for the first time in history, suddenly 38 planeloads of passengers and crew had to find somewhere to land, immediately.

Gander – with a local population of 9651 – was the closest airstrip on the island of Newfoundland in the far north east of Canada, and out of nowhere the town came to the rescue and looked after the thousands of traumatised, homeless passengers.

They became known as the “plane people”.

On the 10th anniversary of September 11, Canadian writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein travelled to Newfoundland, where they collected hundreds of hours of interviews which eventually turned into the multi-award-winning musical.

Claude Elliott was Gander’s mayor during those five days. He shared his story, and has been telling it for two decades. He speaks about how his town showed the world, just for a moment, that there were corners of the earth full of compassion and kindness.

“That first day we had 7000 strangers,” he says.

“The third day we had seven thousand friends. And on the fifth day, we lost seven thousand family members. That’s how close we became to those passengers.”

Anecdotes abound over the years from the tens of thousands of people who have seen the production. The writers told the Washington Post of just a few reactions: “They heard from a New York City Fire Department chaplain, who explained that Come From Away helped shift her memories of 9/11 from the pain of the day to the heroism that responded.

“Another woman, who lost a relative in the terrorist attacks, reached out to say that the show prompted her family to openly discuss that tragedy for the first time, after years of suppressing the topic.”

‘We are not alone’

Retallick, 49, who plays real-life Diane, a Texas woman stranded who finds comfort and love in a fellow passenger, says there is so much tragedy in what happened, “but there’s also this other side, that is heartwarming, to remind us all that human beings are really decent.”

She says many from Gander flew to Melbourne in 2019 for the show, and they all keep in contact via Facebook.

“There’s a big responsibility on all our shoulders to do a good a job of this, and I felt it right from the beginning. I do get a love story to play, and connection.

“Diane and Nick talk about survivor guilt and that they had found this relationship, but weren’t sure they were allowed to enjoy it because of what had happened.

“We sing a beautiful duet together called Stop the World, they want to hold onto that moment, and cherish it with the disaster unfolding around them.

As for the one-time concert in the US this weekend? Retallick says “don’t forget to reach out because we are not alone. There’s so much value in connection and in looking after each other and it extends beyond our family”.

“Our presence in these commemorations is going to be an uplifting one and one that reminds us of people helping each other out during a very dark time.”

“We’re going to be alright if we look after each other.”

A filmed version of the musical from New York’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre starts streaming on Apple TV Plus on September 10.


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