Writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein on how ‘Come From Away’ resonates 20 years after 9/11
It’s been nearly 20 years since the residents of Gander, Newfoundland welcomed thousands of foreign plane passengers to their small town and provided for them in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001. It’s been 10 years since writers (and real-life couple) David Hein and Irene Sankoff traveled to Gander to interview Gander locals about that experience, gathering the source material for what would become Come From Away. It’s been nearly five years since the musical opened on Broadway, making it the longest-running Canadian musical in Broadway history.
Now, on the eve of the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the show will be immortalized as a film. A taped performance of Come From Away will stream on Apple TV+ starting September 10, making the story available to audiences worldwide. When the film premieres, Hein and Sankoff will be in the very place they were when the Broadway production was about to open: in Gander, celebrating with the locals.
“There’s going to be a special screening of this with all of our friends and people out there who we originally met 10 years ago, and I think it’s going to be another dance party,” Hein said. The first dance party took place in 2016, when Hein, Sankoff, and the Broadway cast visited Gander to perform a concert version of Come From Away — the first time Gander’s residents would see it. The creators were unsure how the locals would react to the musical, but they responded with cheers and the ensuing festivities.
At first, “dance party” seems an unusual default response to a show born of tragic events. In its 10-year lifespan, however, Come From Away has come to represent kindness, generosity, and human connection — not least of all for Hein and Sankoff. They travel to Gander frequently and consider the locals “practically family.”
However, they never expected the Come From Away family to grow much larger than that. Hein “thought that maybe Canadian high schools would be forced to do the show as a historical project of some sort,” and little else. They never expected even a fraction of the show’s success, but it has almost become synonymous with the memory of 9/11 for the creators and many audiences who have told the creators as much. Sankoff hopes Come From Away continues reaching people that way.
“I really hope it brings people another memory for that day,” Sankoff said. “That’s what people who are survivors or family members of people who were lost that day have told us — it doesn’t erase that memory, but it gives you something else to think about.”
As such, the creators knew they needed to do something show-related as they approached the tragedy’s 20th anniversary. Not to mention, amid the pandemic, even more audiences could use a few hours of hope, and the show’s themes resonate even more strongly now for that reason. Hein said a film felt like “the next natural step in expanding our Come From Away audiences and family.”
“We’ve said before that there’s never a bad time to tell a story about people being good to one another, but particularly right now in the middle of a pandemic, I think it’s important to find stories like this that remind us that we’re part of a community,” Hein said. “To share this story about Newfoundland, but also about where we all were on that day and about how we can all come together again — especially right now, it feels like an important story to keep telling.”