At the Lincoln Memorial, COME FROM AWAY Commemorates the 20th Anniversary of 9/11 with Triumph and Tears

Washington D.C.
The company of Come From Away: In Concert | Photo: Scott Suchman
By
Nathan Pugh
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September 13, 2021 3:37 PM
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According to so many accounts, September 11, 2001 started with a gorgeous morning. In the third episode of Spike Lee’s documentary series “NYC Epicenters 9/11→ 2021½,” there's a montage of interviews with New Yorkers who all emphatically express this point. The phrase “It was a beautiful day” is repeated so many times that the words lose their meaning. This supercut culminates in a man stating, “And of course, 9/11 was one of the most beautiful days God had ever created. It was just clear.” There was no way anyone could have predicted the panic and carnage that would follow.

For me, September 10, 2021 in Washington, D.C. seemed like the kind of day that these New Yorkers were talking about. The sticky humidity that defines summers around the Chesapeake Bay had finally simmered down. Walking outside felt like a treat, not a burden. A few clouds strolled through the sky as the sun beamed down, pristine and gentle. 

So when I stepped onto the National Mall, my first time visiting a tourist-heavy destination since the COVID-19 pandemic began, I felt a mixture of relief and fear. Looking at the view from the Lincoln Memorial, I could see the Reflecting Pool, Washington Monument, and Capitol Building: America’s symbols of establishment endurance. Everything seemed to be easing back into some kind of normalcy. Tourists, masked and unmasked, took selfies. College running groups huddled together. And hundreds of people laid out folding chairs and picnic blankets to watch a concert version of the Broadway musical Come From Away, which was being performed that evening in front of the Lincoln Memorial. 

Audiences couldn’t have asked for better weather; it was a perfect day. But within the day’s beauty was a low hum of sadness, the remnants of another perfect day twenty years ago that nobody in America could enjoy.

View of the backstage of Come From Away: In Concert at the Lincoln Memorial | Photo: Scott Suchman

Gathering at the Lincoln Memorial this past Friday, despite the isolation and tragedy that have shaped the past two years, perfectly matched the triumphant but cautious mood of Come From Away. The show follows an unexpected effect of the attacks of September 11, 2001—the day in which terrorists hijacked four planes and destroyed New York City’s Twin Towers and Washington D.C.’s Pentagon Building. One of the dizzying questions faced by the world that day was where to land all of the planes still in flight on that fateful morning. The answer, for 38 passenger jets, was the small Canadian town of Gander, Newfoundland. The town was equipped with an international airport that, in the 20th century, would refuel planes on its island shores after long journeys across the Atlantic. Over the course of a few hours, Gander’s population of around 10,000 people was suddenly accommodating 6,579 passengers and crew members. 

Even in a state of emergency, the residents of Gander banded together to welcome their new arrivals, called “Come From Aways” or “plane people.” Newfoundlanders converted their town’s churches, schools, and community centers into makeshift places of refuge. Despite differences in language, race, and nationality, the residents of Gander and the plane people slowly integrated over five days into a blended community. Everyone was terrified about the way the world had changed instantaneously, while also grateful for the chance to feel connected to something greater than themselves. By the time planes were able to leave on September 16, life-long relationships had been forged by people who would have never met if not for the tragedy.

Gander being the setting for a hit Broadway musical might seem just as nonsensical as a friendship being born on one of the saddest days in American history. But when married writing/composing duo Irene Sankoff and David Hein traveled to Gander on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the storytelling abilities of both the Newfoundlanders and Come From Aways compelled them to translate the story onto the stage. Come From Away offers audiences a unique blend of dramaturgies. The show functions with the documentary theatre techniques seen in a work like “The Laramie Project,” using direct address to the audience, direct quotes compiled by interviews, and actors switching between multiple characters. But Sankoff and Hein weave in their folk-rock score, inspired equally by showtunes as by Irish-Canadian music.

Since 2011, Come From Away has had a rich production history across North America. The musical was staged at San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse (2015), Seattle Repertory Theatre (2015), Washington D.C.’s Ford’s Theatre (2016), returned to Gander for two sold-out performances, and arrived on Broadway in 2017. In 2018, the show was nominated for seven Tony Awards, with Christopher Ashley winning the award for Best Direction. Before the pandemic, a North American tour, as well as West End and Australian productions, were running. 

Then came March of 2020, when once again the world halted, but instead of any communal gathering everyone was forced into isolation. After nearly two years of social distancing and remote/digital theater projects, vaccinations and mask-mandates have made the return of live in-person theater possible despite the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 Delta variant. 

The return of live theater presented an obstacle but also an opportunity for Ford’s Theatre director Paul R. Tetreault, who wanted to create an experience that would be unique for Washington D.C. audiences. Part of the reason why Come From Away had a pre-Broadway run at Ford’s Theatre was because of D.C.’s close connection to 9/11, so reviving the show for one day in the city seemed like a perfect plan.

“I thought, ‘What would separate us from everyone else trying to open at the same time?’” Tetreault told me in an interview I had with the production’s creative team by the Reflecting Pool. “And I say, ‘What if we try to present [Come From Away] here, and offer it free for everyone?’ We never thought about charging anyone. We always thought we’d do it free on the Mall, and offer it as our gift to the community.”

A crowd of thousands sits near the Reflecting Pool | Photo: Scott Suchman

Having the concert version of Come From Away be free to anyone who passes by it transforms the show from a cloistered theatrical experience into a piece of public art, mirroring the monuments that surrounded the stage. Conversations about accessibility within the theatre industry have been given a spotlight by the pandemic. In the 2020-21 season, many regional theaters adapted to filming staged readings or performances that, through streaming, could have much larger and more diverse audiences than could have ever come to see shows in one theater. The wild success of a filmed stage-version of Hamilton that premiered on Disney+ in the summer of 2020 has also proved that filmed shows can help, not hamper, a show’s ticket sales. 

While Come From Away was originally set to be adapted into a film, director Christopher Ashley instead reunited the original Broadway cast and recorded their performances at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater in May of 2021. The filmed stage show premiered on Apple TV+ the same day as the Lincoln Memorial concert. Come From Away has probably never had a bigger audience than on September 10, 2021.

These steps for accessibility were important to Sue Frost and Randy Adams, founding partners at Junkyard Productions and leading producers on Come From Away.

“I don’t think [the film is] going to cannibalize the stage show, I think it will make people more excited about the opportunity to see it,” Frost told me. “But if they can’t, if they’re not able to, if they don’t live in an area where there’s a tour or the show itself, how great it is we’re able to share this story with as many people as possible.” 

When Come From Away premiered on Broadway in 2017, critics and audiences alike praised its themes of multiculturalism, acceptance across identities, and hospitality towards immigrants—all of which seemed in opposition to then President Trump’s multiple travel bans and demeaning rhetoric towards other countries. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the show has only seemed more timely in a country increasingly divided on political issues, where communities and even families are torn apart. The parallels, and differences, between 2001 and 2021 were on the minds of the creative team as they assembled the concert production and the film.

“I was walking to rehearsal one day, and Times Square was completely empty,” director Christopher Ashley told me. “And I felt like, ‘When was the last time I’ve seen it like this?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, it was 9/11 when everything shut down.’ I do think that they’re not the same moment, but they’re two of the most traumatic events in my lifetime in America. I think both of the paths out of it are going to be the opposite of selfishness. It’s going to be how much we can draw together.”

The concert version of Come From Away was a surreal sight to behold. I’m not sure I’ve experienced that level of enthusiasm for a theatrical performance, with such an enormous scale and spectacle, outside of a Taylor Swift stadium tour—and Taylor didn’t necessarily have the gravity of 9/11 and the nation’s aching consciousness on her mind. 

At the start of the concert, Paul R. Tetreault thanked everyone for coming and acknowledged the real-life “plane people'' in the audience: Nick and Diane Marson, two strangers at the start of 9/11 who fell in love with each other in Gander, and Kevin Tuerff, an advertiser and founder of Pay It Forward 9/11. Up next was Kirsten Hillman, American Ambassador of Canada to the United States. She noted the special relationship between the two countries, stating that “an embrace [can be] as important as food and water,” and described the show as “an anthem of ordinary people”—an apt phrase for a musical proud not about specific patriotic views, but about shared humanity. Finally, veteran D.C. actor Craig Wallace invoked the tragic legacy of Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theatre along with 9/11, but highlighted the resilience of creating theater despite fear. 

The company of Come From Away: In Concert at the Lincoln Memorial | Photo: Scott Suchman

“We’re all fellow passengers in life, helping each other along the way,” he noted.

As the insistent, thrumming melody of the opening number, “Welcome to the Rock,” began, Come From Away’s exuberance melded with the solemnity of the event. The cast performed on a medium-sized stage in front of the orchestra, which played everything from the violin to the banjo to the delightfully percussive ugly stick. Two jumbo-trons on each side of the performers captured all of the cast’s movements for the audience that gathered on each side of the reflecting pool, and also had ASL interpreters translating the singing as well. The feeling of a raucous music festival juxtaposed with the stoic Abraham Lincoln statue was delightful. The concert paid tribute to D.C.’s austere architecture while also revising the city’s self-seriousness, creating a jubilant atmosphere more reflecting North America’s small-town charm. 

Due to the concert style, the talented ensemble of twelve actors (assembled from the Broadway and tour casts) didn’t completely re-create the intricate choreography of the stage show. Most of the time the cast stood in a line, singing into their microphones “Seasons of Love” style. While I missed some of the inventive stage pictures that were on full display on the Apple TV+ film, it’s a testament to the actors that they were able to successfully convey distinct changes of character, place, and tone through only the timbre of their voices. 

Come From Away strangely reaches its fullest potential when the show lets the characters have fun. When we watch the perverse enjoyment characters get from partying or letting loose while the world feels like it’s falling apart, we also feel that surprising joy. I loved when the audiences whooped at the mere entrance of Nick and Diane onstage, or when actors broke out of his line to hype the audience up, and especially when Julie Reiber, portraying Captain Beverly Bass, belted out “Me and the Sky” with a Kelly Clarkson-like verve that got the audience hollering.

Of course, Come From Away works because of its tonal balance between sincere joy and deep sorrow. Watching the show at the very same place where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech brought out reverberations in Come From Away that I couldn’t have predicted. I found myself unsettled by the show’s representations of the darker sides of humanity, which couldn’t be smoothed out by a joke and a drink. Throughout the performance, planes soared past the Lincoln Memorial on the way to Ronald Reagan Airport. They were stark reminders that while things may go back to normal, some things never look quite the same.

In between watching the show, I also watched the audience around me. Our laughter bounced upwards, our faces reflected downwards, the crowd cheered behind us. I was immersed in the hunger to be a part of something. To really connect. The show seemed to be urging me that communal gathering is one way of easing the pain of all the unbearable things we’re expected to live through right now.

It’s interesting that Come From Away is streaming on Apple TV+, the same streaming service where the Sundance smash-hit film CODA and the Emmy juggernaut Ted Lasso also reside. They’re a pop culture trilogy tailor-made for the Biden presidency: all trace collisions between rural communities and urban ones, where compromises are crucial to the plot, climactic moments are built around songs, and kindness is king. All have been wildly popular, uplifted as calls for humanity in an apocalyptic era. While I would also hope we might change the institutions that led to this chaos, I can’t deny that watching these stories brings me closer to my friends and family.

The idea of empathy was something that the creative team behind Come From Away hoped audiences might learn from the people of Gander. 

“The people of Gander… they don’t understand what the big hoo-rah is,” Randy Adams told me. “They said, ‘We just took care of people. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?’ I feel like that’s the country we live in, and maybe this show will help remind people that’s what we’re supposed to do, take care of each other.”

Capturing that sense of care before it’s forgotten was also an important element of continuing to stage Come From Away for the creative team. 9/11 was my first day of pre-school. The only dim memories I have of that day come in flashes: fighter jets ripping through the sky, my parents refusing to let me watch the news. The creative team felt that the show speaks to a particular moment in American history that is increasingly relevant, especially for the people who don’t have first-hand memories of the day. 

“That attack affected every single American, whether you knew someone who perished on that day or not, and I think that’s really important,” Paul R. Tetreault told me. “We’re learning and living it now, as you see what’s happening in Afghanistan, that’s directly related to 9/11.”

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The finale of Come From Away was rapturous. All of us stood on our feet, cheering for the unlikely companionship that could be found in the face of unimaginable odds. It seemed like, at times, the audience itself was its own form of unlikely companionship as well.

As I walked out of the venue, I noticed two competing memorials on the horizon. First was the Lincoln Memorial, lit up in all of its reverent glory. The temple-like structure harkens back to antiquity, feeling sacred but also prophetic: this structure was built to outlast the people who created it, to live on for generations and rising oceans and centuries I’ll never get to see. And then there was a solitary beam of light, shooting up from the Pentagon endlessly upward in the sky. As a memorial, it’s distinctly modern and abstract: a glowing, fluorescent haze with no faces, no structure, no bodies. It evokes the countless memories that were lost, the pain we will never know. The Pentagon shines this light for a few days, and then suddenly, it’s gone.

The beauty of Come From Away as a memorial is how the show takes the best elements of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pentagon’s light, and blends them together. Like the Lincoln Memorial, we’re reminded that the people of Gander and the Come From Aways were real people who found a way to not just survive, but thrive in unimaginable circumstances. Like the Pentagon’s light, the show is fluid enough to allow any of us to imagine ourselves in that situation, to channel their resilience for ourselves. Together, Come From Away becomes the best kind of memorial, just like the time spent by the plane people in Gander. Your physical presence in the space might be short, but your memory of that encounter will last a lifetime. 

"Come From Away" is now streaming on Apple TV Plus and returns to Broadway on September 21, 2021.

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Nathan Pugh

Nathan Pugh is a writer, culture critic, and essayist based in the Washington, D.C. area. Nathan graduated from Wesleyan University with a BA in Theater and English (concentration in race/ethnicity), where he also served as the Co-Editor-in-Chief of The Wesleyan Argus. Pugh’s work strives to explore how intersectional identities are staged, with his current long-form writing focusing on Black gay playwrights from Virginia.