‘Come From Away’ is a musical based in the small town of Gander that suddenly finds itself host to 7,000 new visitors whose flights are redirected to the Canadian town. Set in the aftermath of a tragedy, the film portrays the interesting effects of the unplanned influx on the town and the heartwarming connections that form between the residents and stranded passengers they host. The story is one that feels true because of its grim backdrop whilst also portraying such a tender side of humanity that it could easily be fictionalized to pull at the audience’s heartstrings. So just how much of ‘Come From Away’ is true? The answer might surprise you.
Is Come From Away Based on a True Story?
Yes, ‘Come From Away’ is based on a true story. The film is a live stage recording of the 2017 Canadian musical of the same name by Irene Sankoff and David Hein that is set in the week following the September 11 terror attacks. Immediately after the attack, American airspace was closed, forcing international flights to be diverted to other countries. Canada’s Operation Yellow Ribbon was subsequently launched to help ensure that no more potentially dangerous flights entered American airspace. Hence, multiple Canadian civilian and military airports were used to land aircrafts that could pose potential threats.
It was as a result of this operation that 38 aircrafts bound for the US found themselves instead landing in Gander airport in Newfoundland, Canada. The passengers, which numbered around 7,000, essentially doubled the small town’s population, and the locals quickly swung into action to house, feed, and provide comfort to the weary and confused passengers.
The stage musical, and the cinematic recording of the performance, actually feature many characters based directly on real residents and passengers and even uses some of their real names. Other real-life stories have been condensed to fit the narrative but remain largely true to the spirit of what actually occurred. The musical also takes inspiration from the 2002 book ‘The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland’ by journalist Jim DeFede, who moved to Newfoundland following the tragedy to research the story.
The idea for the musical was first conceived by Michael Rubinoff, a lawyer and theatre producer who found the Canadian aspect of the story inspiring. However, his vision was not shared by everyone, and he was turned down by multiple writers that he approached to pen the idea, mainly because they found the idea of making an uplifting musical set around a tragedy too macabre. However, Irene Sankoff and David Hein were drawn to the idea when they were first introduced to it by Rubinoff, partly because the couple had reportedly been living in New York on September 11, 2001.
The fledgling project (at the time) further benefitted from the fact that Rubinoff was the Associate Dean of Visual and Performing Arts at Sheridan College in Oakland, Ontario, where the idea was then workshopped. Before that, however, Sankoff and Hein spent over three weeks in the town of Gander, talking to people and getting hundreds of first-hand accounts of that fateful week of September 11, 2001. After many more weeks of work at Sheridan, the musical was initially performed as a 40-minute play by students.
The musical has come a long way from its humble beginnings and has garnered a sizeable list of awards. Under the direction of Christopher Ashley, it won the Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical in 2017. The live performance, whose cinematic recording is now available as an Apple Originals Films adaptation, is also directed by Ashley and was performed in Broadway’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. The audience of this particular show included 9/11 survivors and front-line workers. Originally destined to be a film adaption of the musical, the impact of the Covid 19 epidemic resulted in plans being shifted in favor of a recording of the live stage musical.
Hence, ‘Come From Away’ is based on a true story and benefits from hundreds of first-hand accounts that the writers of the musical and author and journalist Jim DeFede collected from the residents of Gander. The eclectic combination of an uplifting story set amidst one of the most devastating tragedies of modern times makes the film one of a kind, and the widespread acclaim its stage-musical predecessor has garnered over the years comes as no surprise.