DC’s National Theatre stages Broadway’s acclaimed 9/11 musical ‘Come From Away’

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Come From Away' at National Theatre (Part 1)

Last year marked the 20th anniversary of the deadly terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Now, National Theatre stages the 9/11 musical “Come From Away” from April 12 to 17.

“Come see us Easter weekend,” actor Kilty Reidy told WTOP. “Redemption, forgiveness and taking care of one another, so it’ll be a great Easter weekend visit to the theater.”

Written by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, the show is based on a true story in the week after 9/11 when 38 planes were ordered to land in the small Canadian town of Gander in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador as part of Operation Yellow Ribbon.

“We call this a 9/12 story,” Reidy said. “Planes that were coming back from Europe when the airspace was closed over the United States during 9/11, if they were past a halfway point, wouldn’t have enough fuel to turn around and go back, so they were diverted.”

It’s a triumphant tale of the human spirit as a village bands together to help 7,000 stranded travelers over an uncertain span of six days when the world around them was reeling.

“They had to stay there for six days and the population of Gander doubled,” Reidy said. “The people of that town raced to help people from other countries to sustain them. They gave them beds, medicine, food, company, things to do. It literally changed people’s lives.”

The theme of rallying around each other hits even harder after two years of a pandemic.

“It resonates so much today after what we’ve all gone through,” Reidy said. “We’ve gone through another traumatic world event and we’ve seen people rally to take care of one another. It’s a story that resonates today as much as it did right after the events of 9/11.”

This same human spirit has welcomed refugees from Russia’s War in Ukraine.

“Those stories of the women that are putting baby carriages outside [train] stops so that people who come in have a way to take their children coming from Ukraine, all those things, the littlest things that you can do to help one another, I think it really resonates today that we can just take small steps to take care of each other,” Reidy said.

The musical made its East Coast premiere at Ford’s Theatre in September 2016, winning the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Musical, before dominating Broadway with seven Tony nominations, including a win for Best Direction of a Musical (Christopher Ashley).

“We were at Ford’s Theatre before it went to Broadway, then on tour we were at the Kennedy Center … so it’s had quite the life in D.C.,” Reidy said. “Also, on the 20th anniversary, they did a concert presentation in front of the Lincoln Memorial, so we’re really tied in with D.C. that way. D.C. is a place where the attacks happened.”

It’s fitting that the show would resonate in D.C. and New York, both targeted on 9/11.

“It’s not just singularly D.C. or New York’s experience, it impacted the world, everybody has an experience of that day, but being a New Yorker, and I’m sure people who live in D.C., it becomes more specific because it was in your own backyard, it’s your own turf that it happened on,” Reidy said. “It resonates on a cellular level because it was at home.”

Don’t worry, it’s not all doom and gloom. It’s mostly an uplifting tale of the aftermath.

“It’s funny and joyous,” Reidy said. “It sounds like it’s going to be a big downer, but it’s not. The minute you’re sad, a great song comes on. It’s really celebratory. … Albeit in the wake of a disaster, it’s told with such joy, humor and care. It’s a great night at the theater.”

The main cause of joy is a songbook filled with catchy musical numbers.

“There’s a big opening number called ‘Welcome to the Rock’ because Gander is a big rock in the middle of the ocean,” Reidy said. “There’s also a standout song ‘Stop the World’ where two middle-age people meet on a plane and fall in love. … Beverley Bass, who was one of the pilots, has a great solo number to tell her story of how she ended up flying.”

The show tunes are all backed up by a live band.

“We have a rocking band on stage,” Reidy said. “It’s Celtic-influenced with a fiddle and a bodhrán, just great Irish-influenced music, which is very standard for Newfoundland.”

The music is matched with visuals that are intentionally staged to mirror the theme.

“The way it’s staged is very cinematic,” Reidy said. “The staging mirrors what happened in Gander. It’s about a community of people, so we have 12 actors, most of them on stage the entire time. … They make each space and event happen with 14 chairs, a turntable, incredible lighting by Howell Binkley. … It takes a community to put this show together.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Come From Away' at National Theatre (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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