In a time of fires and fury, migrant caravans, closed borders and a divided nation, a small but mighty musical is headed to Los Angeles to remind us of the power of human goodness. “Come From Away”, a sold-out Broadway hit about Canadian generosity after the horrors of Sept.11, 2001, opens Nov. 28 at the Ahmanson Theatre.
“People call this a 9/11 musical, but it isn’t,” says David Hein, who co-authored the show’s Tony-nominated book, music and lyrics with his wife Irene Sankoff. “We call it a 9/12 story because it’s about what happened afterwards.”
What happened afterwards began when U.S. airspace was temporarily closed after terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon near Washington, D.C. The closure meant that international flights had to land elsewhere, and 38 jumbo jets wound up landing in the small town of Gander, Newfoundland. There, a community of fewer than 10,000 people fed, clothed and sheltered nearly 7,000 passengers and crew members for five days.
“When we finally got off our plane, after 21 hours on the ground, it was 7:30 in the morning, and we walked into a terminal lined with tables full of endless amounts of food,” recalls former American Airlines pilot Beverley Bass, who flew one of those planes. “What it told me was that people had been up all night cooking. I think every stove in Gander was turned on.”
Argyle, Texas-based Bass is among dozens of townspeople, plane passengers and others brought to life onstage by a dozen actors playing multiple roles. Backed by an onstage band playing catchy Celtic-inspired folk music, cast members sing, dance and interact in ways that are poignant and often very funny. The set is simple, as a few tables and 12 chairs are reconfigured to become everything from an airplane cabin to places to eat, drink, meet or pray.
Captured onstage, the people of Gander and five neighboring communities essentially stopped their usual lives to take care of their unexpected visitors. Schools were shut down to become shelters, and striking bus drivers got back in their buses. Storekeepers and their employees offered everything from prescriptions to showers in their homes, and residents donated so much toilet paper a radio reporter pleaded on air for them to stop.
“Come From Away” first took shape when writers Sankoff and Hein were looking for material after their earlier musical, “My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding,” fared well in the U.S. and Canada. Their friend Michael Rubinoff, who is a producing artistic director of the Canadian Music Theatre Project at Ontario’s Sheridan College, invited them to workshop a show, says Hein, and asked if they had heard what happened in Gander.
Intrigued, the couple was doing research when they learned there would be a 10-year anniversary gathering of the 2001 visitors and townspeople in Gander in 2011. They managed to get a small grant to attend and headed to Gander. By the time they went home, says Sankoff, they’d interviewed about 100 people.
Various festivals and theaters provided developmental support, and the show’s producer, Junkyard Dog Productions, was soon onboard after seeing a 45-minute presentation of the show in 2013. The show was originally co-produced in 2015 by La Jolla Playhouse and Seattle Repertory Theatre, and by the time it opened on Broadway on March 12, 2017, it had also been produced in Washington D.C. and Toronto; two performances in Gander were held in the town’s ice hockey rink with proceeds donated to local charities.
“All those productions gave us the opportunity to keep rewriting and crafting,” observes director Christopher Ashley, the La Jolla Playhouse artistic director who won the 2017 Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical for “Come From Away.” “Also, the producers were interested in getting the show to Washington, D.C. before New York to see the response somewhere else that had also been attacked on 9/11.”
“Come From Away”recouped its $12-million investment the first eight months on Broadway, says co-producer Sue Frost at Junkyard, adding that it has been at 100% of capacity in New York and Toronto since it opened. A new production set for London’s West End in February opens at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in December, and an Australian production starts in Melbourne next July. The Mark Gordon Company has announced that Ashley will direct a movie adaptation.
Caesar Samayoa, one of 10 actors who have been with the show since it started, says the audience has been laughing and crying and screaming since their first preview in La Jolla. “And the audience wouldn’t leave. Every night there would be people in the lobby afterwards, talking about the show. At the stage door, they want to talk about what this story brought to them.”
Backstage, laminated copies of the show’s reviews and fan mail line the walls at Broadway’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, not just on the ground floor but on walls leading up several flights to cast dressing rooms.
For many plane passengers — the “Come From Aways” — the Gander experience was life-changing. Nick and Diane Marson, a couple now in their 70s, met and fell in love when their London flight was diverted to Gander. Nick, a British oil engineer, and Diane, a Texas retail buyer, first met in the nearby town of Gambo where the Society of United Fishermen meeting hall had been turned into a shelter. Both were in line for Army blankets.
They married a year later and honeymooned in Gander and Gambo. Not only have they stayed in touch with the various actors and actresses playing them in “Come From Away,” visiting with them at openings and Skyping in-between, but they have also been back to Gander seven times. Diane Marson says they’ve now seen the show 83 times, and “each time we see it, it is like we are renewing our wedding vows. It takes us back to that special time when our love was fresh.”
Others, too, have seen the show dozens of times, many of them as guests of the producers who fly them in for major openings. Among them are pilot Bass, whose moving portrayal on Broadway by actress Jenn Colella earned the actress a 2017 Tony nomination. Bass, who has already seen the show 114 times, adds that she has organized plans for 400 friends and colleagues, including 80 female airline pilots, to attend an Ahmanson performance.
Bass says audience members “often take my hand and say ‘this show is one of the things that helped me to heal.’ The band plays five minutes at the end of the show which was supposed to be exit music, but nobody leaves. They’re relishing the feel good moment.”
For many theater-goers, even that isn’t enough. In 2017, the first year of the show, Gander tourism went up 17%, says former Gander constable Oswald Fudge. Tourism went up another 20% in 2018, he says, and Gander opened a tourism office earlier this year.
“Seventeen years later, we are getting emails, letters, calls and visitors saying ‘we didn’t realize what happened here,’” reports Gander Mayor Percy Farwell. “They say they saw the musical, were moved and felt they had to communicate with us. They want to be among the people who did these acts of kindness.They want to say thank you for what we did.”
Plane passenger Kevin Tuerff published a book this year called “Channel of Peace,” about his own 9/11 experiences in Gander. New York-based Tuerff, who has a consulting and marketing firm, says he also wanted “to thank those compassionate people” and wound up borrowing an idea from the novel and film, “Pay It Forward.” Each year on September 11, Tuerff says, he gives each of his employees $100 to gift to strangers. He says the “Pay It Forward 9/11” initiative has now been picked up by all of the “Come From Away” companies, and estimates that tens of thousands of dollars have been paid forward in random acts of kindness.
“It’s a great time in history to be telling a story about kindness and generosity,” says director Ashley. “We are not exactly open-armed to people from other cultures in America or other Western countries, and ‘Come From Away’ answers a need right now. It makes our companies feel really good to go to a theater and tell about people taking care of strangers.”
“Come From Away”
When: Nov. 28-Jan. 6, 2019
Where: Ahmanson Theatre, The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A.
Price: $30 – $135