By Retta Blaney
After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, nearly 7,000 strangers were sidetracked to a tiny town on the coast of Newfoundland, nearly doubling the population in a matter of hours. For the next five days, in an inspiring example of hospitality, the people of Gander fed, housed, and befriended these short-term refugees. Their stories are now being told in Come from Away, the new Broadway musical that has left audiences in tears and critics singing its praise.
“You couldn’t make it up. No one would believe it,” said Irene Sankoff who, with her husband, David Hein, wrote the music, lyrics, and book for the show, which takes its name from a Gander term for people who come from elsewhere.
It was a normal day in Gander, a former refueling stop for international flights before aviation improvements made these stops unnecessary. Soon after the devastation of the four hijacked jets was known, the Federal Aviation Administration suspended all air travel. Gander residents who were going about their morning routines learned that 38 planes bearing 6,579 frightened and angry passengers from around the world were coming to town. For how long, no one knew.
The couple emphasize this in not a Sept. 11 story. It’s a Sept. 12 story, of passengers from a multitude of countries, cultures, religions, and languages who were welcomed by people living “on an island in between there and here.” The music alludes to the attacks only by depicting the emergency flight diversions.
“It’s not necessary to further traumatize anyone,” Sankoff said, adding that even young people who were not born or conscious of the events in 2001 know what happened. “Everyone’s seen the images. They don’t need to see it. It’s part of our history. It wouldn’t have helped the storytelling.”
The lesser-known stories are those of the townspeople who began anticipating every need. Pharmacies were ready to fill prescriptions, storeowners emptied their shelves to donate supplies, landlines were set up in that era before mass cell-phone usage, sidelined air traffic controllers made vats of chili, striking school-bus drivers transported passengers to schools, halls, and shelters that were being readied as quickly as possible. And the SPCA representative did not forget that animals were likely to be aboard some of the planes. She rescued and then cared for eight dogs, nine cats, and two rare Bonobo chimpanzees, one of them pregnant, while they were quarantined in an airport hangar.
“We’ve been working on it for nearly seven years and it’s still amazing to me every day,” Sankoff said.
Sankoff and Hein spoke about their journey to Broadway by phone from an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, their temporary residence. Toronto is their home, although they have not seen a lot of it in recent years. Their involvement with the Gander experience began in 2011 when Canadian producer Michael Rubinoff invited them out for a drink to discuss making a musical about the events of a decade before. Rubinoff had seen the couple’s only previous musical production, My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding. He had pursued several more experienced songwriting teams and been turned down.
As Canadians, Sankoff and Hein “knew through osmosis” of the Gander story. They said yes to Rubinoff, began their research, and found that a 10th anniversary commemoration of the experience was planned for that September. With the help of a grant from the Canadian government, they spent a month in the town interviewing residents and the passengers who returned. They relied on Skype to reach others internationally.
The modest Gander folk thought this was all much ado about nothing. One said to the couple, “You’re going to make a musical about people making sandwiches? Good luck with that.”
But the residents had a different opinion in October, when the entire cast and crew of the Broadway-bound Come from Away flew into town to present two performances to raise money for local charities. The Gander hockey arena was transformed as many people experienced their first Broadway musical (one that happened to be about them).
“It was a life-changing experience for all of us,” Hein said. “Almost all of Gander came to see the show. We watched 5,000 people’s expressions as they watched themselves, feeling honored and celebrated. Ten minutes before the finale they all stood up and kept applauding through the last 10 minutes. We were all sobbing.”
Sankoff and Hein were grateful for that stamp of approval. They had worked hard since their previous trip to Gander, when they had done “tons and tons and tons of interviews” and heard so many stories that their first draft of the show was five hours long. From that they edited and refined, ferreting out stories that worked all the way through, as well as unique ones, and making composites of characters. The show now runs about 100 minutes and features 12 actors playing multiple parts and singing more than a dozen original songs.
The musical captures the heroism of the townspeople and the fear and anxiety of the “plane people,” who hadn’t heard about the terrorist attacks and had no idea why they were grounded to such a remote place. Some had been onboard for 28 hours. Because of concerns about bombs, authorities would not allow the passengers to claim their luggage. All they could take were their carry-ons. In a short time, they had all become refugees.
Because these people were so traumatized, the library stayed open, offering a quiet place for people of all faiths to pray.
In one particularly moving scene, a bus filled with Africans pulls up to a Salvation Army camp. Seeing the people in uniforms, the passengers are filled with fear of soldiers and militia and, unable to understand English, they refuse to get off the bus. Then the driver, spotting a Bible in a woman’s hand, imagines a key to connect. He finds Philippians 4:6 and points to the words he cannot read: “Be anxious for nothing. Be anxious for nothing.” The passengers leave peacefully.
“They used the Bible text written in a different language to communicate with each other,” Hein said. “That’s amazing.”
Another important element of the show is the music. Hein had grown up listening to Newfoundland’s music, which has Celtic roots from Ireland and England. The eight members of the band play multiple instruments as a way of “layering on” the different musical traditions of the foreigners and townspeople.
“We’re greater together than apart,” Hein said. “The passengers came from all over the world and they changed Newfoundland and were changed themselves.”
The music has audience members on their feet, clapping along at the end.
“That happens every time,” Hein said, explaining with a laugh that he wanted the finale’s music to move people out of the theatre. “No one leaves. It’s the worst exit music ever.”
The stories and music have had this effect wherever the show has run. Following sold-out, record-breaking, critically acclaimed engagements at La Jolla Playhouse, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., and Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre, Come from Away landed on the “Best Theater of the Year” lists in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and papers around the country and in Canada.
Writing about the Gander stories has been a profound experience for Sankoff and Hein, who have turned over the keys to their Toronto home and car to 10 people, friends, or friends of friends, for a few years while they traveled with the show’s development. All they asked was that the people feed their two cats and give them love, and shovel snow if necessary.
“Our whole lives have been changed,” Hein said. “It makes us look at our lives and want to be better people, open to stories from around the world, and to be more open to reaching out to people.”
Is the musical especially important in the shifting U.S. politics of 2017? Hein believes it would be important at any time.
“We have our politics, but the show bridges that. It’s never a bad time to tell a story about human kindness.”
Retta Blaney is the author of Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors.