Musical “Come From Away” showcases a story of hope after 9/11

The cast of “Come From Away” at 5th Avenue Theatre. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

The terrorist attack on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, has been the subject of many books, films, and documentaries.

But the day after — Sept. 12, the first day of recovery — is the focus of a musical, “Come From Away,” which launches a North American tour at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre.

In “Come From Away,” the small town of Gander in Newfoundland, Canada, receives 7,000 stranded airline passengers whose planes were denied landing in the United States. But rather than being seen as a burden, these passengers were welcomed by Gander’s residents in friendship and community.

“Come From Away” creators David Hein and Irene Sankoff lived in New York on Sept. 11, and watched the events unfold up close.

“We remember that day well: the anger and fear, but also the way we looked after each another,” Hein said. “This show is about how a small town on the northeast tip of North America responded to the events.”

Gander, with a population of 10,000, was in no way prepared to handle the emergency landing of another 7,000 people after officials ordered the closure of U.S. airspace. Passengers from more than 100 countries landed on 38 planes, and received the town’s hospitality over the course of the next five days.

About 750 of these arrivals were housed at the town’s schoolhouse, and others were quartered at makeshift spaces around town, with the support of local volunteers and community donations.

Sankoff found the town’s response remarkable.

“It’s an incredible story about how this community welcomed in the world, doubling its population in an instant, and making lifelong friendships,” she said. “We’re often so numb these days by what we see on the news or on social media. It’s actually unusual to see a story about people being exceptionally good to one other.”

Actor Christine Toy Johnson, who plays Diane, based on a real-life traveler who met her future husband after being stranded in Gander, agreed.

“I love the heart and message of this show, that humanity and kindness can heal the world, that compassion and generosity are more enduring than hatred and bigotry, that love wins,” Johnson said.

Actor Kevin Carolan, who plays Claude, mayor of Gander, also found a strong mission through his involvement in the show.

“I learned that my job is more than serving the story. We are honorary ambassadors of Gander. I take great pride in that.”

Highlighting Gander’s place in the world has been a key focus for the entire artistic team and that included portraying the Canadian town’s real-life musicality.

“You can’t talk about Newfoundland without talking about music — it’s in their DNA,” creator Hein said. “Everyone plays three instruments there. It’s how they get through their terrible winters, by inviting over the neighbors for a kitchen party and all staying warm by singing songs and telling stories. That’s the feeling we wanted to create in the theatre.”

Hein and Sankoff developed “Come From Away” in multiple cities starting in 2011, including in Gander itself, San Diego, Toronto, Washington DC, and in Seattle at Seattle Repertory Theatre and the 5th Avenue Theatre. The full production debuted at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2015 and has since won several awards, including several Helen Hayes Awards, a Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical, and multiple Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards.

“Along the way we learned so much and made a million changes, but the story is still the same one that we heard when we first went out to Newfoundland in 2011 and interviewed everyone you see on stage,” Hein said.

Sankoff said the development process allowed them to discover the show’s true audience.

“We originally thought it was a Canadian story, that high school students would be forced to do it to learn Canadian history,” she said. “But what we found here in Seattle was that this is a universal story.”

Terrorism is often intended to destroy community, but in Gander, in response to stress and trauma, stronger community was built.

“We all wanted to help on that day, and we all needed help,” Sankoff said. “That’s what this show reminds us, that we can work together to respond to tragedies with kindness, and that we can choose to respond with kindness every day.”

Bill Berry, producing director at the 5th Avenue Theatre, agrees. “’Come From Away’ is so full of humanity, hope, and all of the great things that we as human beings are capable of,” he said.

The show’s director, Christopher Ashley, has been involved through several of its iterations since 2015. “I was in New York City during the attacks of 2011, and I have a maelstrom of unresolved feelings about that week,” Ashley said. “When I first read an early draft of ‘Come From Away,’ I was struck by the kindness and generosity of the characters in the story.”

Ashley said the cast of 12 needed to convincingly portray the stories of the thousands of people who came to Gander that day.

“During the show, the cast changes character, dialect, and physicality on a dime, morphing and then morphing again.”

Director Ashley has striven to share Gander’s warmth and caring regardless of where “Come From Away” is being performed.

“The world keeps changing around us, so the audience keeps bringing new viewpoints in the door with them,” Ashley said. “We have performed this show during presidential elections, on the day we shut down our airports to travelers from certain Middle Eastern countries, and on days of massive political violence. We began previews in Seattle in 2015 on the same day as the terrorist attacks in Paris. But whatever is happening in the world, the audiences seem to leave our theater more optimistic and hopeful. That is so satisfying.”

“Come From Away” runs from Oct. 9 to Nov. 4 at the 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Avenue, Seattle. For tickets and more information, visit 5thavenue.org.

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