David Hein and Irene Sankoff had been living at the International House, a habitat for global grad students in the Hamilton Heights section of Manhattan. As a character in their current Broadway show, Come From Away remarks, “Everyone has a story about how they started that day.” That day, September 11, 2001, turned out to be one of history’s most fatal game changers. For New Yorkers, Pennsylvanians, those in the Washington D.C. Metro area, and for many around the world, the painful memories continue to reverberate. Through the powerful medium of theatre, a healing balm has transpired.
Hein and Sankoff, native Canadians, were themselves “come from aways” when terror struck and what happened in their country on the days following that event touched their lives and inspired them to pay tribute to—in their words—“what was lost and what was found.” The result of their efforts has paid off handsomely through sold out engagements at La Jolla Playhouse, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Washington D.C.’s Ford’s Theatre, and Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre (where the show will return in February 2018). A few days ago, this stirring tuner officially opened on Broadway, where it is predicted to be one of the biggest hits of the spring season.
Come From Away is based on true events that occurred in Gander, Newfoundland, an island town on the northeast tip of Canada. After planes hit the twin towers in New York City, air traffic control closed American air space. Consequently, flights that were flying across the Atlantic ocean had to safely land their planes, all of which were filled with hundreds of passengers. 38 planes totaling 6,579 passengers were grounded in a town whose population didn’t exceed 10,000. For five days, the townspeople rallied and supplied all of their basic needs including food, shelter, Screech (a local spiced rum), entertainment, and ultimate friendship. Hein and Sankoff, who are married, collected stories from residents and passengers, many of whom are represented by 12 actors adopting numerous roles throughout the 100 minute intermission less show.
As Canadians, the pair was 2,400 miles south of Gander on 9/11. “There was something very resonant about being in New York in a building with people from 110 different countries from around the world. They came together to support each other,” Hein said to Paste in a recent interview at Broadway’s Schoenfeld Theatre. Hein and Sankoff were peripherally aware about the story, but it wasn’t until the 10th anniversary that they were fully immersed into the beautiful display of compassion that occurred. They decided to put it on stage.
“Initially, I pictured it as something akin to The Laramie Project,” Sankoff said.
“Music is in the DNA of everyone in Newfoundland,” Hein added, “It’s become part of their culture. The town held a benefit concert at the Gander Hockey Rink in September 2011. Everyone, including corporate executives from commercial airlines were on their feet dancing. Irene looked at me and said, ‘This needs to be a musical.’”
With the help of the Canadian government, they stayed for a month in Gander, interviewing many of the towns folks for 4-5 hours at a time. Known for its tremendous hospitality, Hein and Sankoff were offered places to stay by residents (while gracious, they stayed in local hotels.), and they also got “screeched” in, a boozy ritual visitors endure. “We came back with 16,000 stories,” Hein said.
“We threw a lot of babies out with the bathwater, but we combined many of the character’s stories in order to reflect as many points of view as possible.” Sankoff joked, “The first draft was five hours long.”
With Tony- nominated director, Christopher Ashley, they whittled the length to 100 minutes. They worked independent of the townspeople. “If we had questions or needed clarification, we went back to ask, but we pretty much interviewed these people and went away for four years,” said Hein. They did however, try to keep their subjects abreast of the musical’s development by sending notes and letters.
Many of the real-life characters reflected on-stage have seen the show. Beverly Bass, played onstage by Jenn Colella, was the first female Captain of a commercial airline. On 9/11, Her American Airlines flight was headed from Paris to Dallas when she learned that she would have to make a detour in Gander. Bass, who is now retired and lives in Ft. Myers, Florida, has seen the show 49 times. Opening night marked the 50th viewing. Another couple, Nick and Diane Marson, played respectively by Lee MacDougall and Sharon Wheatley, met while their plane was on the tarmac. They quickly formed an attraction to one another and later married. Sankoff observed, “Many of the ‘come from aways’ felt guilty because they were enjoying themselves in Canada while this horrible thing was happening in the United States, but it has also proven to be cathartic for them to see their stories unfold onstage.”
Although they are not all depicted in Come From Away, there were numerous high profile individuals aboard the various planes. They included Petra Roth, mayor of Frankfurt, Germany, the chairman of Hugo Boss, Werner Baldessarini, high level staff at the Rockefeller Foundation and several Make a Wish Kids who were slated to visit Disney World. On one of the planes, there was a pair of Bonobo apes.
Hein and Sankoff also gave back to the people that inspired their work by offering a benefit performance last fall to the people in Gander and the surrounding communities. They continue to express their generosity by donating profits of ticket sales to various charities, including the 9/11 museum. If early ticket sales are any sign, it appears as though there will be much charity to go around in the days. Last week its’ home, The Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, was filled to 98 percent capacity, an impressive percentage for a show that has yet to welcome hardened New York critics. Thanks to the buzz it accumulated from out-of-town tryouts, it’s become a hot ticket.
All too often, tragic stories are fodder for a television movies of the week or big screen Hollywood treatments, but Sankoff and Hein wanted to be respectful to victims and their families. Through this story, they’ve been able to find a perfect blend of humor, heart, and humanity. Hein is quick to defend himself against those who view this as a money maker. “To exploit this event would go against the grain of all our fibers,” he said. “It’s not a 9/11 story. It’s a 9/12 story about how a small community reacted to a larger event. We go out of our way to make this a really safe space.” In a moment when our country is under threat of division through travel bans, walls, and fear of “the others”, Come from Away has arrived at the perfect time. Hein concluded, “Whatever you’re worried about, come with us to Newfoundland. We’re gonna tell you a story about what happened there.”
Come From Away
is currently playing on Broadway at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. It opened Sunday, March 12th for an open-ended run.