Come From Away celebrates the real people and stories in Gander, Newfoundland during 9/11/01.

-Brenda Hillegas
Cover photo by Matthew Murphy

Somewhere…in the middle of nowhere…

The lyrics to the songs of Come From Away have been in my head since the first time I saw the musical, just this past May. At that point, the show’s first North American tour had been announced and I already knew it would be coming to Philadelphia as part of the Kimmel Center’s 2019-2020 Broadway season, but some shows are worth seeing twice (or more). So, last spring I saw it on Broadway, in the city where tragedy struck on September 11th, 2001. The date that ultimately leads us to the creation of Come From Away...

Some people may not know the true story behind Come From Away and maybe they haven’t even heard of Gander, Newfoundland- a small town with a large airport. Because of the location of Gander, transatlantic planes would often make refueling stops there (The Beatles first set foot on North American soil at the airport). However, air traffic and stops in Gander began to decrease as planes could make longer journeys and hold more fuel. Still, the airport is considered an emergency landing point for any planes that may need to stop due to on-board medical or security issues.

And that’s how the people who live in Gander and surrounding towns ended up welcoming 38 airliners with 6,122 passengers and 473 crew to Newfoundland as the September 11th attacks occurred. They opened their homes to these “come from aways”, provided them with food, shelter, comfort (and whiskey) while the airspace was closed and planes were grounded for the next few days.

Come From Away‘s book, music and lyrics were created by husband/wife team Irene Sankoff and David Hein who visited Gander on the 10th anniversary of the attacks. They met many of the “come from aways” who returned to revisit the town that took care of them for almost a week in 2001. Sankoff and Hein recorded thousands of stories from those passengers, pilots, crew members, and townspeople. Come From Away features the true stories and the real people Sankoff and Hein met.

Beverley Bass- the first female captain for American Airlines- is one of the show’s characters  (and the song “Me and the Sky” is one of the most powerful musical numbers of any show I’ve seen). We also meet Kevin J. and Kevin T., a real life couple who begin to recognize their differences while in Gander. There’s Beulah, one of Gander’s many generous residents; Bonnie from the local SPCA who comforted all of the pets in the plane cargo holds; Nick and Diane who meet on a plane and develop feelings for one another; and so many other people in this 90 minute show.

Each actor plays more than one character, switching accents and emotions quickly, and relying on everyone else on stage to help move their stories along. From quick props, to movements of the chairs on set, to handing off a hat or jacket for an actor to transition into another character- every one works together to tell these stories. Just like the town of Gander itself, Come From Away couldn’t be done without a sense of community.

A very good friend of mine knows the creators of Come From Away. Over the last few years, I heard about this “amazing new show” that’s being work-shopped but it’s “going to make it to Broadway, I know it.” It’s amazing to finally sit down and see this production. In 2002, I stumbled upon a group of Celtic musicians from Canada and became friends with them and a bunch of other Canadian music groups. Suddenly I found myself heading to every Celtic music festival I could get to. So, to see that style of music in a musical, with a fiddler and a bodhran player on stage in the show’s band, makes Come From Away even more special to me.

Come From Away is also very funny. Every time the show makes your heart sink, there’s a character to give you a chuckle as well. It’s a beautiful piece of musical theatre, unique and with a message worth repeating. We’re reminded that something (or some place) so small can do something incredibly big. September 11th, 2001, was a devastating and sad day. But the people of Gander made that day and the days that followed so much better for everyone who unexpectedly landed there. The kindness that Gander showed to thousands of strangers continues to spread to this day. See this Tony-nominated show. Then, remember to spread some kindness wherever and however you can.

Come From Away is at the Academy of Music until November 3rd. Tickets and info here. If you have time, stop into Volver at the Kimmel Center next door for a Gander Mule. Only drink one, though, because this show has no intermission (aka bathroom break).

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