On September 11, 2001, in the chaos of the terrorist attacks, 38 planes were diverted to Newfoundland, Canada, when American airspace was frozen. The small town of Gander, which then had a population of 9,000, nearly doubled in size when it took in passengers from U.S. airplanes into their homes. The natives called these people “Come From Aways.”
And, now, a musical aptly titled Come From Away will fly into New York City this spring, beginning performances February 18, 2017, at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. But one would imagine that a musical about the aftermath of New York’s most devastating moment would be a tough sell for Broadway.
“It’s Come From Away—that’s the title; nobody could remember it,” says producer Sue Frost of Junkyard Dog Productions, also responsible for the musicals Memphis and First Date. “It’s an ensemble piece; it’s no stars. And people are going to say it’s about 9/11. So those are three things that require a lot of work—to get into people’s heads what the title is and what it’s really about. As producers, we also looked at the show—we knew we loved it, we knew it had a life, [but] we were not sure if it was immediately a Broadway show, which is why we were so careful with it.”
Aside for the aforementioned factors, it’s also only the second musical from husband-and-wife writing team Irene Sankoff and David Hein (their first was a show written for the Toronto Fringe titled My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding), so Frost and her producing partners, Randy Adams, Marleen Alhadeff, and Kenny Alhadeff, guided the two along the way.
The pairs met when Frost and Adams were in Toronto for the tour of Memphis. The songwriting duo met years before in college at York University in Toronto (and began work on Come From Away some time thereafter).
Though Sankoff and Hein are Canadians, they were in New York City when the 9/11 terrorist attacks took place. Sankoff was working towards her master’s degree at Pace University, and Hein came with her to Manhattan. They lived at the International House New York, a private residence for graduate students, with people from all around the world, so the story of Canada’s Come From Aways strongly resonated with them.
They thought, “Not only do we have the experience of being in New York on 9/11 with people from 110 different countries,” Sankoff explains, “but we also now see how important the story of what happened in Newfoundland is to people like Captain Beverley Bass, who lost people that day.”
Bass, who has seen the musical multiple times, is a character in Come From Away, played by Jenn Colella. She’s had many chances, since Frost and Junkyard Dog Productions advised the creators to play multiple venues outside of New York to develop the story and see how audiences (including those directly affected by the tragedy) would receive the work. It started at the La Jolla Playhouse and the Seattle Repertory Theatre in 2015, with 2016 productions at the Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., and the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto (where it now plays through January 8, 2017)—not to mention a pit stop back home in Gander.
“More helpful than anything was the time we spent in Washington, D.C., in a city directly impacted by the tragedy,” says Frost. “We did a special private performance for Pentagon survivors early in the run, and it was very positively received, to the point where some of those folks came back over and over again and brought other people, [as well as] put us in touch with survivor groups here in New York. They said, ‘This is a very positive message, and this is a message we all need.’ One woman in particular, who actually toured us around the Pentagon [and] lost her sister that day—if she had been at her desk, she would have been gone, too—said, ‘I was afraid to come to this show. I’m so glad I did.’ She saw it four times in D.C., and she came with us to Gander. She said, ‘It’s helping me deal with my loss because I’m seeing that good things came out that day and not just negative things.’”
The group refers to the musical as a “9/12 story,” since the heart of Come From Away beats to a group banding together—forming friendships and relationships—after the attacks.
“We also had several New Yorkers see this show in La Jolla—hardened New Yorkers,” says Frost, “and we were very anxious to hear their response. Every single one of them came out of it saying, ‘This reminded me of how nice we all were to each other after 9/11, before revenge took over, before vengeance took over, before we started bombing people. Do you remember those first few weeks, where you would stop a complete stranger on the street and say: Are you okay?’ People were kinder, and they were nicer, and they were taking care of each other. That’s what people said to us, and we came out and said, ‘If that’s indeed the case, then we very much want to see this show in New York.’ Until you experience it, you don’t realize how hungry you are to feel good about the person sitting next to you.”
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Michael Gioia is the Features Manager at Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.