‘Come From Away’ is the musical that ‘wasn’t meant to work’. It has “a name no one can remember”, and puts music to one of the worst events in history – September 11.
Why it’s become a Broadway success that’s now heading to Sydney then, is something its writers put down to its touching, heartwarming story.
In the days after 9/11, for security and safety, 38 passenger aircraft were grounded in the small Canadian town of Gander, Newfoundland. The remote North Atlantic Island became home to 7,000 travellers – nearly doubling the local population, all of whom opened their homes to the international travellers to offer food, accommodation and a sense of family.
Gander’s outstanding act of kindness made international headlines, and when production partners and married couple David Hein and Irene Sankoff came across the story, they knew it needed to be on the stage too.
“We were living in New York City on September 11,” said David, “in an international community of students from around the world… and what we remember of the days afterwards were the communities of people that came together to support one another.
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“Years later we were introduced to the story of what happened in Newfoundland, which was another international community of diverted passengers… [and this] incredible story of generosity set against the backdrop of this terrible tragedy just resonated with us over and over again.”
A Remote and Close-Knit Community
That the remote Newfoundland was the destination of choice may seem unusual, but at one time the airport was a key stop for Europeans coming to North America.
“It was the place you first make contact with when you cross over from Europe,” said Irene. “They have a very large airport because it used to be where all the planes would stop to refuel before going across the Atlantic, or before going back, [but] when jets were invented they didn’t need to stop anymore.”
“The community of Newfoundland had developed with ways that you support one another… It’s just how you all survive – by taking care of one another.”
After September 11 there have been many acts of kindness that have been applauded globally, but it’s the inherent character of the Newfoundland locals that David thinks has distinguished them from others.
“It’s not only that they didn’t have [enough] hotel rooms and had to figure out other solutions,” said David, “but that they had this history of terrible winters and being in a hard place to live, and what it meant was the community of Newfoundland had grown and developed with ways that you support one another. In the middle of winters, if the family next door has run out of food, you give them half of what you have; it’s just how you all survive – by taking care of one another.”
It’s an inspiring attitude, and one that was particularly striking in a time when the world’s sense of security was rocked, and there was extreme distrust of ‘outsiders’.
Irene shares, “I remember asking Bonnie Harris [an SPCA vet nurse], ‘Weren’t you worried that perhaps there may have been somebody hiding in the holds of the plane when you went to look for the animals, or if there was a bomb or something?’. She blushed bright red and said, ‘No I didn’t even think about it. I just knew that I had to make sure the animals got fed and watered or they would’ve died.”
A Show That’s Struck All the Right Chords
To now be bringing Come From Away to Australia is a huge milestone for the couple, who never imagined it would garner such a following.
“I thought Canadian high schools might be forced to do the show,” David laughs, “but what we found is that it’s not just a Canadian story, it’s a universal worldwide story… What we’ve seen is that people were all going through the same experience on [September 11]; we all wanted to help and we all felt helpless.
“As New Yorkers on that day, we didn’t want to tell a ‘September 11’ story, we wanted to tell a ‘September 12th‘ story; we wanted to tell a story about how these people and our friends had responded to a tragedy.”
Bringing this and other stories of ‘help’ into wider view has become somewhat of a life mission for the pair, with Irene saying it’s what the world needs right now.
“Our news feeds and radio, TV, newspapers, they really do shine a light on the horrible things that are happening,” Irene said. “And there is a lot of horrible stuff happening, but there are always more helpers than there are people who are trying to do harm – and unfortunately we don’t focus on that, and I think it take us to a dark place.
“So whenever we can shine a light on something that’s extraordinarily kind or nice, or good, I think it should be done… it’s a unique kind of bravery to be nice and to be kind.”
Come From Away opens at The State Theatre on August 1, 2020. Tickets are on sale now at www.comefromaway.com.au.