Words by Penny Neef. Images courtesy of Seven Venues.
For the creators of musical theater, sometimes the music determines the story, sometimes the story determines the music. For the creators of Come From Away, the next Broadway in Norfolk production coming to Chrysler Hall from Tuesday, February 28 – Sunday, March 5, there were 16,000 stories to tell in a 100-minute musical format.
On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, at 9:26 am, the Federal Aviation Administration shut down all airspace over the United States, forcing 4,000 planes to land at the nearest airport. Four commercial planes had been hijacked by terrorists earlier that morning. The first hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 am. The second hit the South Tower at 9:03.
Flights from Europe were diverted to Canada. At noon that day, tiny Gander International Airport in Newfoundland was told that 18 planes were landing. At 12:15, they were told there were be 13 more. Passengers and crew were not allowed to disembark and had no clue what was going on.
By 4:30 pm that day, 38 planes, 6,579 passengers and crew, and 19 animals in cargo were still sitting on the very crowded runways of Gander International Airport. The town of Gander had a total population of 10,000.
At 5:17 pm, a convoy of school buses from Gander and the surrounding small towns, arrived at the airport to pick up the “come from aways.” They were shuttled to the Salvation Army Center, churches, schools, and community centers. As the 6,579 people boarded the buses, they found out about the four hijacked planes and the terrorist attacks.
The world was a different place, frightening and confusing. The people of Gander opened their hearts and homes to the stranded passengers and crew. The visitors stayed in Gander for 5 days. On Sunday, September 16, they were shuttled back to the airport. The final plane left at 6:20 that evening.
In 2011, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9/11, many of the passengers and crew returned to Gander to reconnect with their hosts and thank them again for their extraordinary hospitality. David Hein and his wife, Irene Sankoff, both proud Canadians, composers, lyricists and librettists, were there too. Hein and Sankoff interviewed and recorded stories from those 5 days,16,000 stories.
Hein says, “The people of Gander are really good story tellers.” Hein and Sankoff worked to distill those 16,000 stories into a 100-minute musical with 12 actors. Some of the stories were woven together. Each cast member is based on a real person, or two people combined.
There are stories of tragedy. Hannah, a passenger from New York, is desperate for news about her firefighter son, who is missing. Beverly Bass, the first woman captain of American Airlines was piloting a plane from Paris to Dallas that day. She had to figure out where she was going to park her very large Boeing 777 on the runway at Gander. After that, she realizes how much her world will change. There are stories of romance and break-ups, prejudice and redemption, all in 5 days.
Hein and Sankoff created a musical where each character is based on interviews by real people who went through a tragic, inspiring, and unique experience together. Hein says, “It may have started out as an us and them story, but it ended as we’re all in this together story.” The people of Gander and the “plane people” changed each other forever.
Come From Away debuted in Ontario in 2021, was presented in La Jolla, Seattle, and Toronto before it made it to Broadway in 2017. It was nominated for 7 Tony Awards, winning for best direction of a musical for Christopher Ashley. It became the longest running Canadian musical on Broadway in 2022.
Come From Away is a story about scary times and extraordinary circumstances, but also about the love, and the respect that people give to each other. You will leave Chrysler Hall feeling good about humanity.
For more information and to purchase tickets, go to https://www.sevenvenues.com/events/detail/come-from-away