The end of Come From Away is as rousing as the rest of this heart-warming, slickly executed show, which offsets any mawkishness with salty Newfoundland wit and practicality.
The hit musical focuses on what happened when the town of Gander took in 6,579 international plane passengers after 38 flights were forced to land there on Sept. 11, 2001. Come From Away contrasts the experiences of the travelers and locals as they live alongside one another for a week, all undergoing various changes and mini-transformations.
The Tony-winning show has been nominated for multiple awards, including nine Olivier Awards in London this weekend; and to mark this and its second anniversary on Broadway, the producers made a video of its four casts—on Broadway, in Toronto, touring North America, and in London—performing the finale. The Daily Beast reveals this exclusively below.
In the musical, Gander’s residents readily open their homes to the planes’ passengers, feeding them, and taking care of them.
The amount of detail—right down to the men of the town making sure female travelers had enough sanitary pads—was gleaned through hours of patient listening and interviewing by Canadian husband and wife Irene Sankoff and David Hein, who wrote the book, music, and lyrics of the musical, and who met the townsfolk and passengers at a 10th anniversary event in 2011. From this set of interviews the musical took shape.
We first met before their Broadway opening and spoke this week as they prepared to travel to London for the Olivier Awards—and as they mulled the script of the planned Come From Away movie and anticipated further openings of the show in Melbourne this summer and Buenos Aires. Come From Away, a story of worlds coming together and understanding across so many boundaries, really has conquered the world.
The couple had just returned from California where they had had meetings about the film, “imagining what 38 planes and 7,000 people in a town of 10,000 people will look like on screen.” Yes, there will be special effects but the intention is also to film in Gander itself, leading—how meta—to the likelihood, said Hein, of “the film crew, actors and staff being invited in people’s homes, just as it was in the story.”
A production company, which the couple decline to name, wants to start shooting the film “as soon as possible.”
When asked if the dream cast would include Hollywood stars, Sankoff issues an emphatic no. “We don’t want Hollywood celebrities in it because we don’t want the audience to be taken out of the moment. We want it to be regular people.” The movie cast may come from existing Come From Away casts, or from actors the couple have liked in auditions but not been able to cast yet, or yet-to-be-seen actors. “I think we will know our dream cast when we see them,” Sankoff said.
Hein added, “The real dream cast will be the people of Gander, who I hope will be extras.”
Traveling the world with the show has been illuminating, the couple said. “It makes the world a smaller place,” said Sankoff. “It’s so universal audience reactions are pretty much the same. We’ve met people who lost people that day, who knew passengers or flight attendants on the planes, or who were in the towers (like Hein's cousin, who thankfully survived).”
The success of the show, Sankoff said, “shows how much the world needs a story like this right now. It’s humbling that it has helped people who have kept their feelings so bottled up till now. These stories of kindness, generosity, and open-mindedness have shown people that hope is possible from that day.”
Hein said: “It’s never bad to tell a story about human kindness but particularly right now. Our social media and newsfeeds are filled with so much divisiveness and anger.”
The mayor of Gander, said Hein, once noted the week had begun with 7,000 strangers stranded on Tarmac. By the middle of the week they were 7,000 friends staying in people’s homes, and by the end of the week the townsfolk were saying farewell to 7,000 family members. Hein also said that Come From Away, its multiple city and touring performers and staff, has become its own global family.
The show’s first preview in 2015 was on the night of the Paris Bataclan club attack. There was a discussion that night about if the show should say something direct to the audience about the atrocity; the decision was to perform the show and let the message of inclusion and kindness make its own statement.
At one New York performance in March 2017, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau escorted Ivanka Trump—the message of the show at sharp variance to the policies and rhetoric of her father.
“We welcome everyone,” said Sankoff. “We hope they take some of what they see back into their own lives. We didn’t meet or talk to her. I saw her say to Nikki Haley (then the American ambassador to the United Nations) at the end: ‘That was great.’”
President Trump had been due to fly to New York, but when told about the plan to see the show, reportedly said, “Absolutely not.”
Hein said, “I want to share the story of Come From Away in light of the travel bans or current discussions of walls and ‘us and them.’ This is a story that reminds us of our similarities, and how hopefully we can work things out together. At each step we have been amazed at how far this little show has gone and been embraced by all our audiences. It’s kind of incredible.”
It’s always great, the couple said, to see Newfoundlanders and Canadians waving flags. There is one moment when a character says the Gander landscape is “trees, rocks and nothing.” It is meant insultingly, but Hein recalled Newfoundlander audiences saying proudly, “Yeah, got that right.” (The show has been performed in Gander and St. John’s in Newfoundland.)
In London, Hein added, the voice of Tom Brokaw has been replaced by that of Oprah Winfrey, in a voice message left for a local reporter (the Brits didn’t know who Brokaw was, said Hein).
The success of the show has been life-changing, and has left the couple, he said, in “a constant sense of wonder.”
It’s good that Molly, their 5-and-a-half-year-old daughter, keeps them grounded; she is happily installed in her New York school and, Hein said, “from her perspective it’s totally normal to go from city to city telling this story about people being kind to one another.”
The success of Come From Away has not been a burden; other projects which the couple decline to name, are bubbling away. Their focus is on the film and also a book about how Come From Away came to be, while also containing other real-life stories from that extraordinary week in Gander that had to be excised from the musical for reasons of space.
“It’s a privilege and blessing to be able to tell this story, never a burden,” said Sankoff.
The couple oversee charity drives, and also wryly note the increase in tourism in Central Newfoundland since Come From Away began. “You will honestly, truly find people asking you to come back to their place for dinner when you step out of Gander airport,” insisted Hein.
“It some ways it feels like yesterday and in some ways it feels like years of our lives,” said Sankoff of the globe-conquering success of Come From Away. “But it’s amazing to travel around the world and celebrate a story about kindness and friendships.” What happened in Gander was unique, but its impact and message has turned out to be—in every sense of the word—universal.