Come From Away: the musical that dares to deal with 9/11
It might be the most unlikely pitch for a musical since Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom came up with Springtime for Hitler .
The action in Come From Away starts on 11 September 2001, a day on which nearly 3,000 Americans were killed by terrorists and which artists still approach at their peril, risking accusations of exploitation and tastelessness.
Yet the genius of the show is that it approaches 9/11 obliquely and tells a little known and hugely uplifting story in its margins. And somehow, neither sacrilegious nor sentimental, it works. Come From Away sold out in Seattle and San Diego and is Broadway bound. After a standing ovation in Washington this week , one audience member could be heard saying: “The next Hamilton!”
When hijacked planes flew into the World Trade Center, Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania 15 years ago this Sunday, US airspace was shut down and planes ordered to land. Some 38 planes with 6,579 passengers were diverted to Gander , a remote town in Newfoundland, Canada, because of its vast airport that hosted the Queen, the Beatles and Muhammad Ali before the jet engine rendered it superfluous. And then they were stranded far from home.
We see passengers going stir-crazy as they sit on a plane on the tarmac for more than 24 hours. There are only so many inflight movies they can watch. Many don’t have mobile phones in those days, and the batteries have died anyway. They don’t know what’s happened in New York and Washington but they know it’s serious and rumours abound. “Is it world war three?” one asks in panic.
Eventually they are allowed to disembark but, with fear of terrorists running high, must leave their luggage behind. They pile on to buses with no idea where they’re going. Finally they are given food and shelter for the night but all they care about it watching the TV news. In one of the musical’s most powerful moments, we watch their reactions as they witness the catastrophe of 9/11 with fresh eyes.
“You don’t see what they’re seeing but everyone in the audience has their own version of what they’re seeing,” says David Hein, co-author of the musical with his wife, Irene Sankoff (both are Canadian-born).
With the new arrivals, the population of Gander has almost doubled overnight. The hospitality of the locals is inspiring as they take passengers into their homes, give them free food, clothes and other essentials and rally with Blitz spirit. Lifelong friendships are formed in this strange limbo. The aircraft, meanwhile, sit slowly sinking into the tarmac.
The “plane people” are from more than a hundred countries and react in different ways. A mother is desperate for news of her son, a firefighter in New York. A pioneering female airline captain fears for her friends and colleagues. A man is worried that his wallet will be stolen but learns to worry less. A gay couple fear the reaction of a seemingly conservative community. Romances are forged and others unravel . Some find that being stranded is escapism, a chance to reinvent themselves.
All of this could so easily have descended into earnest schmaltz with a “the darkest hour is just before the dawn” homily about hope rising from the ashes of 9/11. But like Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life , the show is tougher than it first appears. A Muslim man heard speaking Arabic on the phone is treated with hostility and suspicion. After days of being stranded, tempers begin to fray. And when the passengers finally leave, there is a sense of emptiness on both sides.
Hein observes: “It was not sunshine and lollipops. It was a real event that happened to real people.”
He and Sankoff were in New York on 9/11 and Hein’s cousin was in the Twin Towers but survived. “We’ve been very clear from the beginning, when we went out to Newfoundland to interview everyone, we realise the story that we’re telling isn’t about 9/11,” he says. “It’s a 9/12 story and it’s a story about how this small community reacted to a larger tragedy and a story of kindness and generosity.”
The original idea was pitched to them by Michael Rubinoff, who later founded the Canadian Musical Theatre Project. They discovered that many of the passengers were heading back to Gander to mark the 10th anniversary.
Hein continues: “We were lucky enough to go out there and spend almost a month interviewing people. The rest of the press was there trying to get five-second soundbites and we ended up talking to people for four or five hours and just came back with thousands of stories that we couldn’t wait to share.”
The couple pulled off an impressive piece of journalism, distilling those interviews into 105 minutes without an interval, sometimes by amalgamating characters and incidents. Directed by Christopher Ashley, a superb ensemble cast moves back and forth between playing passengers and locals, with their distinct accents, and the music is rooted in Newfoundland with a Celtic flavour. It will be seen in Gander itself on 29 October.
Before then, it continues at Ford’s theatre in Washington , a place full of echoes and ghosts. In one scene, an actor plays George W Bush while sitting near the box where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865 (the pistol wielded by John Wilkes Booth is displayed in a museum downstairs).
Hein reflects: “There’s never a bad time to tell a story about human kindness and reaching out to strangers. One of the passengers said: ‘We were all refugees coming off those planes.’ And right now in Newfoundland they are welcoming in Syrian refugees as we speak.
“This is an important story to tell from that context. It’s not directly 9/11 but it’s a direct story about being good to one another and that seems important right now. It was really wonderful on opening night to see an incredible bipartisan audience from Capitol Hill watching it and each owning it in different ways and finding something to admire and honour and recognise.”
Some of the people portrayed in the musical are fans of it. Beverley Bass, the airline captain who features prominently, was due to see it for the 16th time on Friday night. “We absolutely love it,” she said. “It’s such a feelgood story after such a dark time in our history. It recognises Gander and all they did for us, which many people in the US don’t know about.”
Bass, who is 64, retired from flying in January 2008 and lives in Argyle, Texas. She said the authors were faithful to her story, incorporating parts of her interview directly into a solo song which muses on how she devoted her life to flying, breaking a glass ceiling for women, only to see planes cause death and destruction. “It’s what I loved the most and it had been used as a weapon and it felt so invasive,” she said.
On Sunday, she will be at the theatre again for both performances. “It will be a little more emotionally challenged than a normal night at the show. It will be a reflective time.”