On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, 38 planes were among the many to receive the shocking mid-flight news about the attacks in New York and DC. American airspace was closed, and the 38 planes — full of New Yorkers and Texans, foreigners and Americans, Christians, Jews and Muslims — were told to land in a little airport in a Newfoundland town called Gander, population under 10,000.
The passengers and crew approximately doubled that population; there were not nearly enough hotels to serve them near the airport, once a waypost before planes could make the ocean hop in one go. Perched at the edge of a forbidding, largely undeveloped island thrust out in the Atlantic, the grounded planes and passengers were stuck. So the residents opened their schools, kitchens, homes.
That’s the setup for “Come From Away,” an affecting show now in previews on Broadway — a show that tells the story of 9/11 from afar.
It was greeted by warm reviews and reception in DC, Toronto, and on the West Coast before making the move to Manhattan. Broadway is the big test for any musical, but that is particularly true for “Come From Away,” which works boldly with material that is tragically familiar to many New Yorkers.
Based on a true story
Irene Sankoff and David Hein, the Canadian husband and wife team who created the show, are cognizant of that special territory, given that they were living in New York on 9/11.
They had the familiar experience of many city residents — waiting anxiously to hear from Hein’s cousin who worked on the ground floor of the towers. The cousin made it out.
The pair were engaged at the time and living in an international house for graduate students off Riverside Drive. Across the street was the Manhattan School of Music. In the days after the attacks, they recalled the adopted New Yorkers, visitors, and local staff gathering around a piano, clutching to a sense of “community,” Hein said in an interview Friday.
Community newly created is what happened in Gander over that week 15 years ago.
The show follows the events through a large cast of characters, all based on real people, all of them either Gander residents welcoming their reluctant guests to the island, or the so-called “plane people” adjusting slowly to their new surroundings and a new world.
Those characters, in real life as in the musical, include a British man and Texan woman, both passengers, who meet on the island and fall in love. Also a mother of a New York City firefighter she is struggling to reach by phone, and the Newfoundlander she befriends who tries to help her through the period.
The helping hand extended by many in the play, Hein said, is “a good reminder of the goodness in people.”
The pair recalled the solemn and communal atmosphere in New York City in the days after 9/11: both the impulse to help, give blood, go down to Ground Zero, and also “to live life now and celebrate life,” Sankoff said. They made good on that themselves by moving their wedding day up a year, going down to City Hall in the shadow of Ground Zero to get married immediately.
Hein’s cousin, who had been at the bottom of the towers, had been excited to serve as their witness. “We hadn’t realized where we made her come,” Sankoff said: so close to the site. But it turned out to be a good experience. “This wonderful thing set against this horrible backdrop,” said Sankoff, “the same as the show.”
How it will play to the eyes of New Yorkers
For New Yorkers, the blunt events of 9/11 might be more comfortably viewable in “Come From Away” given the foreign setting, the tragedy at home set afar.
Still, there is much that will be deeply familiar to New Yorkers about the small town of Gander. The opening number introduces the residents singing proudly about their identity as “islanders,” a proud yet chip-on-your-shoulder perspective of isolation and we’re-all-in-this-together that might resonate with those living on our five boroughs of essentially-island.
The characters sing about “the rock” that they call home, also a nickname for that serious outpost, Staten Island, one of various parts of the city hard hit by 9/11’s toll on first responders.
Mostly, the play’s mosaic of people of all different types who find a way to live together is second nature here. There are tense moments, as when a chef of Middle-Eastern origin is watched warily, or an African man with his family fears the situation before him because of language and cultural barriers. New York is familiar with those barriers, too. But they are resolved for the play’s 100 or so minutes, as they are here in our best moments.