Sunday, May 19

Multi Award Winning Come From Away flies into Liverpool

When the airspace over North America was closed on 9/11 and planes were grounded, the town of Gander in Newfoundland suddenly found itself playing host to more than 6,500 passengers and crew.

With all airborne planes forced to land at the nearest airport and inbound flights from Europe diverted to Canada, a total of 38 planes carrying 6,579 people and 19 animals touched down in Gander, almost doubling its 10,000-strong population.

On the northeastern tip of a province nicknamed The Rock by locals, these ‘come from aways’ (as the locals call people not born there) were welcomed with open arms. They were fed, clothed, housed and entertained – most notably at a ‘screech-in’ ceremony where kissing a cod earns you the title of honorary Newfoundlander – in and around Gander before aircraft were again allowed to fly.

This remarkable true story forms the basis for Come From Away, an equally remarkable musical by Irene Sankoff and David Hein that celebrates the human spirit and shows how people are at their best when faced with the worst. With laughter, tears and soaring music, it’s about hope and unity as the spirited locals and global passengers overcome reticence and cultural differences to forge a common bond and lifelong friendships.

West End Production – Photo: Craig Sugden

Heading out on its first-ever UK and Ireland tour after notching up more than 1,000 performances in the West End, this most heartwarming of shows was hailed as a “big bearhug of a musical” by The New York Times when it opened on Broadway in 2017 and praised for its “charm, energy and a real generosity of spirit” when it took up residency at London’s Phoenix Theatre two years later.

In its North American homeland, the show has won numerous awards. It was named Best Musical at the Drama Desk Awards, Christopher Ashley won the Tony for Best Direction of a Musical and the Outer Critics’ Circle awarded it Outstanding New Broadway Musical, to name just a few of the many accolades bestowed on it. Over here it received the Critics’ Circle Theatre Award for Best Musical and netted four What’s On Stage Awards including Best New Musical, along with four Olivier Awards, again including Best New Musical.

Sankoff and Hein were also honoured at the 2019 Oliviers for their musical score, eight years after they first hit on the idea of fashioning a feel-good show about events that unfolded in Gander in September 2001.

Ontario-born Irene and Canadian David were in New York on 9/11, staying in a residence for international graduate students from all around the world. “Those people took care of us, we had neighbours come over and help us,” David recalls, “we all shared music and got through it together. So, when we first heard this story years later, when a friend mentioned it, we looked into it and we realised ‘This actually feels like our experience’.”

On the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks, the writing partners and husband and wife couple travelled to Newfoundland to interview the townsfolk as well as the come from aways who had journeyed back there to mark the occasion.

West End Production

They found the locals to be just as welcoming as they are in the show. “They would invite us into their house,” David smiles, “and say ‘Don’t be spending money on a hotel, just come stay with us’. They’d give us the keys to their house and then they’d leave, and they’d say ‘Just feed the cats’. We came back with lifelong friends and a million stories to tell.”

Those stories, collected across hours of interviews, were whittled down into a 100-minute musical, with Irene saying: “It’s so important to be sharing the story of people who reacted to something horrible in a positive light. We spend so much time focussing on the negative and I think it’s important to show the other side – people responding with kindness and people responding as a community.”

Come From Away was workshopped in Oakville in 2012 and enjoyed ecstatically received runs in San Diego, Seattle, Washington and Toronto before arriving on Broadway five years later. Audiences were drawn in by its roster of real-life characters, including Gander town mayor Claude Elliot.

Elliot himself recalls: “On the first day we had 7,000 strangers. On the third day we had 7,000 friends. And on the fifth day 7,000 family members.” Among those strangers turned friends and family members, as featured in the show, were an eager local news reporter, the mother of a New York firefighter desperate for the news of her son, and the first American Airlines captain Beverley Bass.

Being interviewed by Sankoff and Hein across four hours back in 2011 brought back so many memories for the aviation trailblaser. When she and her passengers deplaned, there were tables and tables of food waiting for them in the terminal.

West End Production

 “The people of Gander, I guess, had cooked all night long,” Bass recounts. “I mean, there was food for everybody. I knew immediately that the people were the nicest people I have ever been around in my life. It didn’t matter what you needed or what you wanted; it was there.”

In 2015 she got a call from the producers inviting her to see the show in San Diego. “I went to it sight unseen and I had no idea that my role was so prominent, and I certainly didn’t know that a song had been written called Me and the Sky, which basically chronicles my aviation life. It was astounding. By the end of it, my head was buried in my hands because I was just sobbing.

“I’m honoured that my story is impacting young girls to this day. Sharing my story with audiences has been life changing and I’m so grateful to be a part of this show’s journey. The musical is so true, it is so real. What a gift it has been to the world. The show gets a standing ovation every time because people like how something so beautiful managed to come out from such a tragedy.”

Complete strangers Nick Marson and Diane Kirschke were on the same flight from Gatwick bound for Texas, where British oil executive Nick had business to attend to while American Diane, a buyer for a department store, was on her way home after visiting her UK-based son.

They were both divorced and not seeking romance, but across their five-day stay where they were invited to get-togethers and singalongs, they fell for each other. When their plane finally took off again they were, Diane smiles, smitten. “There’s a scene in the show where the stewardess is bringing towels for everyone, and she goes ‘Hot towels? Hot towels?’ all the way down the plane. When she gets to us she says ‘Cold towels?’ That’s exactly as it happened.”

West End Production

The couple kept in touch through emails and phone calls before Nick proposed on the phone two months later. He moved to the US soon afterwards, they got married in 2002 and had their honeymoon in Newfoundland, with Marson saying of the time they originally spent there: “I think it’s made me a better person. I try to be my best self every day, be happy, make other people happy and make them laugh.”

Also featured in the show is Bonnie Harris, who worked in Gander’s animal shelter. She took it upon herself to look after dogs, cats, chimpanzees and assorted other animals that were on board the grounded planes, humbly saying of the townsfolk’s kindness: “We didn’t do this for a thank you. We did it because it needed to be done.”

The thousands of recipients of that kindness included Kevin Jung and Kevin Tuerff, a gay couple who worked together at the latter’s environmental PR agency in Austin and who worried how they’d be received in a religious rural community like Gander. “But they treated us wonderfully,” Tuerff says. “It was a powerful moment for me. We both grew up in middle-class households and I had never had to rely on a stranger to give me a pillow to lay my head.”

A hit around the world, Come From Away has enjoyed record-breaking sold-out engagements in the West End, on Broadway, in Canada and Australia, and on a 60-city North American tour. As it prepares to travel around the UK and Ireland, Beverley Bass marvels: “If you had told me when we left Gander on the morning of September 15th that someday I would be watching our stories play out across the world in a musical I would have been in total disbelief. I remember wanting the world to know about the folks in Gander and what they did for us, and Come From Away has made that happen.”

David Hein feels the show spreads a vital message. “There’s something important in having faith that we have more in common with people and having that faith overcome the fear,” he says. “Right now, it feels important to tell stories about overcoming differences and coming together as an international community. It’s wonderful to take a story that has inspired you and share it with the world and see it inspire other people.”

Nick Marson agrees. “While 9/11 was about the worst of humanity, what happened in Gander over those five days was about the best of humanity. Those people opened their town and their hearts to us. It’s a story of human kindness.’

Come From Away plays at Liverpool Empire from Tuesday 12th March to Saturday 23rd March 2024, for times and ticket information visit https://www.atgtickets.com/venues/liverpool-empire/

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