The week after 9/11 saw some of the bleakest days in modern history as America and the world grasped with the idea of a changed world, but in a bar in the heart of a small Canadian town, the drink is flowing and people are dancing. These are uncertain times for everyone, not least the just under 7,000 stranded passengers here, but you wouldn’t know it from the smiles on their faces.
Happiness is at the heart of Come From Away, the Broadway musical about to land in the West End based on this remarkable story. It is a disarmingly uplifting story about a small, proud town in the Newfoundland state of Canada called Gander, the kind of place where everyone knows each other’s name and coffee order. Its airport used to be a transatlantic stop-off for aircraft to be refuelled mid-journey, but on 11th September 2001, it became an integral landing spot off for more than 40 aircraft and over 6,500 stranded passengers ordered to land as US airspace was closed indefinitely.
“It shows the best of humanity in the face of the worst of humanity”, Jenna Boyd tells me in a rehearsal space above the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, where the show is about to open. She plays a composite character called Beulah Davis, taking influence from Ganderites Beulah Cooper, who welcomed streams of stranded people into her home for food and showers, and Diane Davis, a school teacher who ensured facilities ran smoothly.
Writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein visited the town in 2011 on the tenth anniversary of the events, to interview residents, and the passengers who found themselves stranded who returned to Gander- many of the lyrics are direct chunks of those interviews. When Davis asked what they were interviewing for, Davis thought it was “cute” that they wanted to make a musical about the town’s story.
What she didn’t expect was such an uplifting, positive story about the kindness of strangers. The people who opened their homes, made thousands of meals and simply provided for a mass of people who arrived on their doorstep with no warning. Reliving this story will have you asking: Can you honestly say, in their shoes, that you would do the same?
The way the selfless accommodation of these frankly extraordinary people is portrayed with a riotously infectious score is one of the reasons people see the show again “and again, and again, and again”, says Rachel Tucker. Having seen the play on Broadway after signing up for the West End run, she didn’t know what to expect from the show other than its folk-heavy soundtrack.
“The soundtrack’s great, but it doesn’t tell you the whole story. I was inconsolable, I haven’t seen a piece of theatre like it for a long, long time”, she tells me. Tucker plays, among others, Beverley Bass a pilot – the first female American Airlines captain no less – who diverted her plane to Canada. Bass herself is on hand to chat to the cast about her experiences and, while the performers aren’t attempting impersonations of these people, it intensifies the feeling that this really happened in a way you might not get other certain American musicals about history.
But performing the part of a real person provides new, unique challenges.
”I’ve never had an experience like this in 25 years of theatre", says David Shannon, who plays stranded passenger Kevin T. “I had a slight fluff in the show last night because I realised as I was delivering a line, I was looking directly at the Kevin. It was a moment of realisation [that threw me off].”
The chances that anyone cast member could have a similar experience are high. Not only do the affectionately named ‘Come From Aways’ follow the show around the world (Bass’ 120th viewing in Dublin was her 11th opening night worldwide), but each actor plays a number of different characters, often switching at the literal drop of a hat, creating a tapestry of the different stories to be told.
Jonathan Andrew Hume plays Kevin’s partner Kevin, and a Muslim character from Egypt called Ali who is faced with the blunt end of Day 0 post-9/11 Islamophobia in the States. He pulls a hat out of his pocket, pops it on his head, and that’s it. “We’re flipping on a dime. Someone asked “what’s the hardest thing about this show”, and it’s becoming a different character with different mannerisms in that moment”, he says.
It is the moments with Ali that remind you you’re watching a story about how the world is a different place since that day. After all, this isn’t a musical about the horrific events of 9/11, it’s about the sheer kindness and community of 9/12 and onwards.
“What’s great about this show is that it puts to rest any emotional feeling about the day,” says Hume. “Whether they were watching it on television orhave a personal experience of it, it gives you this sense of happiness and joy about those days. At some place in this world, there was this town that was just showered in kindness.”
Personal experience certainly alters how you view this show. Heading to a bar for a Guinness after the show, everyone inevitably shared the stories of where they were that day. Everyone is connected to this story, yet it pales in insignificance compared to what was happening in Gander at such a time of fear and mourning.
Come From Away captures the very antithesis of that. There’s a real dissonance between the context and backdrop of this piece, and its actual subject matter. They may have come together as a direct consequence of one of the darkest days in their collective history, but some people who met in Gander have never left each other’s side, many others are still in touch. This musical is a beautiful homage to those who demonstrated the very best of humanity, on a day when it was dearly needed.