In Newfoundland, Canada, anyone not from the island is affectionately called a CFA—“Come From Away.” One day 15 years ago, Gander, Newfoundland found itself unexpectedly hosting more than 6,600 CFAs when 38 civilian and four military incoming flights were blocked from entering the United States and forced to land in the town’s airport. The 9/11 terrorist attacks had just occurred, and U.S. airspace was closed off, requiring emergency landings for flights already in the air. As the world reeled from the violence in New York and Washington, D.C., thousands of stranded people in a small Canadian town were taken in by locals and offered hospitality and comfort until they could find their way home.
In March, the story of Gander’s act of kindness will come to a Broadway stage. But as Canadian husband-and-wife team Irene Sankoff and David Hein emphasize, their new musical, Come From Away, is not a musical about 9/11. “This is a 9/12 story,” Hein said. “This is a story about how a small community responded to a large tragedy.”
Sankoff and Hein visited Gander on the ten-year anniversary of the event, spending a month talking with locals and with the guests who had returned for a commemorative ceremony. “Passengers, flight crews and captains were all coming back to commemorate what had happened and to reunite with lifelong friends that they had made,” Hein recalled. “We came away very moved and with thousands of stories of extraordinary generosity.”
Eager to share what they had learned during their time in Gander, the duo began turning those stories into songs. “We had seen things we couldn’t wait to tell people. That was our main impetus,” Hein added. “We wanted to tell everything we had seen—and then we had to go through the process of trying to package it into a 90-minute musical.”
The story almost demanded to be told through music. Many residents of the large island play instruments, and during the cold Newfoundland winters, communities will gather to dance and sing. “It’s hard to tell a Newfoundland story without including this incredibly rich folk tradition, that storytelling tradition,” Hein said. “And it felt really right for the stage.”
As such, Sankoff said, the score to Come From Away reflects the diverse people who came together during those intense days in September. “It has that Celtic feel,” she said. “It’s got more traditional songs as well, but it’s heavily influenced by the unique sound of Newfoundland music.” To keep the score authentic, instruments like the accordion and fiddle will be in the orchestra pit, as will instruments often played in Newfoundland like the bodhrán and the Ugly Stick.
“We found a metaphor for the whole show in finding the common denominators for the international music as well,” Hein said. He and Sankoff found similarities between the bodhrán and African drums, or fiddle music from Newfoundland and Texas. “The instruments and the styles of music bring us together, building something greater than just one thing.”
Once Come From Away was written, it began its trek to Broadway. Sue Frost, a producer with Junkyard Dog Productions, saw an early workshop and was eager to help the piece reach new audiences. “Junkyard Dogs only does new musicals and we feel that it’s important to do work that makes sense for audiences today” she said. “This felt really timely, and it has only become more timely as we’ve developed it.”
In a dark echo of the violence that sparked the outpouring of kindness from the people of Gander, the musical’s first preview at Seattle Repertory Theater took place on the day of the Paris terrorist attacks in November 2015. The theater and the cast, Frost said, was concerned about how—or if—they should acknowledge this new tragedy. “We agreed to let the show speak for itself,” she said. “Theater brings people together. Watching people watch that show was an amazing experience because there’s a sense of community, a sense of engaging with what’s going on and with the people around you.”
“This is a story of how good people can be,” Frost continued, “of how people took care of people. It’s what the human spirit is looking for. There were some people who were reluctant to go into [the show]. They were afraid of what it would do. To a person, they are glad they came in, because it gives them positive memories.”