It's Gander Day in Seattle: Celebrating Newfoundland's 9/11 story in a musical

Come From Away is a Celtic folk-rock musical set in Gander, NL, during 9/11 that has already had an extended run at California’s La Jolla Playhouse and is now breaking box-office records at the Seattle Repertory Theatre.

Mayors of Gander and Seattle, Canadian Consul General to give post-show talk-back

The company of Come From Away, presented at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. (Chris Bennion)

As Canada prepares to welcome 10,000 Syrian refugees by year's end, there's a hit musical playing south of the border that celebrates the Canadian capacity to greet strangers with open arms.

Come From Away is a Celtic folk-rock musical set in Gander, NL, during 9/11 that has already had an extended run at California's La Jolla Playhouse and is now breaking box-office records at the Seattle Repertory Theatre.

People literally welcomed us into their homes. They'd say, 'Oh, don't be spendin' money on a hotel, stay at our place. Here's the keys and just remember to feed the cats.'- David Hein, co-creator of Come From Away, on Gander hospitality

The show, by Toronto's Irene Sankoff and David Hein, tells the true story of the town of Gander's heroic response when 38 passenger jets were forced to land at its airport after U.S. airspace was closed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. The people of Gander outdid even Newfoundland's already considerable reputation for hospitality, feeding, clothing and housing close to 7,000 strangers and treating them like long-lost relatives. Friendships were forged, romances begun and much screech-drinking and cod-kissing indulged in. 

It's an uplifting tale that U.S. audiences and critics have embraced enthusiastically since its world premiere at La Jolla last spring. A co-production between the Playhouse and Seattle Rep, it opened at the latter's 800-seat theatre in November and is already the highest-grossing show in the company's history. Seattle is so taken with it that Monday is being declared "Gander Day" and visiting Gander Mayor Claude Elliott is being feted at various events around the city. The Canadian Consulate is holding a "Canada Night" Dec. 8, featuring a talk-back session after the play with Consul General James K. Hill, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and Mayor Elliott. That night, the long-serving Gander Mayor will see the show — and himself, portrayed by actor Joel Hatch — for the first time.

It appears that Sankoff and Hein — the wife-and-husband duo who had a previous hit with the big-hearted My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding — have written the perfect musical for our terrorist-stricken times.

"I think it's just so different from everything we're hearing in the news right now," Sankoff says. She adds that the Gander episode is also one many Americans are unfamiliar with. "Even though there was a Tom Brokaw documentary five years ago, the amount of people who don't know the story is astounding."

Sankoff and Hein didn't know much about it themselves when Michael Rubinoff, head of Sheridan College's Canadian Music Theatre Project, suggested it as a subject. The couple travelled to Gander in 2011 for the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and spent a month interviewing its citizens. In the process, they got a firsthand taste of Gander generosity. "People literally welcomed us into their homes," Hein says. "They'd say, 'Oh, don't be spendin' money on a hotel, stay at our place. Here's the keys and just remember to feed the cats.'"

The pair also tracked down the international travellers who'd been stranded in Gander that day. Like the townspeople, they were eager to share their experiences. "We ended up Skyping with people from around the world," Hein says.

He and Sankoff shaped their rich material into drama and song, using the kind of foot-stomping music you'd hear at a Newfoundland kitchen party. Sankoff says the show is by no means a documentary — some characters are composites — but many real people figure in it, including Mayor Elliott, American Airlines captain Beverley Bass, and Nick and Diane, a single Brit and a Texan divorcée, who met in Gander and subsequently married.

The company of Come From Away, at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. (Chris Bennion)

The script was workshopped at Sheridan and showcased at New York's Festival of New Musicals, where it caught the ear of La Jolla artistic director Christopher Ashley. His company is famous for developing work for Broadway, with a track record that includes the Tony Award-winning Jersey Boys and Memphis. Although nothing is confirmed, there's no doubt Ashley, who also directed the production, has New York in his sights.

"Many people have asked us when the show is going to Broadway," Hein says. "But really our goal is bringing it back home to Canada and eventually sharing it with Gander."

In the meantime, he and Sankoff are just enjoying the fact that Come From Away has already touched so many theatregoers. Sankoff believes they've done it by taking the focus off the people who seek to destroy and putting it on the ones who try to help others: "In our show that's where the glory is going and that's where the spotlight is shining."

Come From Away runs to Dec. 20 at the Seattle Repertory Theatre in Seattle, Wash.


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