Welcome to Gander
How Come From Away turned a 9/11-inspired musical into a beacon of hope
On September 11, 2001, more than 7,000 airline passengers were diverted to a tiny Newfoundland town in eastern Canada. The weary, confused, and scared travelers were welcomed by the 9,000 residents of Gander, and together they struggled to make sense of the attacks.
Come From Away tells these stories as a touching, uplifting musical, which Dallas Summer Musicals is bringing to the Music Hall at Fair Park March 10-22. Two Dallas-based actors, Chamblee Ferguson and Julie Johnson, are part of the cast.
Canadian husband-and-wife team Irene Sankoff and David Hein, who were living in Manhattan at the time, wrote the award-winning musical, and they are quick to point out that Come From Away is not a 9/11 story, but a 9/12 story. It’s about the emergence of hope, faith, and the realization that the most admirable human behavior often emerges from the darkest of tragedies.
“When we started this, we thought it was a Canadian story. What we have realized is that this is really a universal story,” explains Sankoff. “That day, everyone felt helpless and everyone wanted to help and I think many people go into the show not realizing how light a Band-Aid they’ve covered this event up with, so it brings a lot of emotion with it but it does it in a safe, collective way.”
The "come from aways"
Sankoff and Hein were living in a residence for international graduate students in New York City when the Twin Towers were struck. Sankoff says she and Hein spent most of that day sharing fellowship with other students in their building, which contained 700 people from 110 different countries.
“When we first heard about what went on in Gander, with people taking care of one another, it really resonated with us because our neighbors in New York checked on us,” Sankoff recalls.
“We stayed together as a community, and people would take turns sitting down at piano and the music and the company really got us through it and gave us some stability on that day,” adds Hein.
Fort Worth-based American Airlines captain Beverley Bass was on a flight from Paris to Dallas that fateful day, and commented to her co-pilot early on what a beautiful day it was for flying. Bass soon learned about one of the Twin Towers being hit, but assumed it was a small plane and went back to eating lunch in the cockpit. It wasn’t long before she and her crew learned that the second tower had been struck, and first heard the word "terrorism."
Her plane’s planned flight path would take them over northern Canada and into Dallas, but as soon as they were in range of the Gander Airport, they were ordered to land due to closure of U.S. airspace. Bass' plane was one of 38 that lined up like sardines at the normally quiet Gander Airport.
After landing, the crew was told by Canadian authorities that they would not be allowed off the aircraft until the next day. After 28 hours onboard, she and her fellow crew and passengers eventually deplaned and were greeted by a surprising sight.
“We walked into the terminal, which was lined with tables with an enormous amount of food," says Bass. "The residents of Gander had literally made food to serve 7,000 passengers and that was my first revelation that we had landed in very unique place."
The musical tells the story of what happened over the next five days, as the "come from aways" — a provincial Canadian term for visitors from somewhere else — became acquainted with their Newfoundland hosts. Many of the characters in the show, including Bass, are based on actual people, while others represent collective experiences. Sankoff admits that many lines in the script and songs are verbatim from interviews they collected while prepping.
“We couldn’t make this stuff up,” she jokes.
Despite the somber basis for the musical, it’s filled with toe-tapping music, hilarious moments, and a clever levity.
“I always tell people there are a couple of sad moments in the show — there would have to be — but the most amazing thing is it never stays in those moments for too long,” says Bass.
From news clippings to the stage
Though the events in Gander and surrounding communities were covered in the press at the time, Sankoff and Hein were eventually approached by a friend wanting to capture what happened in a theatrical production. So in 2011, the couple applied for a grant from the Canadian government to attend the 10th anniversary of 9/11 in Gander, which was attended by many of the original "come from aways."
Over the course of what turned into a four-week trip, Sankoff says they interviewed anyone they could get their hands on to learn about their 2001 experience.
“It was a very immersive experience," she says. "It was more than interviewing people. It was being in coffee shops, being at the grocery story listening to people talk to one another — really getting a feel for the culture and the language and making sure that rang true once we put it all on paper.”
Hein adds: “It was this incredible experience of just being welcomed in with the same generosity that the come from aways did in 2001 and getting to see it through their eyes.”
It was during that trip that Sankoff and Hein met Bass. The captain had heard about the commemoration from an Austrian film crew and couldn’t pass up the chance to return to Gander with her husband. Bass, who happens to be American Airlines' first female captain, says she went back home to Fort Worth and heard from Sankoff and Hein a few times over the next four years as they confirmed a few details, but didn’t think much more about it. What she didn’t know was that the husband and wife spent those four year writing a musical about the 2001 events in Newfoundland.
Bass and her husband, Tom, were invited to the 2015 opening of the musical Come From Away at the La Jolla Playhouse in California, knowing very little about what they were about to see.
“I didn’t know how prominent my role in the show was," she says. "We didn’t really know anything, so I was pretty surprised."
Bass, whose flying career is chronicled in the song “Me and the Sky,”was the only pilot Sankoff and Hein interviewed in preparation to write the show. Bass admits she was extremely emotional the first night she saw the show, as it really got her thinking about what a horrible day that must have been for her husband and children, not knowing where she was until late in the afternoon on 9/11. She says the scene where she is first able to speak with her husband and tell him she’s okay set them both crying. She estimates she probably missed 75 percent of the show that first night due to emotion.
Thankfully, she’s had numerous occasions to see it again — 148 times, at last count. She’s since learned to embrace the limelight a bit more, becoming very involved with the show and helping to promote it around the world, all while still working at a full-time flying job.
Bass says her experiences in Gander and her involvement with the show have changed her life immensely and have made her a better person. As an example, she says when Texas was ravaged by Hurricane Harvey in 2018, rather than watching it all unfold on TV and feeling helpless, she flew to Austin and helped out at evacuation centers assisting FEMA. She also helped organize air drops of supplies to people in need in more remote parts of the state.
“I would not have done that before, but what Gander taught me is how important it is in times of tragedy to be able to be the helper of the other people," Bass says. "It has taught me to become very involved, and I really get so much gratification out of that.”
The Come From Away family, which includes five casts around the world, tries to walk the walk, helping to raise money and awareness for causes dear to them, including recently helping raise $100,000 for Australian wildfire relief efforts.
Bass says Come From Away has a healing effect and an indescribable impact on audiences.
“Certainly, the first responders, those who lost family members or who were involved in some direct way, will tell you it was the first time they had a chance to heal and feel a little bit better about what happened during that time.” Bass adds, “What I say to people who have not seen the show is 'I promise you after you see it, you will be a better person.'"