The tragedy of the 2001 World Trade Center attacks remains a horrific memory. However, what developed soon after in a remote edge of North America is a testament to the kindness of strangers.
When 38 jetliners were redirected to the island of Newfoundland during the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, 6,579 passengers disembarked, nearly doubling the population of the little town of Gander.
Stuck on “a rock where a river meets the sea,” the locals opened their homes to care for the stranded. Hardly equipped to absorb the sudden influx of people, residents helped passengers deal with the shock of the attacks, contact loved ones and employers, and meet everyday needs such as food, shelter and laundry.
All that transpired — starring the altruistic Newfoundlanders who improvised care for this international community of strangers — is the heart of new rock musical “Come From Away.” As the show suggests, “On September 11, 2001, the world stopped. On September 12, their stories moved us all.”
“It’s never a bad time to tell a story about human kindness,” says Canadian playwright and composer David Hein. “What we’ve learned is that this isn’t a story about 9/11, but a 9/12 event.”
With a book, music and lyrics penned by Hein and his wife and writing partner, Irene Sankoff, the show is the result of reams of interviews. Directed by Tony Award nominee Christopher Ashley (who directed “Memphis”) with choreography by Tony Award nominee Kelly Devine (known for her work on “Rocky”), “Come From Away” is fresh from a record-breaking tour in La Jolla, California; Seattle, Washington; Toronto, Ontario, and Washington, DC.
Variety called it “a moving tribute to the indomitable human spirit.” And the Los Angeles Times called it “an affecting and stirring new musical.”
In the song “Welcome to the Rock,” the term “Come From Away” refers to the passengers who come from everywhere else to this place of intense weather and camaraderie, on the edge of the Atlantic, where the “kettle is always on.”
In Newfoundland, passengers and islanders found friendship — and some, love. One longtime resident, who had kept his Jewish identity hidden since his arrival during World War II, finally reveals his secret to a stranded rabbi.
These and other revelations are told by 12 actors who assume the identities of 60 or 70 characters, many of whom participate in an interfaith service in a library turned sanctuary, where the line “oseh shalom bimromav” (“He who makes peace from celestial heights”) resonates with poignancy. In another scene, islanders realize the rabbi is not eating. They soon help him create a kosher cafeteria that also feeds Muslims and vegetarians.
The 100-minute musical launched on Broadway this week at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater, with a March 12 opener. In between rehearsals, writers Sankoff and Hein discussed the show with The Times of Israel.
How is the show coming along?
Hein: It’s going great. It’s been sold out since we began. We’ve got standing ovations every night. It’s been really amazing.
Sankoff: We’ve been staying in the moment and feeling really blessed each step of the way.
I understand you got married back in 2001. How did you begin working together?
Hein: We are a husband and wife writing team. This is our second show. We originally started writing together because Irene is an actress and I am a singer/songwriter and between our day jobs we never see each other.
How long have you been in the entertainment business?
Hein: Since high school.
Sankoff: I got my masters in New York City in 2002.
Hein: Our first show was “My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding.” It got picked up and toured all over North America.
How did you land on this story?
Hein: We’re Canadian so we had sort of heard the story but we had clearly been focused on what had happened in New York. We found out there was a commemoration on the 10th anniversary and all of these pilots and friendships they had made, and people had fallen in love there and it felt like an important story that needed to be told.
How much time did you spend in Newfoundland doing research?
Hein: In 2011, for the 10th anniversary of 9/11, we spent almost a month there. Since then, we’ve done countless interviews around the world via Skype and phone calls. We then returned with the producers and director in 2014 and recently traveled out there with the entire crew and put on the show as part of two benefit concerts at the Gander Hockey Arena with 100% of the more than $70,000 in proceeds going back to local charities. It was our way of giving back to the people who have already given so much.
Sankoff: We got a grant to travel up there in 2011 from the Canada Council for the Arts… There were almost 7,000 people and each person we talked to gave us many, many stories that we wanted to share.
What is one of the universal truths conveyed in the show?
Hein: The show has many messages in it but what’s wonderful about the story is that it really reminds people that people have this innate kindness within them. There is goodness out there even in the darkest of times.
What is surprising about the show?
Sankoff: It’s funnier than people expect it to be. Newfoundlanders are wonderful at taking care of people. They will listen and help you through a tough time but they will also quickly help you out with a joke.
How does it feel to be telling this story?
Sankoff: It is wonderful to share this story of people coming together back in New York where David and I were on 9/11. It feels like coming home. This is where David and I started our professional careers. We met back in Toronto on our first day at York University.
On 9/11 we were living in a residence for international graduate students. There were people from 110 countries from around the world. So in many ways what happened with us there was very similar with what happened with Newfoundland with many people worried, waiting for news and comforting each other.
We were in our apartment, engaged… A month afterwards, we went down to city hall a year before we were supposed to, to get married. There was a feeling in New York City of living life for the moment against that backdrop. And we were part of that.
Is there an element of protest to the show, like “Hamilton?”
Hein: No. If anything — we performed it in Washington, DC, at Ford’s Theater — what was wonderful about that on opening night was watching members of Congress and the Senate on both sides of the aisles coming together to celebrate a story about generosity.
We’ve seen time and again that this is a universal story for something very specific. This story about what happened in this very small community of Newfoundland and the way that this town responded to the world landing on its doorstep… we’ve always found there is something about this story that resonates with people regardless of race, religion or region.
Speaking of religion, how do you both identify?
Hein: We’re more agnostic. We each have parts of our family that are Jewish but we are not observant.
Which one of your parents is Jewish?
Sankoff: My dad.
Hein: My mom.
How did the musical’s interfaith moment come about?
Hein: When we went out to Newfoundland, we went to the library and the librarian told us how the library became a quiet place for prayer and reflection of many faiths. And we turned that into a musical piece where we combine many prayers woven together and layering harmonies on top of each other to create a musical and religious metaphor that says we are stronger together than apart.
How did the Jewish moments in the show evolve?
Hein: There is a character in the show based on several stories about a rabbi who was diverted to town. There are several stories we tell about him. It was pointed out to some of the locals he wasn’t eating. He was kosher and there wasn’t any food available to him. And when they realized that, they discovered many people needed that.
So the Newfoundlanders asked him to set up a kosher kitchen in one of the staff lounges in the school and he fed many of the Jewish passengers, the Muslims and the vegetarians.
Sankoff: The idea of a kosher kitchen came from the flight crew who helped the Newfoundlanders understand what it means to keep kosher.
Who is the rabbi that serves as the basis for this character?
Hein: A Rabbi Sudak, but each of the characters that we speak of in the show are composites.
Sankoff: In reality, there was more than one [rabbi] stranded in Newfoundland on 9/11. In the show, the character is simply referred to as rabbi.
Why is that?
Sankoff: There are many different characters and you never learned their names. They come by in passing: 12 actors each portray three or four characters. Part of the show is a slight of hand. You are watching 12 actors portray an entire town and passengers from 38 planes. Even if they only show up for one or two lines, some characters you mostly just know through their behavior.
Where did the passengers come from that are portrayed in the show?
Hein: Canada, the US, all over the place. The actors are amazing in that they jump from accent to accent and play people from around the world.
What is another Jewish moment in the show?
Sankoff: After the rabbi is praying with a man in town, a Jewish man living in Gander his entire life — sent there before WWII as a young boy, and was told to never tell anyone he was Jewish — he kept that story secret his entire life. There was something about 9/11 that compelled him to tell his story to someone. And he chose the rabbi…
What do you consider the significance of sharing this story at this particular time of tension regarding refugees and immigrants?
Hein: We’ve always said there is never a bad time to tell a story about people being good to one another. But particularly now, it feels more important to tell a story about coming together and community and overcoming the things that divide us.