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Award-winning musical Come From Away is a joyous tale about people who are brought together in the most traumatic of circumstances. The real-life story of 7,000 air passengers grounded in Canada after 9/11, the smash-hit show is stopping off in the Midlands as part of its first-ever UK tour.

What’s On recently caught up with two of the show’s creatives to find out more...

The musical Come From Away is an international blockbuster seen by audiences in the Americas, Europe, Australia and Asia. And yet when music & writing team Irene Sankoff and David Hein were asked if they were interested in the project, they discovered a number of people had already turned it down.

Perhaps the others felt it would be too difficult to re-tell the true story of how the people of one small town in Newfoundland came together to help 7,000 airline passengers stranded in the wake of the September the 11th terror attacks in 2001.

But Irene and David took on the challenge, and Come From Away premiered in the United States in 2015 to huge acclaim. It transferred to Broadway two years later and then opened in the London West End in 2019.

Now, the musical - which won four Olivier Awards - is on tour, coming to Birmingham Hippodrome this month and the Wolverhampton Grand Theatre in November.

Of course, in other hands the musical may not have been as beautifully told or as wonderfully successful, but Irene says the story had a special resonance for her and husband David, which is why they said yes.

“We were living in Manhattan on September the 11th, uptown in a student residence with people from different countries around the world,” she recalls. “A lot of them were working downtown. Mercifully everyone came back, and our community really came together. There were people at that residence from all over, refugees and Americans, and we helped each other get through that time.”

And so when Irene and David learned about how the Canadian community of Gander had pulled together, they were determined to pay tribute to the townspeople’s generosity in the musical. The couple received a grant from the Canadian government to visit Gander on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, when the town was welcoming back friends they had made a decade before.

“It was amazing,” recalls David. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to interview the Newfoundlanders and the ‘Come From Aways’, which is what the Newfoundlanders call anyone who’s not from there. They were all returning to commemorate the incredible friendships they had made, practically becoming family members; they got adopted out there - and we got similarly adopted!

“We talked to everyone we possibly could, and everyone had hundreds of stories from that time. So we returned with thousands of stories that we wanted to fit into a 100-minute musical.”

The couple were keen to ensure the musical was a true reflection of the experiences they had heard - but condensing all the tales into one show was no easy task.

“The very first draft, we were working with students, and we had about four hours and were about 100 pages in and the people still weren’t off the planes!” recalls Irene. “So it was just a constant peeling away to get to the spine of the story, the truth of the story. There are some amalgamated characters, and some things happened to different people than we portrayed in the musical, but that was in an effort to get it into a succinct story.”

And it was essential that the show reflected the experiences of both the townspeople of Gander and those passengers who had been helped.

“We tried to keep everything possible in there,” David explains. “There was one story we were told about the local drugstore supplying medication to everyone around there, calling round the world trying to fill people’s prescriptions and trying to speak whatever language was needed. Originally that was three scenes, and now it’s one line in the show, but it’s important to us because when that pharmacist came to see the show, they were like ‘You got it right - that was the experience.’”

Irene and David wanted Come From Away to be a positive story about how people can come together to support each other, rather than a show about the horror of the attacks.

“In some ways we wrote the show because we were here over 9/11, but we didn’t want anyone to be traumatised by it,” David explains. “We say the word ‘terrorist’ in it once, and the World Trade Center once, because this is really a 9/12 story. It’s a story about how a small town responded to strangers coming to their town, and how they opened their hearts and their homes and gave everything. It’s about the potential that we all have to do good and to help in response to darkness. And after the pandemic it’s become a show about how do you help, how do you open yourself to people you don’t know but who might, after spending five days together, become lifelong friends?”

Come From Away has been popular in diverse cultures, and Irene and David believe its success is because its message is ultimately universal.

“I think it’s a little bit of every person’s story; you’ve all been in a position when you’ve needed help or you’ve been able to help,” says Irene. “When we were in Japan for the show, I remember saying to the company manager ‘I don’t understand why you like this show’ because 9/11 isn’t really in their psyche the same as it is in America. And she said ‘We’ve had our earthquakes, our tsunamis, our disasters, and it’s just seeing people come together in a tragedy and help each other. That’s really what speaks to us.’”

The show’s international success has made the town of Gander famous worldwide - and yet many of the townspeople can’t fathom what all the fuss is about; they simply did what they believe anyone would do.
“There is something about Newfoundlanders,” says Irene. “I forget until I go back just how welcoming and helpful they are. It’s just unbelievable. Maybe it’s the cold winters, it’s the being there for your neighbours, and you never know if you’re going to be the next one who needs help.

“I think it took them a while to be proud of what they did. They don’t understand why this is such a big deal. I think some people like the attention and some people are like ‘We did what we did and we would do it again, but we’re not looking for any attention for it.’”

Come From Away has also made Gander a surprising tourist destination.

“The show is playing out there each summer now,” David says. “And the joy of that is that when we’ve been out to celebrate that, every hotel is booked, every cab company is booked, the restaurants are all full. So it’s been wonderful for us to give back to the people who shared their stories with us and trusted us.” 

Come From Away shows at Birmingham Hippodrome from Tuesday 21 May to Saturday 1 June, and then at the Wolverhampton Grand Theatre from Tuesday 5 to Saturday 9 November

By Diane Parkes