There’s no denying that the hit Broadway show Come From Away is taking the world by storm. The smash hit musical is based on the true story of a community in Gander, Newfoundland, that took in thousands of stranded strangers when U.S. airspace was unexpectedly shut down following the events of 9/11 and flights already in the air needed a safe place to land. Entertainment journalist Frank DiLella recently caught up with the celebrated creative team — including the Tony-nominated and Olivier-winning music-, lyrics-, and book-writing married duo Irene Sankoff and David Hein; Tony-winning director Christopher Ashley; and Olivier-winning and Tony-nominated choreographer Kelly Devine — to discuss their global phenomenon.
Let’s talk about the genesis of this musical. Where did this idea come from?
David Hein: We were living in New York during 9/11 on the Upper West Side, in a residence for international graduate students. We had people from 110 different countries knocking on our door and making sure we were OK, taking care of us, playing music — all things to bring us together. Years later, when we heard the story of what happened in Gander, it resonated with us. It was this international community that took care of one another. We got a grant from the Canadian government to go up to Gander on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and we interviewed everyone we possibly could. We came back with what felt like 16,000 different stories that we wanted to tell in a 100-minute musical.
I remember seeing your show for the first time in one of its pre-Broadway tryout cities, in Washington, D.C., at Ford’s Theatre. I walked in skeptical, thinking, “How are they going to tackle a musical that deals with 9/11?” But I walked out a huge fan of Come From Away. All these years later, are you surprised at how people are still receiving the show?
Irene Sankoff: Absolutely. We wrote this thinking Canadian high school students and college students would be forced to do it because they’re Canadian and there are lots of characters. It doesn’t surprise me that the story is so resonant. It’s a wonderful story, especially to hear the story the way we heard it, firsthand from Newfoundlanders. And I guess the next best thing is to see this story on stage.
Christopher, your show opened on Broadway in 2017. You now have companies all over the world, and you recently directed a film version for Apple TV+ that is currently streaming. Why do you think this show works on a worldwide level?
Christopher Ashley: I think that everyone has experienced division, upset, and that profound sense of, What is going to happen next? The same thing that all of these characters in the show felt on that day. And here we are, 20 years later after 9/11, and everyone is feeling that again, this sense of, How does the world come back, and will it ever?
Broadway is slowly coming back, with shows reopening weekly. But Christopher, I have to point out that, technically, your show was the first musical back with a live audience. The Apple TV+ presentation of Come From Away was recorded with a live audience in the spring of 2021.
CA: It was so meaningful for everybody to come back together after months and months of being alone at home. There were a lot of tears during that first rehearsal, and everybody was really anxious. The most amazing thing was having that first audience back. The emotion in the room was extraordinary when the actors walked into the space for the first time. And there was this wall of sound from the audience — just screaming and whistling, laughing and crying.
Kelly, you recently helped put together a concert presentation of the musical that was done on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial around the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
Kelly Devine: The company that did the concert was a mix of the tour and the Broadway company. It’s the same concert we did in Gander right before we went to Broadway. It’s the entire show.
How about having the show play such an iconic and historic space?
KD: I feel so honored. The Lincoln Memorial — I’m just in awe as a spectator! I feel so proud of the work that we’ve done and I’m so changed forever by the people of Gander. For something like this to happen in your life, I just feel very lucky.
With the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and everything we’ve gone through with the pandemic, it seems that we need the story of Come From Away now more than ever.
CA: Walking to set to film the Apple TV+ version, I walked through an empty Times Square and was thinking, “When was the last time that I can remember a time Times Square was this empty?” And it was 9/11. There really are ways that the current world rhymes with what we went through. They’re not the same moment, but they share a profound sense of dislocation. So I think this is an important story to tell as it was 20 years ago.
Irene and David, you began your work on Come From Away more than a decade ago. Has this show changed you?
DH: [Laughs.] In every single way.
IS: Yes, in every single way.
DH: Our daughter has grown up with the show as her sibling. We feel like we’re parents to the show and we’ve traveled around the world. But, personally, when we started doing the show and started to travel, we realized our house was going to be empty as we were traveling. We specifically took the messages of the Newfoundlanders and said if people needed a place to stay, or if people needed help, that we would offer our home to them while we weren’t using it. We want to have that practice of being aware of the ways that we can be kind to the people around us and try to spread that message as much as we can.
The remarkable true story of community, compassion, and commemoration is now available on Apple TV+. Click here to watch or to sign up for your free trial.* New subscribers only. $4.99 month after free trial. No commitment. Plan automatically renews after trial until canceled.
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