Stage

The true stories behind hit musical Come From Away

By Krisinda Merhi December 6, 2018

Writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein discuss the people who inspired the show

Come From Away is a musical about a remarkable true story which took place in the wake of 9/11. 

Following the attack, 38 planes and their 7,000 passengers were re-routed to Gander, a tiny town on the edge of the world.

But the musical isn’t just about the 38 planes which were diverted– it’s about the people who were impacted. 

It is only when writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein travelled all the way to Gander to meet those people, that Come From Away was born. 

“We had done so much pre-research beforehand,” Irene told The Daily Beast.

“They felt like rock stars to us. But you know how rock stars can sometimes be disappointing in person? These guys were so much more vibrant.”

The people of Gander, according to the couple, were both humble and kind. 

When they first arrived on the island the couple were told to lock their doors. 

“Not because anything bad would happen,” Sankoff told The Daily Beast, “but because someone might drop in for tea.” 

That very warning perfectly encapsulates the spirit of Gander and the events surrounding that fateful day in 2001. 

A community of people for people, everyone was ready and willing to help, right down to the men of the town who made sure female travellers had enough sanitary pads (a detail included in the musical thanks to hours of Irene and David talking to locals) .

“Every character that you see is inspired by a real interview or several interviews– many of them have come together,” says David. 

Take Beverley Bass, the first female American Airlines pilot—played by Aussie Zoe Gertz. 

When talking to Irene and David, Beverly said she knew she was in a safe place when she disembarked from the plane and was greeted not only by crowds of people but with platters of sandwiches, juice boxes, and packed lunches. 

The couple also heard from a young local who quipped, “I never want to look at another sandwich ever again.”

These little details and character quirks are all included in Come From Away and are part of what makes the show so unique. 

They’re also what make the show so powerful. 

The musical has had a profound impact on the lives of locals and those who continue to struggle post-9/11.

Hannah O’Rourke, was forced to wait in Gander for news of her deceased son following the 9/11 attacks.  

Irene remembers when Hannah watched the show for the first time, “She held both our hands and leaned on us and cried, then she laughed as it went on.” 

The couple acknowledge that some people are still uneasy about 9/11 and that watching such an upbeat about a global tragedy can feel unnatural. 

But Come From Away is as sensitively constructed as it can be, they say.

“Many people who were directly affected that day have been to see the show,” Irene told The Daily Beast.

“They told us how glad they are to see something that gives hope. We never want to take away or detract from what happened on 9/11, but what was common was that there were helpers, here and in Newfoundland. There were far more many people trying to do good in response to this than there were bad perpetrating it.”

Ultimately the show’s message is positive and uplifting. 

Come From Away is about how people from all walks of life can come together in a time where hope seems lost. 

“That’s what makes us whole,” said David. “Realising that it’s not us and them, it’s all of us.” 

Premiering exclusively in Melbourne at the newly renovated Comedy Theatre from July 2019. Book now at comefromaway.com.au.

Images: Instagram / We Come From Away