Married writing team David Hein and Irene Sankoff reflect on creating Come From Away in a conversation with Kathrine Nero
Kathrine Nero: Let’s start from the beginning. How did you find this story?
David Hein: A friend turned us on to this story about all of these thousands of people who had been diverted to a small town in Canada on 9/11 when the U.S. airspace was closed. And we heard that all these people who had been on those on planes were returning this town of Gander, Newfoundland on the 10th anniversary. We went out there and we interviewed as many people as we possibly could. What we found was this incredible true story about this tiny little town welcoming the world, welcoming thousands of people. Their population doubled that day. And they gave them everything they possibly could. It’s this amazing story about people giving kindness in response to tragedy.
KN: This story is not about 9/11. It’s about the kindness that happened afterwards, isn’t it?
Irene Sankoff: Yes, we talk about it more like a 9/12 story. It’s people’s response to a tragedy. It’s a wonderful example of how in our darkest moments, we can pull together.
KN: This story about Gander was one that took a long time to come out. This story is still new to thousands of people.
IS: I think a lot of it is because the Newfoundlanders who showed such kindness, they don’t think of it as anything extraordinary. They won’t brag about it. So it really took somebody else to come in and say “Hello, this was extraordinary.”
DH: We did this amazing tour of the airport, we were walking along the tarmac. At the end of it, the president of the airport said, “Now what are you doing? You’re doing a musical about people making sandwiches?” We said, “Yeah.” And he said, “Yeah, good luck with that!” The entire town thought we were crazy. We knew the story was amazing, this universal story that resonates with so many people because on that day, we were all in the same boat. We all wanted to help.
KN: Have the folks from Gander seen the show?
KN: What’s their reaction?
DH: They come all the time.
IS: They are shocked. The night that Prime Minister Trudeau came, again, they didn’t think anything they did was extraordinary. So they didn’t understand why this New York audience was giving them a standing ovation or why the Prime Minister wanted to meet each and every one of them.
KN: What about this story stood out to you and you thought, “Yes this is a musical.”
DH: I grew up on Newfoundland music. It is this authentic, original music. They’ve played it for hundreds of years. It incorporates fiddles, accordions and something called an ugly stick. It’s amazing. You take this 100-year-old traditional music and you put it on a Broadway stage and it’s incredible. It’s something you’ve never heard before. It’s life-affirming. Music is in the DNA of Newfoundland, so you can’t really tell a story about this place without talking about the music. They play songs and tell stories and they come together as a community to survive. That’s what they did on 9/11. They entertained these people, they celebrated friendship and love. They emerged after five days of having these people there with 7,000 family members.
KN: What do you want people to come away with after they see the show?
IS: I’d like people to realize how brave an act it was, this act of kindness. Yes, it’s nice, it’s generous. But, really think about the bravery on that day. They had all those planes down there. They did not know who was on them. They didn’t even have to land the planes. They didn’t have to take the people off the planes. They didn’t have to take them into their houses. That’s what is astonishing to me. The risk and the bravery. It’s not the kind of bravery we celebrate very often.
DH: We wanted to say to audiences, “Come with us to Newfoundland, let us tell you about this amazing thing that happened here.” I think because of that, even though it’s grounded in what happened on those days, it becomes this response we can give to any tragedy. Every time something bad happens, it reminds you can respond with kindness.
About the Show
Broadway’s COME FROM AWAY is a Best Musical winner all across North America. This New York Times Critics’ Pick takes you into the heart of the remarkable true story of 7,000 stranded passengers and the small town in Newfoundland that welcomed them. Cultures clashed and nerves ran high, but uneasiness turned into trust, music soared into the night, and gratitude grew into enduring friendships. Don’t miss this breathtaking new musical written by Tony® nominees Irene Sankoff and David Hein, and helmed by Tony-winning director Christopher Ashley. On 9/11, the world stopped. On 9/12, their stories moved us all.