NEW YORK (AP) — This Monday, the cast and crew of the Broadway musical “Come From Away” have a rendezvous, as usual, with an aircraft carrier.
Each year to commemorate 9/11, they help pack thousands of meals for food banks across the city and present for the volunteers on the USS Intrepid.
“9/11 was a global event. It was a time when we all felt helpless, and it was a time when we all wanted to help. And I think those feelings continue right now,” said David Hein, who with his wife, Irene Sankoff, wrote the book, music and lyrics to “Come From Away.”
The musical is set in the small town of Gander, Newfoundland, which opened its arms to about 7,000 airline passengers who were diverted there when the US government closed its airspace during 9/11.
Within hours, the city was flooded with 38 planes of travelers from dozens of countries and religions, yet locals went to work in their kitchens and cleared out extra rooms to provide space and food for the new arrivals.
This year’s visit to Fearless by the New York cast will be bittersweet. it is the last time the show will send representatives from Broadway. The show closes on October 2 after a five-year run.
But it is fitting that one of his last acts will be to give. Few shows have left such a legacy of community connection — concerts for cancer victims, fundraisers for farmers dealing with drought and even cast members handing out dollar bills to the needy on the New York City subway.
“It was incredible to see us being inspired by Newfoundlanders and then having that story inspire other people to do even more good,” says Hein. “It is humbling to see this Shakespeare quote in action: “How far this little candle throws its beams! This is how a good deed shines in a wicked world.”
Giving back started at the show from the first workshop at Sheridan College in Ontario, where a hat was given to raise money for animal shelters that were overwhelmed with new kittens. A benefit concert planned for later this month at Gander Airport will do the same “because kittens never stop,” Hein says with a laugh.
Since its debut, the musical – directed by Christopher Ashley, who won a Tony Award for his work – has not changed, but seems to have different themes, depending on the real events swirling at the time.
The show’s first preview at Seattle Rep’s pre-Broadway preview — Nov. 13, 2015 — came hours after 130 people were killed in a coordinated terrorist attack in Paris. Offstage, the creators wondered what to do. Should they say something? Change the show?
“I think it was Chris Ashley who said, ‘I think we just did the show. I think this show says look for the sidekicks. He says, remember there are more of us trying to do good than there are people trying to do bad. It says so much just by telling the story.”
When Ivanka Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau saw it on Broadway in 2017, the topic was immigration and walls. Trudeau took the stage and said he was pleased, “people can see what it’s like to lean on each other and be there for each other in the darkest of times.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has given the musical a different color, a sense of entering a time of uncertainty and reinforcing the idea of a community coming together. It was no surprise to Sankoff and Hein that the show’s costume department immediately began sewing masks for front-line workers.
“At a time when people were actually out of work and terrified that their industry wasn’t going to come back, so many in our company were saying, ‘How can I also help?'” Sankoff recalled.
While terrorist attacks are ever-present in the musical, the focus is on the Canadian response. The words “World Trade Center” and “Terrorist” are only uttered once. The creators like to call it a “9/12 story”.
“We really didn’t want to do a show that was about 9/11,” says Hein, who was with his wife in New York that fateful day. “We wanted to do a show about Newfoundland and how they had responded, because that gave us hope, contrasting what we felt that day.”
The Broadway version may soon be gone, but the future is still bright for “Come From Away.” There is a North American tour, a London production and an Australian tour. A Finnish version opens this month, one recently opened in the Netherlands, another in Argentina and one in Sweden.
“What’s amazing is how global this story is. You have to change elements of it within a language and within a culture. But the idea of welcoming strangers and a world coming together is something that people, I think, are really hungry for,” says Hein.
He and his wife and 9-year-old daughter will spend the 9/11 anniversary in Gander, one of several concerts and benefits planned to mark the 21st year since the attacks.
“9/11 is National Service Day. But I think what we also learned is that every day can be a day of service — at any time,” says Hein. “Kindness is a daily practice and we can all use a reminder for each day.”
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