Canadian Kindness Steals the Show


Grace Daniel

Come From Away, the winner of the Best Musical All Across North America, visited the Peace Center in downtown Greenville in April of 2019 (Photo courtesy of Grace Daniel).

Imagine you are flying internationally back to the U.S. after a long business trip away from home. You are ready to get back to your family. Two hours later than your expected landing time, you are still in the air with no sign of land. All of the people on the plane are beginning to get really nervous, but the flight crew gives no information. After hours and hours in the air, your plane finally lands. You look out the window and see a sign that says: Welcome to Gander.

Imagine the confusion, worry, and uncertainty that the people who experienced this were feeling. Come From Away is an extraordinary new musical based on the true story of terror on September 11, 2001. As we all know, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked on 9/11, and the chaos spread around the world in a matter of minutes. The untold story about 38 planes that were dramatically affected by the attack unfolds live in front of the audience during the performance of Come From Away.

The play begins with the chairs placed all around the stage to resemble a bar. The characters then begin with a fun song describing the small town of Gander, Newfoundland and its people. A few minutes in, a few of the characters find out about the terrorist attack. They receive a call that there will be hundreds of people showing up at the small town in a few short hours, as the planes are instructed to land immediately because they are all considered a threat. Instead of panicking, the Newfoundlanders band together and begin collecting donations to take care of the come-from-aways, who were the people on the flights. They collect clothes, toiletries, and food for almost 7,000 strangers before they have even arrived.

The stage then transforms into a plane as the cast members form multiple rows with the chairs and the stage begins to resemble the rows of seats in an airplane. The mood quickly shifts from the rushing Newfoundlanders to confused and panicked passengers from all around the world. None of them know where they are headed, and none of them know about the terrorist attack that has just occurred; some of them have been on the plane for 28 hours.

“Every bit of [the story] is true. That’s one of the most exciting parts to me. The people actually said most of those things, and every scene that plays out actually happened very close to what you witness on stage. There are real people who lived it,” said cast member Julie Johnson, who plays Beulah and others.

Eventually, they are let off the plane and each given food, a place to sleep, and access to phones and television so they can hear about the terrorist attack for themselves. The Newfoundlanders cooked thousands of meals and gave up their own houses for complete strangers. As referred to in the musical, the “plane people” had never felt such hospitality, and each of their lives were changed because of the town’s kindness. Come From Away is a perfectly crafted recreation of the story, as the audience can feel the intense emotion radiating from the stage.

“I fell in love with the story of humanity and kindness and how amazing the people of Gander were. When I had the opportunity to audition, it was a no-brainer because the prospect of telling this incredible story across North America was just such a thrill,” said cast member Nick Duckart, who plays Kevin J., Ali, and others.

As a musical, it is important that the music does not distract the audience from the message and story, but instead adds to it. In Come From Away the music emphasizes the emotions that the Newfoundlanders and the plane people are experiencing. For instance, the music speeds up during anxious or exciting moments, but slows and softens during more solemn times. The lyrics also allow the characters to interact and convey their thoughts and feelings in a way that is only possible when set to music.

“I saw this show on Broadway about a year and a half ago, and I just fell in love with it. It’s such a collaborative effort on stage. We’re all working together, the band and the actors. It’s in the spirit of the show, how the whole town came together. I think it’s a really cool experience,” said cast member Andrew Samonsky, who plays Kevin T., Garth, and others.

The characters, however, truly allow the show to be as magical as it is. Considering that when the events actually occurred, there were thousands of Newfoundlanders and thousands of come-from-aways, the cast is extremely small, made of only twelve members. Each cast member plays a Newfoundlander, a come-from-away, and sometimes others. The show, running only about an hour and 40 minutes, moves extremely quickly, requiring extremely quick costume changes. The majority of the costume changes occur on stage because the show often calls for the same cast member to become a Newfoundlander and a plane person within the same scene. Each costume change is a simple article of clothing, like a jacket or a hat. Although their characters may look very similar, the cast members seamlessly changed their entire persona to fully sell each character as a different person.

“In the beginning, playing so many characters seemed impossible. I made so many mistakes! We all had moments where we would break down and cry because it’s one of the easiest yet the hardest things we have ever done. Everyday during that first change we’re always like ‘Are we going to be ready?’ but we have to be, don’t we! Everyone is running everyday because it moves so quickly, but it makes it exciting,” said cast member Danielle K. Thomas, who plays Hannah and others.

Come From Away is home to an incredible cast who put on such an amazing story. Creators Irene Sankoff and David Hein created a masterpiece with qualities that sets it apart from all the other infamous Broadway hits. For instance, instead of having a live orchestra or a recording, Come From Away has a small band with just a few instruments that are visible onstage on the left and right back corners of the stage. And, most importantly, the story is all true. The storyline and the characters, even down to their names and many of their lines, all come from real people. Sankoff and Hein, now a married couple, traveled to Gander, Newfoundland for the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks to conduct extensive interviews and other research to create the most accurate story possible.

Nick Duckart
The award-winning Broadway performance attracted theatre fans from all around to witness the beautiful story play out live on stage (Photo courtesy of Nick Duckart).

“It’s a story about real human beings. It’s about our inherent response to tragedy and helping people out, especially in the face of a crisis. The hope of the writers, I think, is that we take that energy and utilize it in our day to day lives,” said cast member Harter Clingman, who plays Oz and others.

In such a discouraging world, stories such as Come From Away are vital because they show the power that simple kindness and hospitality can have. Greenville’s own Peace Center was so fortunate to have hosted one of the greatest musicals of our time. All those who experienced can agree on the effects of witnessing such a powerful and inspiring story. Come From Away truly brings something special to the theatrical world, and its brilliance has spilled over to inspire the rest of the world.