On September 11, 2001, when the FAA closed its airspace and more than 250 planes were forced to land in Canada, 38 commercial planes carrying 6579 passengers and crew were diverted to Gander International Airport in Newfoundland. (Along with 11 dogs, nine cats, and two endangered bonobo apes.)
Suddenly Central Newfoundland, with a population that hovered around 11,880, had surged with strangers who were stranded on this majestic and rugged island off the eastern coast of North America.
The communities of Gander and Central Newfoundland were called on to help any way they could. Armies of Newfoundlanders from teenagers to senior citizens sprung into action and gave of themselves in a big, big way. Schools and nonessential businesses closed. The bus strike was put on hold so the “plane people” could be transported to temporary shelters in schools and churches.
People opened their homes, they cooked endless meals. Pharmacies filled prescriptions for free, telephone banks were installed, restaurants donated food, clothing and toiletries were distributed. Local concerts and bowling matches were organized.
The musical Come From Away tells the story of what happened over the course of five days when the “plane people” landed in Newfoundland and lives were forever transformed. Conceived by Michael Rubinoff and written by Irene Sankoff and David Hein the show was a massive hit on Broadway and played on the West End, in Toronto, Australia and all around the world.
With the message of hope and humanity and a toe tapping, heart thumping original Celtic-folk-rock score, Come From Away earned 7 Tony Award nominations including Best Musical. Director Christopher Ashley won a Tony for Best Direction of a Musical. The show won Olivier Awards including Best New Musical, Outer Critics Circle Awards, Drama Desk Awards and many other accolades.
Just last month Come From Away opened in Gander at the at the Joseph R Smallwood Arts & Culture Centre, just minutes from the airport where those 38 planes had landed. For the cast and creatives, bringing Come From Away home where the show actually takes place is profoundly significant.
“There is a resonance here that can’t be matched by doing the show in any other city,” says Astrid Van Wieren who originated the role of Beulah Davis on Broadway and in pre-broadway productions in La Jolla and Seattle. “It felt like a circle closing. It’s my understanding that David, Irene and Michael’s fervent dream would be that the show would travel back and play in the town where it all began.”
This production is directed by Newfoundlander and Labradorian director Jillian Keiley. And the cast features several Newfoundlanders including Ryan Alexander, Clint Butler, Jacquelyn French, Peter Halley, Timothy Matson, Shelley Neville, Alison Woolridge and Petrina Bromley, who originated the role of Bonnie, head of the Gander SPCA, on Broadway and played her since 2015 at La Jolla. The cast also includes Kate Etienne, Kwaku Okyere, Tyler Belo, Maiesha McQueen, Stuart Hickey, Michael Torontow and Bridget Bezanson.
Keiley first discovered Come From Away in its early stages. “I was another one of those who had heard about the project early on and couldn’t contemplate how such a topic could make any kind of musical. But that’s Michael Rubinoff for you,” she says. “Magic.” The first version she experienced was at Sheridan College, directed by David Ferry. “He had done pretty wonderfully with students and a kind of set of rolling office chairs,” she remembers.
It was 2012 and Keiley had just began working at the National Arts Centre heading English theatre there and her goal was to showcase Canadian works that had already premiered. “I thought, this is fantastic I can’t wait for the first full production so I can buy it for the National Arts Centre (NAC) main stage,” she says.
“Well, I don’t have a lot of regrets in my time at the NAC but here’s one of them.” She saw a full-length production of the musical in La Jolla, but by that point the show was bound for Broadway. “But you know, good on them. It should have gone straight to the stars,” she says. “And Chris Ashley’s production truly is fantastic.”
For Keiley getting the chance to direct Come From Away in Gander is meaningful. “It’s so important to have a version that tells the story from a very specific point of view of Newfoundlanders,” she says. “There are jokes in this production that we can tell pretty effectively.”
For example there’s a very deliberate mispronunciation of toutons, a traditional Newfoundland delicacy consisting of fried pieces of white dough. “It would make no sense if your audience doesn’t know the word in the first place,” she says. “Also, it’s pretty great to have those lines spoken by Newfoundlanders and our particular curl of the tongue. It’s a legendarily difficult accent to master and the rules are very bendy. It’s nice to hear it all in the music in which it was originally told.”
Come From Away is playing until September and the run is already mostly sold out. Legions of people have been flocking to see this uplifting show about the beauty of the human sprit and how transforming kindness can be.
In fact, that culture of kindness from the people of Newfoundland during 9/11 continues. Newfoundlander Duane Collins believes that the striking thing about the Come From Away story is how it highlights what is important to its residents.
“I believe our relationship with the North Atlantic has shaped many other parts of our characters,” says Collins who co-owns Hare Bay Adventures, a guiding and touring company that offers visitors a plethora of experiences ranging in cultural and wildlife adventures from whale and bird watching to glamping to fishing and more.
“Courage, patience, kindness, humor and grit are all needed in equal measure to survive here. Kindness to a stranger is not a sacrifice when there is a very real chance that one day you too will need that kindness in return,” says Collins. “I believe most Newfoundlanders believe in the basic goodness of people. That helping someone is not a burden and needing help is not a shame.”
That sense of generosity is embedded within Karen Saunders of Hansford Hiking who, after she was widowed, created her own business taking people on walks and all kinds of excursions on the Damnable Trail in Salvage and other exquisite locales.
“Our kindness continues because it’s our tradition and the only life we know,” says Saunders, a seasoned hiker with years of experience building trails whose bliss is sharing her passion and hidden gems in Eastport Peninsula. “Our forefathers never worried about the hardships only ways to overcome them. If we can show people how kindness and a smile can make their day better it makes us keep smiling.”
That sense of generosity is embedded in Scarlett Matchim and her parents Chuck and Brenda Matchim who own Happy Adventure Inn and Happy Adventure Tours on the majestic Eastport Peninsula. Their restaurant Chucky’s with a panoramic harbor view offers some of the region’s best local dishes like fish and chips. That passion for people lives in Nancy and Shane Murphy, owners of the White Sails Inn and their attention to detail creating an accommodation from a historic floated saltbox.
It’s with love and care that Sylvia Kean, owner of the Hub of The North Restaurant in breathtaking Greenspond serves traditional dishes like fish and brewis. It’s with the guides at Iceberg Quest Ocean Tours and Rock Adventures in Twilingate. It’s the talented musician Mike Sixonate, who serenades the crowd at Captain’s Pub with stories and songs of Newfoundland and then christens visitors by getting them screeched. It’s all the love that Heather Gordon puts into her decadent cinnamon buns at her fetching seaside tea room Ida’s place.
That authentic caring for others is in Steve Perry who delights in sharing his passion for the historic and picturesque town Newtown and Barbour Living Heritage Village where his family has lived for decades. It’s with Curtis Roebotham who loves imparting his joy for the locale, especially via kayak with his company The Homestead Adventures.
That generosity is within Deborah Bourden, co-owner of the Anchor Inn Hotel, Captain’s Pub and Blue Barrel Cafe in Twilingate, who is devoted to making sure that her guests have an experience of a lifetime. It’s with Crystal Anstey who creates a culinary adventure with locally grown and foraged ingredients and wild seafood with her cookouts on the beach.
Last month before the show officially opened when Come From Away was in previews an illness debilitated the production and they had to cancel performances. “It was terrible, we lost a lot of previews and rehearsals and was not what we wanted,” says Jillian Keiley. “But more importantly it wasn’t what people who had travelled in from all over the world to see this production wanted. We felt awful turning people away but there was truly no way around the situation.”
Michael Rubinoff sprung into action to see what he could do for people, especially for those who had come from away themselves. Rubinoff helped arrange for a young super fan and her family from Ontario to meet the real-life Bonnie, whose life is depicted in the show. (She still manages the Gander and Area SPCA.)
The family also got an exclusive behind the scenes tour of town hall from Gander’s Mayor Percy Farwell and his wife Andrea Farwell. “For me, that’s more important than a show. It’s people showing they care,” says Keiley.
When asked what she adores about Newfoundland Van Wieren doesn’t hesitate. “Newfoundland is a stunning province full of lakes and vistas and trees and sky and icebergs and whales,” she says. She adds, however, that the province’s greatest resource is its people. “They are ready to help and always up for a good time,” she adds. “There are so many brilliant musicians, playwrights, singers, artists and story tellers here.”