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Come From Away goes home to Gander, Nfld. before heading to Broadway

Cast of the musical Come From Away wave to the matinee audience in Gander, N.L. on Oct. 29.

Cast of the musical Come From Away wave to the matinee audience in Gander, N.L. on Oct. 29.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Newfoundlanders who sheltered 6,600 stranded 9/11 travellers get a preview of Broadway-bound musical based on their kindnesses

Update: Come From Away has been nominated for several Tony Awards. Read the story here.

The man with the binoculars in the lower left-hand corner of the giant, modernist mural in the Gander International Airport departures lounge has seen plenty in the years since he was painted, a perpetual voyeur, in 1959.

Queen Elizabeth II, who was there for the lounge's official opening that year, was just the first of a long line of heads of state that passed by when Gander was the "crossroads of the world" – and most transatlantic flights had to stop to refuel here. Fidel Castro, Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton are others. It was here, too, that the Beatles took their first steps in North America, on their way to play the Ed Sullivan Show – and where many dramatic defections took place during the Cold War.

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In all those decades, however, I can't imagine the bowler-clad binocular man in this Kenneth Lochhead mural ever peering down on a scene quite as surreal as the dinner that took place in this lounge on the last Friday in October.

"Surreal" is the word everyone kept saying to one another as the 12 Broadway-bound actors from Come From Away met for the first time the Newfoundlanders they play in the musical. The occasion was a VIP celebration for David Hein and Irene Sankoff's show, which uses song and dance and a surprising amount of humour to tell the story of how the men and women of Gander and surrounding towns sheltered 38 planeloads of people when American airspace was shut down on Sept. 11, 2001.

Irene Sankoff, left, and David Hein, the husband and wife writing team behind the musical Come From Away take a selfie on the tarmac of the Gander International Airport in Gander, N.L. on Sunday, October 30, 2016.

Irene Sankoff, left, and David Hein, the husband and wife writing team behind the musical Come From Away take a selfie on the tarmac of the Gander International Airport in Gander, N.L. on Sunday, October 30, 2016.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Every actor seemed to instantly connect with his or her real-life counterpart – American Geno Carr trading jokes easily with the unbelievably named Constable Oz Fudge; Joel Hatch, another American, blending in seamlessly with mayors Claude Elliott of Gander and Derm Flynn of nearby Appleton. (He plays both.) But the most uncanny moment came when Gander resident and volunteer Beulah Cooper and Toronto-based actor Astrid Van Wieren first approached each other for a hug and realized they'd dressed in similar outfits in the exact same colours: red, black and white.

"Two Beulahs," said a stunned Van Wieren, who has played a character based in part on Cooper for the past year and a half.

"It was like I've known her my whole life," said Cooper – whose 9/11 story began when she went down to Royal Canadian Legion Branch 8 with egg and ham sandwiches for the "plane people" and then didn't see her bed for the next 28 hours.

"You know, once this is done, there's going to be Beulahs everywhere," Van Wieren said. Indeed, if Come From Away does as well in New York – a commercial run begins in Toronto on November 15, then transfers to the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on Broadway in February – as it has in previous runs in San Diego, Seattle and Washington, then actresses may very well be playing the role of Beulah on stages for years to come.

This is definitely a surreal situation for the real Cooper – who is becoming famous for something she says anyone would do in her place. "I'm so overwhelmed by it all," she said. "When I die, I'm going to tell them to put on my tombstone, 'I brought a tray of sandwiches to the Legion.'"

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Locals and

Locals and “come from aways” gather in the Steele Community Centre Arena for the benefit performance of the musical Come From Away in Gander, N.L. on Saturday, October 29, 2016.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

'Deepens our understanding'

Most Canadians know the basic facts of the real-life drama that Cooper played a supporting role in and that Van Wieren will shortly be headed to Broadway to act out in semi-fictionalized form.

For the week after passenger planes were hijacked by terrorists and flown into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, Gander – which had a population just under 10,000 at the time – nearly doubled in size. About 6,600 stranded passengers from around the world were housed in guest bedrooms, on pull-out couches, and on mats on floors of town halls and schools.

The refugees included the mayor of Frankfurt, a designer for Hugo Boss, 90 Wish Kids on their way to Disneyland – and a pair of bonobo apes en route to an Ohio zoo.

Karl Marx was the one who floated the idea that history repeats itself first as tragedy, then a second time as farce. Well, on the last weekend in October, Gander got see a tragic piece of history repeating itself 15 years later as musical comedy. And not just onstage, but a little bit off – as the town again found itself, for positive reasons this time, overflowing, with fully booked hotels and restaurants impossible to get a reservation at.

About 5,000 spectators – many coming from across Newfoundland and Labrador – purchased $20 tickets for two sold-out, special benefit concert performances of Come From Away at the local hockey rink.

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One hundred and forty actors, crew members, producers and investors also flew in for the shows – and to see firsthand the settings where the show takes place, from the Tim Hortons on Airport Boulevard to Gander Academy to the Trailway Pub in Gambo.

At a Saturday morning breakfast at Gander's North Atlantic Aviation Museum, Sue Frost of Junkyard Dog – the producing company taking Come From Away to Broadway in February – explained the value of the cultural exchange.

"We're bringing the show back to the Newfoundlanders – and we're giving our cast and crew and creative team an opportunity to really experience where the show comes from," explained the Tony-winning producer, standing not far from a display of a steel beam from the World Trade Centre. "I think it just deepens everyone's – all of us who come from away – [it] deepens our understanding of just how authentic the work is."

"Authentic" is funny word to hear used in conjunction with any musical – but especially a Newfoundland-set one written by a pair of Torontonians and produced by Americans. Petrina Bromley, the sole Newfoundlander in the cast that includes nine Americans and two other Canadians who play multiple roles of different nationalities, was among those who initially worried that mainlanders might miss the mark in telling this story.

"We always have a fear as Newfoundlanders when anyone is going to portray us – that the version they paint is a little bit too cartoony," says Bromley, an actor originally from St. John's with extensive credits with companies such as Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland and Rising Tide Theatre in the town of Trinity, a couple hours drive from Gander. "I had that fear when I first got involved."

In order to alleviate such concerns, Hein and Sankoff, the married composer and lyrics who based the show on thousands of hours of interviews, and Christopher Ashley, the director and artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, have done all they can make a show with numbers called Welcome to the Rock and Screech In as close to authentic as possible.

Bob Hallett, of Great Big Sea fame, was hired as a Newfoundland music consultant, while dialect coaches came to work with the actors on the accent – or, rather, an accent.

("There's a million accents in Newfoundland," Hein says. "We had to pick one that the actors could all switch back to.")

Come From Away has been received very well everywhere it has played to date. It won six awards from the San Diego Critics Circle, was the highest-grossing show in Seattle Repertory Theater's history, and extended when it played at Ford's Theater in Washington, earlier this fall.

But the reaction in Gander was the most important on the way to New York for Hein and Sankoff, as well as many members of the producing team and cast. "Every time one of the people who inspired the show – one of the people we interviewed – comes, it's a little nerve-wracking," Hein said in advance of the concerts. "Being here in Gander, there's an entire auditorium of people having that experience." Bromley felt the same way: "We are representing Newfoundland and particularly Gander and surrounding areas to the world on Broadway. So you want to make sure that the people you're portraying approve."

Appleton mayor Derm Flynn, one of the Newfoundlanders portrayed in Come From Away, laughs as he dances with cast member Kendra Kassebaum at an after-show celebration on Oct. 30.

Appleton mayor Derm Flynn, one of the Newfoundlanders portrayed in Come From Away, laughs as he dances with cast member Kendra Kassebaum at an after-show celebration on Oct. 30.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

'It's a tribute'

The original idea for Come From Away came from Michael Rubinoff – an associate dean at Sheridan College who launched the Canadian Music Theatre Project there to develop new musicals in 2011. Rubinoff had floated the concept to a number of composer-lyricist teams, all of which took a pass on what would inevitably be described as a "9/11 musical" – until he tried Hein and Sankoff.

Although not Rubinoff's first choice, the pair were in fact the perfect match for the material.

My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, Hein and Sankoff's first musical, was picked up by Mirvish Productions in 2009 out of the Toronto Fringe Festival. It was a sweet and utterly charming show also based on a true story – about Hein's mother – and featured real people in semi-fictionalized form. (There aren't many musicals in the genre aside from jukebox musicals.)

Writing a similar kind of show about people they weren't related to, however, has been a steep learning curve for Hein and Sankoff. With funding from the Canada Council, the two travelled to Gander on the 10th anniversary of September 11 – and spoke with Newfoundlanders who were involved in the efforts to help the "Plane People," as well as many come-from-aways who had returned for a commemoration.

By the pair's own admission, they were new at interviewing – and, at first, they tried to take notes entirely by hand. Only later did they start to record interviews.

It was when an early version of Come From Away was presented at a National Alliance for Musical Theatre showcase in New York in 2013 – and became the subject of a bidding war between potential American commercial producers – that they thought to get explicit, written permission from the people they had interviewed to use their stories and, in some cases, their names in the show.

"The La Jolla Playhouse said to us, 'You need to go back and get releases signed,'" Sankoff tells me, watching her three-year-old daughter Molly play at the Aviation Museum. "It was at that point that we did that."

Sankoff says the musical is not a documentary – but really "a piece of fiction" at this point, with very little verbatim from the interviews in it. But there's definitely a certain friction between that claim and the producers' desires to tout the authenticity of the show and use of actual Ganderites and Plane People to publicize the show. Come From Away's characters may be composites, but they do have real names such as Constable Oz Fudge. Van Wieren's character, meanwhile, is called Beulah Davis – combining the first name of Beulah Cooper and the last name of Diane Davis, a French immersion teacher at Gander Academy, now retired. "It's not necessarily them," said Sankoff. "It's a tribute."

Kevin Tuerff – an eco-entrepreneur who was stranded with his then-boyfriend, also named Kevin, in Gander in 2001 and inspired a similar couple of Kevins in the show – asked for the characters to carry his actual name, considering it an honour.

Like other come-from-aways I spoke with, he says he only cares that the story of the kindness he experienced in Newfoundland that week might reach a wider audience, a story that he felt had particular resonance in the politically divided United States today. "We were refugees – and the view of refugees is very different today in America," Tuerff said, at the Aviation Museum. "We said we would never forget 9/11 – but already we're beginning to forget."

As for the Newfoundlanders represented in part or whole in the show, you get the feeling that they're happy to have Hein and Sankoff – who many of them view as friends at this point – tell their story from a slight distance. While the events of 2001 now form a major part of the identity of Gander, which has grown in population to over 13,000, and surrounding towns, locals are anxious not to be seen to be tooting their own horn about what they did 15 years ago.

"When we did this, we didn't do it for any recognition," says Bonnie Harris, the manager of the Gander SPCA shelter.

In the musical, Bromley plays Bonnie as a real hero – a woman who refuses to accept that there are no animals on the planes and helps track down and take care of cats and dogs in the baggage compartment.

Friends of Harris told her, after seeing the show, that they did see her in the fictionalized version of herself. "The term that was used was 'badass,'" she says. "I didn't think I was that badass … Maybe I was and I just didn't realize it."

Diane Marson, centre, receives a hug from actress Sharon Wheatley, who plays her in the musical Come From Away, as husband Nick looks on.

Diane Marson, centre, receives a hug from actress Sharon Wheatley, who plays her in the musical Come From Away, as husband Nick looks on.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

'I cannot wait to go'

While all the people I spoke to are content to have their names and story in Come From Away, I couldn't help but wonder if that might change if the $12-million (U.S.) production does well – and starts raking in a million dollars a week on Broadway, as a successful musical might in New York's commercial theatre district.

The precedent of A Chorus Line comes to mind: When director and choreographer Michael Bennett interviewed dancers to create that 1975 musical, they famously signed a contract that gave away the rights to their life stories for $1.

Legally, there was no need for Bennett to share in the show's later success. However, when the show became a smash, he arranged for the dancers whose interviews he had based his musical on to get a cut of his royalty.

Come From Away 's creators and producers are eager to give back to the community as a whole.

Indeed, at the first workshop performance at Sheridan College, Hein and Sankoff – animal lovers, both – passed the hat and raised about $5,000 for Harris's SPCA. Again in Gander this October, they set up a photo shot with actors and animals for a calendar that will raise even more money.

And, of course, Come From Away's two concert performances were also about giving back.

Junkyard Dog with the support of Mirvish Productions, the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa and others covered all the costs for concerts – and every cent of the box office went to local charities such as the Salvation Army food bank in Gander; Gambo's Smallwood Academy Breakfast Program/Positive Behaviour Support; the Lewisporte Heritage Society; the Appleton Recreation Commission and the Norris Arm Lions Club.

"Look, God willing, this is a fantastic smash hit and makes lots of money and we can do more wonderful things with it," Frost told me. "But even if not, what we've seen from our journey so far is that people walk out of the theatre going 'I cannot wait to go to Newfoundland.' If, at the very least, we are able to send back visitors and tourists who come back here and spend money and boost the economy, I feel like that's a good thing."

Members of the cast and crew of Come From Away gather with locals at the Legion in Gander, N.L. on Oct. 30.

Members of the cast and crew of Come From Away gather with locals at the Legion in Gander, N.L. on Oct. 30.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

'We're all going with you'

Come From Away's concert premiere in Gander was a huge success – greeted by two sell-out audiences who reacted with extraordinary emotion and enthusiasm. It will be hard to top it in Toronto or New York.

After a final day of touring the sites that feature in the play, the cast, crew and producers still in town headed to the Legion – where Beulah Cooper brought her soon-to-be famous sandwiches – for a Screeching In on Sunday night.

A local air traffic controller named Bert, who is also a member of the amateur theatre group the Avion Players, was in charge of the proceedings.

In an exaggerated Newfoundland accent, he told "Newfie" jokes – his word – and led the Broadway-bound come-from-aways through the mock citizenship ceremony that involves drinking local rum known as Screech, kissing a cod and saying things like, "Long may yer big jib draw!"

Bromley, being a native Newfoundlander, is exempt from screeching in – and watched from across the Legion hall with a mixture of warmth and wariness.

"One of them asked me, 'Is this like a bat mitzvah?'" she told me. I wondered if the whole weekend's work of immersing the cast in the authentic, rather than cartoony, Newfoundland is all coming undone in this moment.

With Come From Away 's visit to Gander coming to a close, Bromley could no longer hold back the feelings welling up inside of her while talking about how the performances on Saturday went.

"I'm going to get upset when I say this, but it's made me more proud to be a Newfoundlander than anything else I've ever done," she says, as the tears begin to fall.

"As a Newfoundlander in Canada, you're not always allowed to be proud of being a Newfoundlander – because we've been subject to, you know, just that casual discrimination that happens when you're a have-not province and you're a people who struggle. You have that on your back and you wear that on your skin."

At this point, Bromley is interrupted with great comic timing by two women looking for a selfie.

"I'm from Gander, I live in the States for 25 years, I gave up a trip to Louisiana to come home and see the musical," says one, a fast-talking nurse who came from Maine to see the show. "I've got to have my picture taken with her – if she will agree with it."

"Oh my God, I've got to stop ugly-crying first," Bromley says.

"You're gorgeous," the woman says. Her friend adds: "You're going to New York. You're a Newfoundlander and you're going to fucking New York.

"And you know when a Newfoundlander goes to somewhere like that, we're all going with you."

Come From Away begins performances at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto on Nov. 15 (mirvish.com)

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