Commercial flights had crashed into the north and south towers of the World Trade Center. Other planes appeared hijacked. For the first time in history, the Federal Aviation Administration closed U.S. airspace, and thousands of planes were suddenly looking for a nearby place to land.
The isolated town of Gander, Newfoundland, on Canada’s east coast, had an enormous airstrip that was no longer being used, a relic of a time when transatlantic flights needed a place to refuel.
One after another, 38 jetliners found an unexpected refuge there on Sept. 11, 2001 — a moment Stephane Lessard, the consul general of Canada, is coming to Salt Lake City this week to celebrate, with the opening of the Tony-winning musical “Come From Away.”
The story told in “Come From Away,” Lessard said, “really speaks to the better side of our nature. It’s a reminder of us at our best.”
The show’s national tour lands for a six-day, eight-show run, starting Tuesday at the Eccles Theater, 131 S. Main St., Salt Lake City.
The play — which lost out to “Dear Evan Hansen” for best musical at the 2017 Tony Awards — tells the true story of what happened in Gander on the day terror attacks killed nearly 3,000 in New York, at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pa., where hijackers crashed a fourth flight.
Locals sprang into action to provide lodging, food and basic amenities for some 7,000 tired and fearful airline passengers, the folks who, in Newfoundland slang, “come from away.” Writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein show how strangers learned to trust each other, have a little fun and form friendships that have lasted to this day.
“The whole message of the show is so positive and uplifting,” said Julie Johnson, a Texas-born actor who — like most of the cast – plays several roles during the course of the musical.
Director Christopher Ashley’s spartan staging relies on a few chairs, lighting and quick-change costumes to instantly shift the action from an airline cabin to a Newfoundland bar.
“The structure of the piece is like something you haven’t seen onstage before,” Johnson said from Seattle, the tour’s first stop. “They’ve written a piece of theater that is one of a kind. … One moment I’m supposed to be Dolores from the Bronx, and Beulah from Gander, Newfoundland, comes out.”
Beulah, Johnson’s main role in the production, is a composite of three women who took the lead in organizing the folks of Gander and their donations of time, labor and supplies.
“The whole town rose up to this task — and as with any situation, some take the lead naturally,” Johnson said. “They don’t seem to let anything knock them down.”
Johnson was struck by details that were crucial for the visitors. Fear of a terrorist bomb meant the passengers’ luggage remained in the cargo holds, so they were left without a change of clothes or other basic amenities.
“Some had been on their airplanes for 28 hours,” Johnson said. “Imagine it. I get upset when I have an hour delay.”
One Newfoundland welcome ritual depicted in the musical — known as “kissing the cod” — is something Lessard has experienced for himself.
“You take some hard liquor, there’s an invocation of sorts, and they make you kiss a cod,” Lessard said, recalling a visit to Newfoundland as he spoke during a call from his office in Denver, where he represents his country’s interests in the western United States. “They make you feel part of their family and community.”
Lessard will be visiting Utah to attend a global economics forum, to meet Gov. Gary Herbert and to tour Logan, Ogden and Provo. But, he said, “Come From Away” will be a highlight of the trip — showing a time when the U.S. and Canada were on friendlier terms.
Recently, there have been tensions between the North American allies, which many attribute to the pugnacious comments of American President Donald Trump and the unwillingness of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to let such remarks slide.
Perhaps the nastiest exchange came this summer during trade negotiations, when Trump seemed to reference the War of 1812, asking, “Didn’t you guys burn down the White House?” — a dig at Canada’s loyalty that Trudeau called “frankly insulting and unacceptable.”
While relations between countries like Canada and the United States “haven’t always been the smoothest,” every relationship has its ups and downs, Lessard said.
“The arts have that power to build bridges, stronger bridges between cultures and communities,” Lessard said. “That expression becomes so much stronger than the transient politics of the moment.”
Johnson agreed, adding, “Hopefully, this too shall pass.
“The strength of the alliance from person to person will turn out to be stronger than the potholes in the road that are happening right now,” Johnson said. “I hope ‘Come From Away’ is there to be a good ambassador-slash-cheerleader of the kindness we can show to each other.”
‘Come From Away’
The national tour of the Tony-winning musical “Come From Away,” telling the true story of Newfoundlanders helping airline passengers grounded unexpectedly after the 9/11 attacks.