At 9:26 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, just after the Twin Towers attacks, the FAA shut down its airspace, forcing 4,000 planes to land at the nearest airport. Flights coming in from Europe were diverted to Canada; 38 of them landed in Gander, Newfoundland, a small town of less than 10,000 people, who ended up hosting almost 7,000 displaced, diverse and anxious strangers for almost a week.
This was the seed for the story of “Come from Away,” a musical that had its world premiere at La Jolla Playhouse in the summer of 2015 and now, after super-successful runs in Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Toronto, is about to open on Broadway, with previews beginning Feb. 18. But first, for one night only, it’s making a special re-appearance here on Feb. 4, in a concert performance at the Playhouse’s 2017 gala at the Marriott Marquis San Diego Marina on Harbor Drive.
The musical is the work of Irene Sankoff and David Hein, a husband-and-wife writing team from Toronto who originally workshopped it at the Canadian Music Theatre Project, an encouraging home for the development of new musicals. Based on hundreds of interviews with folks from Gander and “come from aways” — the local term for non-Newfoundlanders — the play features 12 actors in multiple roles and a heartwarming message: that in the very worst of times, ordinary people may rise to their very best.
Helming it all is Christopher Ashley, Playhouse artistic director, now in his 10th year there. A prolific director whose credits include Broadway hits like the La Jolla-born, multi-Tony-winning musical “Memphis,” he is currently at work on “Freaky Friday,” which opens at the Playhouse Jan. 31.
Last October, between Washington and Toronto, “Come From Away” made a detour to Gander, to present a concert version of the show to the people who inspired it. Gander’s hockey arena was turned into a makeshift 2,500-seat theater, and there were two low-priced performances, which quickly sold out.
“Over half the population came, and the waves of emotion from the audience were just incredible,” Ashley said. “Everyone laughed and cried together, and toward the end, they just stood and screamed. I’ve never had an experience like that.”
At the Feb. 4 gala, San Diego theater-lovers will have a chance to see the show and meet the company, with proceeds from the event going to the Playhouse’s Education & Outreach and New Play Development Programs. The cast — 11 of them from the original La Jolla production — are thrilled to be returning to where their journey started, said Ashley. And he’s thrilled to be celebrating his 10th anniversary with the Playhouse. “I love our staff and our audiences,” he said. “It’s been a great decade for me.”
Christopher Ashley on ‘Come From Away’
- In 2011, David Hein and Irene Sankoff went to Gander for the 10th anniversary of 9/11, a reunion of the people of Gander and many of the ‘come from aways.’ They intended to stay a few days to see if there was a story in it, and they ended up staying for weeks, doing interviews. The generosity of the people was amazing. ‘You’re staying in a hotel?’ they’d ask, ‘No, stay with us.’ ‘You need a car?’ ‘Here, use ours...’
- They spent a few years diving into the story, gathering interviews, writing songs, and then they did a reading of the first act in New York. I heard about it, listened to the demo music, and fell in love with the piece, and we’ve been shaping and reshaping it ever since. We had two more readings, then a full production at the Playhouse and another in Seattle, and last September, on the 15th anniversary of the attacks, we were in Washington, D.C., at Ford’s Theater, which is haunted by another moment of political violence, with the Lincoln Box sitting over the stage.
- The show is not so much about 9/11; it’s really about 9/12, and what happened after. And in today’s world of so much divisiveness, the story of people taking care of each other across all divides is more pertinent than ever.
A Gift to Gander
- Last September, on the 15th anniversary of 9/11, the people of Gander received a tribute from New York City’s Tunnel to Towers Foundation — a piece of the remains from one of the Twin Towers, which is now installed at Gander International Airport. The inscription reads, in part: ‘This piece of World Trade Center steel was presented ... in gratitude for the profound humanitarian role the airport and people of Gander played in the wake of the attacks on 9/11.’
— Gala ticket prices start at $500. For information, contact La Jolla Playhouse Patron Services at (858) 550-1010 or lajollaplayhouse.org