“Welcome to the Rock,” sing the residents of Gander, Newfoundland – a tiny town on an island off the north-eastern coast of Canada. It’s home to some 10,000 people and one rundown, oversized airport that once served as a stopover point for transatlantic flights to refuel. That’s why, one autumn morning in 2001, Gander’s population briefly doubled as its residents rushed to the rescue in the middle of a major international incident.
Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s buoyant musical retells the true story of the town that opened its doors – and its hearts – to the thousands of flyers stranded mid-flight on September 11th2001. When American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 tore into the World Trade Centre that morning, 38 planes and their 7000-odd passengers were grounded in Gander. Under the orchestration of mayor Claude Elliot, local residents were left to organise an impromptu aid effort – setting up shelters, donating supplies and cooking up a catering line.
It’s a heart-soaring story, but in Sankoff and Hein’s hands, a considered one too – a reminder not only of the humanity that counterbalances tragedy, but also of the way the world changed that day. Oblivious passengers stuck on their planes initially pass round the miniatures and party, but as the horror of history dawns on them fully, things change. Tensions erupt as one Eygptian passenger seeks a place for morning prayers, a mark of how speedily suspicion set in, and pilots and passengers alike desperately try to reach their families back home. In the midst of events, two strangers sat next to each other strike up an improbable friendship – maybe something more.
Charged with the Irish-Canadian twang of Gander’s own musical style, there’s a surging, spirited quality to Sankoff and Hein’s score. Their songs are earthy and hearty, designed for a community of voices and the power of the collective shines through in Christopher Ashley’s simplistic staging. A big hit on Broadway, nominated for seven Tony awards, it received an even warmer reception in the West End, with its all-British company winning four Oliviers. It’s a small show, in no sense a grand spectacular, but Come From Away is one of the most heartfelt and wholesome musicals of the century so far.