By Ben Neutze
Every time there’s an enormous tragedy – when a large loss of life reverberates loudly around the world – stories of humans responding to extreme circumstances flow thick and fast. Some are horrifying, but we all know that there are others that are affirming. To look for acts of kindness and generosity is about the best many of us can do in times of crisis.
One of those affirming stories unfolded in Gander, Newfoundland in the days after the September 11 attacks. The punishingly cold Canadian town had a population of around 9,000 at the time, but when planes were suddenly grounded at the town’s airport following the attacks, 7,000 strangers found themselves stranded for up to six days. But instead of reacting to those strangers with fear or suspicion – and it was a time of enormous fear around the world – the locals warmly embraced them and welcomed them into their homes.
Canadian musical theatre writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein were intrigued by this story and in 2011 – on the tenth anniversary of the attacks – visited Gander to interview both locals and returning passengers about their experiences.
“We didn’t know what we were looking for when we went out there, and most people there doing interviews were press, looking for the quick soundbites,” Sankoff says. “We just started talking to people, going to their houses for dinner, and getting invited to spend the night there. We fell in love with them and what they did; and how brave it was to not keep 7,000 people trapped on planes, hungry, angry and scared – to bring them off the planes and into their community and buildings.”
The husband and wife pair then started crafting those stories into a musical, doing their best to honour all they’d been told. And unlike many musicals based on real events – which can play fast and loose with the facts – Sankoff and Hein wanted to make the truth as compelling as possible.
As a result, the first draft was more than five hours long, but after whittling those stories down (unfortunately an extended bit about air traffic controllers making chilli for the locals while planes were grounded was cut down to a single line) they premiered the musical in 2012 at an Ontario college.
“We were pretty sure we’d have a good future with high schools and colleges being forced to do it, because of the Canadian content,” Sankoff says.
Neither expected that the show – which spoke to a pivotal New York story from a different perspective – would go on to have a Broadway season in 2017, let alone London, Melbourne and Sydney seasons. In October 2018 it surpassed The Drowsy Chaperone to become Broadway’s longest-running Canadian show, and it’s still going strong.
But the phenomenon of the show extends beyond the material itself – the individuals about whom the show was written attend opening nights and are invested in the show’s success. One is Beverley Bass, who was the first female captain of an American Airlines plane and whose plane was diverted to Gander. She’s come to see the show more than 100 times and became friends with Jenn Colella, who plays her on Broadway.
“It’s such a unique gift, as playwrights, to have the characters in your show come to your show, and also cheer you on on social media, and write to you constantly, and write to the actors,” Hein says.
The Australian cast even received letters from the real-life people they’re portraying long before rehearsals commenced. But all of them play multiple characters in the fast-moving production, which is driven by the music native to Newfoundland; a Celtic-inspired folk-rock fusion that Hein grew up with, featuring fiddles, accordions and a driving hand drum called the bodhrán.
“It’s music that you’ve never heard on a Broadway stage or a musical theatre stage,” Hein says. “It’s this traditional music that comes about from how hard it is living on this rock with these terrible winters, and in response to that, they’ve created this music that compels you to jump up and dance. It’s like affirming life in response to the hardships of life.”
That makes the music, in a way, the perfect vehicle for this story about people responding to an enormously difficult challenge. The piece itself – which reminds of the importance of welcoming outsiders and giving to people in need – has taken on new resonances in the age of Brexit, Trump and Australia’s own border policies. It’s not difficult to imagine how such a story might speak to Australian audiences.
“We didn’t have a crystal ball, and we couldn’t have known,” Sankoff says. “We really thought we were writing a period piece to begin with, about something that happened a long time ago, that we thought had more or less resolved by now – which was naive and not quite the case.”
Hein hopes that the story of kindness and generosity can stand as an example for not only how we should respond to crisis, but how we should treat one another every day.
“Right now it feels almost necessary to have a story about people coming together and finding commonalities and bridging the things that break us apart.”