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The Remarkable True Story of a Small Town That Welcomed The World

The Remarkable True Story of a Small Town That Welcomed The World All images: Craig Sugden
What's on
July 2024
Reading time 2 Minutes

When the airspace over North America was closed on 9/11 and planes were grounded, the town of Gander in Newfoundland suddenly found itself playing host to more than 6,500 passengers and crew

Now the true story of Come From Away is being brought to life on the Newcastle Theatre Royal stage (Tuesday 6th-Saturday 17th August 2024).

With all airborne planes forced to land at their nearest airport, a total of 38 planes carrying 6,579 people and 19 animals touched down in Gander, almost doubling its 10,000-strong population.

On the northeastern tip of a province nicknamed The Rock by locals, these ‘come from aways’ (as the locals call people not born there) were welcomed with open arms. Whilst their aircraft remained grounded, they were fed, clothed, housed and entertained – most notably at a ‘screech-in’ ceremony where kissing a cod earns you the title of honorary Newfoundlander.

This remarkable true story forms the basis for Come From Away, an equally remarkable musical by Irene Sankoff and David Hein that celebrates the human spirit and shows how people are at their best when faced with the worst. With laughter, tears and soaring music, it’s about hope and unity as the spirited locals and global passengers overcome reticence and cultural differences to forge a common bond and lifelong friendships.

Heading out on its first-ever UK and Ireland tour after notching up more than 1,000 performances in the West End, this most heartwarming of shows was hailed as a 'big bearhug of a musical’ by The New York Times when it opened on Broadway in 2017 and praised for its ‘charm, energy and a real generosity of spirit’ when it took up residency at London’s Phoenix Theatre two years later.

Sankoff and Hein were honoured at the 2019 Oliviers for their musical score, eight years after they first hit on the idea of fashioning a feel-good show about events that unfolded in Gander in September 2001.

Ontario-born Irene and Canadian David were in New York on 9/11, staying in a residence for international graduate students from all around the world. ‘Those people took care of us, we had neighbours come over and help us,’ David recalls. ‘We all shared music and got through it together. So when we first heard this story years later, when a friend mentioned it, we looked into it and we realised, ‘this actually feels like our experience’.

On the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks, the writing partners and husband and wife couple traveled to Newfoundland to interview the townsfolk as well as the come from aways who had journeyed back there to mark the occasion.

They found the locals to be just as welcoming as they are in the show.

Those stories, collected across hours of interviews, were whittled down into a 100-minute musical, with Irene saying: ‘It’s so important to be sharing the story of people who reacted to something horrible in a positive light. We spend so much time focusing on the negative and I think it’s important to show the other side – people responding with kindness and people responding as a community.’

Audiences were drawn in by its roster of real-life characters, including Gander town mayor Claude Elliot.

Elliot himself recalls: ‘On the first day we had 7,000 strangers. On the third day we had 7,000 friends. And on the fifth day 7,000 family members.’ Among those strangers turned friends and family members, as featured in the show, were an eager local news reporter, the mother of a New York firefighter desperate for the news of her son, and the first female American Airlines captain Beverley Bass, who got a call from the producers inviting her to see the show in San Diego in 2015. 

‘I went to it sight unseen and I had no idea that my role was so prominent and I certainly didn’t know that a song had been written called Me and the Sky, which basically chronicles my aviation life,’ Beverley says. ‘It was astounding. By the end of it, my head was buried in my hands because I was just sobbing. The musical is so true, it is so real. The show gets a standing ovation every time because people like how something so beautiful managed to come out from such a tragedy.’

Come From Away also features the story of complete strangers Nick Marson and Diane Kirschke, who were on the same flight from Gatwick bound for Texas.

Across their five-day stay in Gander, where they were invited to get-togethers and singalongs, they fell for each other. When their plane finally took off again they were, Diane smiles, smitten.

The couple kept in touch through emails and phone calls before Nick proposed on the phone two months later. He moved to the US soon afterwards, they got married in 2002 and had their honeymoon in Newfoundland, with Marson saying of the time they originally spent there: ‘I think it’s made me a better person. I try to be my best self every day, be happy, make other people happy and make them laugh.’ 

A hit around the world, Come From Away has enjoyed record-breaking sold-out runs in the West End, on Broadway, in Canada and Australia, and on a 60-city North American tour. As it travels around the UK and Ireland, Beverley Bass marvels: ‘If you had told me when we left Gander on the morning of 15th September that someday I would be watching our stories play out across the world in a musical I would have been in total disbelief. I remember wanting the world to know about the folks in Gander and what they did for us, and Come From Away has made that happen.’

Come From Away plays its only North East dates at Newcastle Theatre Royal, Tuesday 6th– Saturday 17th August 2024. Tickets can be purchased at or from the Theatre Royal Box Office on 0191 232 7010.

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