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‘Come From Away’ celebrates goodness in a world suddenly shattered by terror

David Hein and Irene Sankoff, the writers of "Come From Away" are seen outside the theater of their Broadway show in Manhattan.
David Hein and Irene Sankoff, the writers of "Come From Away" are seen outside the theater of their Broadway show in Manhattan.Jennifer S. Altman

NEW YORK — The creators of the Broadway hit “Come From Away,” Irene Sankoff and David Hein, like to talk about it as “a 9/12 musical.” While the devastating events of Sept. 11, 2001, haunt the show, the musical centers on the aftermath — the dramatic story that unfolded in the small town of Gander, Newfoundland, in the days that followed. The town’s international airport took in 38 airplanes, carrying nearly 7,000 passengers, after they were diverted to Canada when US airspace was shut down following the attacks.

Suddenly, this remote burg of 11,000 people nearly doubled in size, with thousands of hungry, tired, frustrated, and scared strangers poised on its doorstep. But something remarkable happened in the wake of the tragedy. As the town absorbed the influx, they opened their homes and hearts — not to mention their resources, public amenities, and makeshift emergency shelters — to these temporarily displaced passengers, a heartwarming display of generosity and goodwill at a time of unprecedented crisis and nerve-wracking uncertainty. Welcoming these strangers into their lives, the residents of Gander offered them hot showers, cooked them meals, washed their clothes, and organized get-togethers and parties. Along the way, personal connections and lifelong friendships were forged.

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“The mayor [Claude Elliott] likes to say, ‘On the first day, we had 7,000 strangers on the tarmac. By the middle of the week, we had 7,000 friends. And by the end of the week, we said goodbye to 7,000 family members,’ ” says Hein in an interview at the offices of the show’s producer, before he and Sankoff dashed off to a photo shoot in front of Broadway’s Schoenfeld Theater, where the show has been running since 2017.

“Come From Away,” which Broadway in Boston is presenting at the Citizens Bank Opera House Nov. 5-17, tells the inspiring story of what happened in Gander in the days after 9/11. The Broadway hit was nominated for seven Tony Awards, winning for best direction, and also captured Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle prizes for outstanding musical.

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When Sankoff and Hein, a husband-and-wife team from Canada (they now live in New York), traveled to Newfoundland for a 10th-anniversary commemoration in September 2011, they saw firsthand the same outpouring of bonhomie and benevolence that the “come from aways” (what Newfoundlanders call outsiders) had experienced a decade earlier. The couple wound up spending three weeks in the area that fall.

“We were unemployed at the time, and we kept extending our stay because people kept letting us stay with them,” Sankoff says. “The people are honest, very ‘what you see is what you get.’ There’s this confusion that kindness has a naiveté to it. But there’s no naivete there. It’s actually just an easier way to be in everyday life — rather than using a lot of energy to push people away."

Newfoundlanders, apparently, are also really good storytellers. “I got addicted to talking to every single person that I met,” Hein says. “Every story was better than the next one, and they were really funny.”

“Even if we didn’t always understand the punch lines!” Sankoff interjects.

The couple laugh as they recall being “screeched-in” by the locals wherever they went. That term refers to a small toasting ceremony performed on outsiders, in which the person must take a shot of special rum (screech), recite a short speech, and kiss a dead cod.

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“I think I gained 5 pounds every time I’ve spent a week in Gander,” says the show’s director, Christopher Ashley. “They’re constantly like, ‘Oh, don’t take the bus, borrow my car. Come and sit with us and talk.’ Everybody is constantly trying to take care of you.”

Sankoff and Hein, who had one musical to their credit at the time (“My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding”), interviewed hundreds of people on their trip. They used those recordings and transcripts as a jumping-off point for writing the show. Hein, who was born and raised in Saskatchewan, grew up listening to Newfoundland music and knew it was part of “the DNA of the people” there.

“It’s this really specific Celtic-sounding folk music that they’ve played for hundreds of years. It’s life-affirming,” Hein says. "They all go over to each other’s kitchens and bring their instruments and sing songs and tell stories. So that’s what they did in the days after 9/11.”

Because the story shifts from the insides of planes to dozens of locations around town, Ashley aimed for a minimalist aesthetic — some tall trees, a couple of tables and pieces of wooden furniture, a dozen chairs, a handful of props, plus an onstage band. “We rely on human beings and the theatrical imagination to transform into all of those places. It’s just 12 people with very simple tools who are telling you an epic story,” Ashley says. “So I wanted to figure out: How do we make the experience of watching the show a toboggan ride that you get on and it’s one fluid, highly-charged experience right through to the final curtain?”

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While the characters are inspired by real-life passengers and residents, most are composites. The show’s characters include pioneering female airline pilot Beverley Bass, Gander’s folksy mayor, a good-natured local cop, a fledgling TV reporter, a diffident Englishman, an apprehensive, quippy gay couple, and the mother of a New York firefighter.

In composing the score, Hein says the pair chose to layer in world music and other sounds to reflect the diversity of voices in Gander. “We wanted to create this musical metaphor for people coming together, that something happened here that was greater than the sum of its parts.”

While the stranded passengers learned about the magnanimity of the people of Gander — and the human capacity for benevolence — the Newfoundlanders instinctively welcomed a throng of foreigners who’d descended on their hamlet, despite language and cultural barriers. Indeed, the show’s message of tolerance and openness to outsiders has been cheered at a time when political leaders are stoking the fires of anti-migrant sentiment.

“The story has become a model about how we can respond to tragedies,” Sankoff says. “It’s a story about people coming together, about how you can lead with kindness every day, how you can reach out to strangers and find commonalities, and that there are always people ready to lend a hand. I think that gives people hope in the world.”

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COME FROM AWAY

Presented by Broadway in Boston. At the Citizens Bank Opera House, Nov. 5–17. Tickets start at $44.50, 800-982-2787, www.broadwayinboston.com

Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@gmail.com.