This engaging, poignant musical, which had a successful run at Seattle Repertory Theatre in 2015 and reached Broadway in 2017 (where it is still running), returns to Seattle in a national touring production.
Who would rack up many thousands of miles crisscrossing the continent to see the same Broadway musical more than 100 times?
Beverley Bass, that’s who. And there’s a good reason why Bass is a superfan of the hit show “Come From Away.”
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This Dallas-based professional pilot has a deep personal attachment to the production, which she has seen in several locales in the U.S. and in Canada — including in a successful run at Seattle Repertory Theatre in 2015. The engaging, poignant show, which reached Broadway in 2017 and is still running there, is now returning to Seattle in a national touring edition. It is slated for a four-week engagement at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
“Come From Away” is about how Gander, a small and close-knit island community in Newfoundland, Canada, welcomed some 6,700 passengers and crew members on 38 commercial flights. The planes were rerouted north from the U.S. in Canada’s Operation Yellow Ribbon, immediately after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. And Bass, the first woman to reach the rank of captain at American Airlines during her long tenure with the company, was the pilot on one of those flights.
She has never forgotten the kindness the residents of Gander showed to the mass influx of outsiders like herself. After some 28 hours waiting on the tarmac at the Gander International Airport (which has long served as a refueling stop and military airport) with little knowledge of the plane attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon, the welcome “was overwhelming,” Bass recalled recently. “People had stayed up all night cooking, and had tables full of food waiting for us. They took us into their lives, their homes. It was a wonderful thing after such a terrible tragedy. I made some very dear friends for life there.”
Bass is delighted to see that experience (which continued for several days before U.S. airspace reopened) reflected again and again in her repeat viewings of “Come From Away,” an unexpected Broadway hit. In fact, Bass is a character in the show (who sings the moving song “Me and the Sky”), and she’s been a booster all along its journey. She’s been in the audience from the world premiere at San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse, to the successful Seattle Rep run and on to Washington, D.C., Toronto and to Broadway. (The musical is also currently playing in Dublin, Ireland, and runs in Melbourne, Australia, and London’s West End are on the horizon.)
Bass even attended the Tony Award ceremony where “Come From Away” was up for seven nominations and logged one win (for Christopher Ashley as best director of a musical).
The show’s trajectory was more than its creators, the married Canadian writing/composing team of Irene Sankoff and David Hein, had dreamed of when they first met Bass and others in Gander in 2011, at the 10-year reunion of the plane landings there. With a musical in mind, Sankoff and Hein recorded interviews with many locals (including the town’s proud mayor) and “come from aways” (the Ganderites’ term for visitors to their far-flung burg). And the couple drew heavily on those taped reminiscences to conjure characters, including the one based closely on Bass.
“When the show came to Seattle Rep, we were just overjoyed it was going as well as it was,” said Sankoff. “When we first started we were writing it as a history show for Canadian high-school students. Then we realized it wasn’t just a Canadian story, but a universal story. Any differences people had in race, or region, or religion, it didn’t matter that day because they were all in this together.”
“It surprises us every day that all of this [success] is happening,” agreed Hein. “But when we go back to the real story and the people who were part of it, we shouldn’t be surprised, because they’re so extraordinary.”
Though Seattle is far, far away from Gander, the theater community here believed and invested in the musical early on. Junkyard Dog Productions, a company with Seattle ties that has taken other shows that originated here (“Memphis,” “First Date”) to Broadway, signed on to produce “Come From Away” and sponsored a 2014 workshop of the piece at The 5th Avenue Theatre. And Seattle Rep joined forces with La Jolla Playhouse to mount the first full productions.
Though initial West Coast reviews and crowd reactions were enthusiastic, one wondered if the relatively small-cast, lively-but-single-set staging by Ashley (that featured a folksy onstage band led by 5th Avenue staffer Ian Eisendrath) would be flashy enough to make it on the Great White Way. And was it wise to bring an ultimately upbeat show set against the horror of 9/11 to a city that lost so many in the twin-towers attacks — including the firefighter son of Hannah and Dennis O’Rourke, Long Island residents who were diverted to Gander that day? Would the effort appear naive or insensitive, no matter how well-meaning?
“Because we were New Yorkers at the time, during 9/11, and my cousin was in the towers when it was hit but escaped, we were very sensitive to how people directly affected by the tragedy would feel about the show,” said Hein. “That’s why we didn’t want to write a 9/11 show, but a 9/12 show about what happened the day after. Also we toured the Pentagon with family members who lost people, and put on special shows for them. And in New York we’ve done that for people who lost loved ones and for first responders.”
They also have inserted a song called “I Am Here” for the character based on Hannah O’Rourke, who learns in Gander that her son had gone missing after the attacks. “We had an amazing opportunity to meet the O’Rourkes and hear countless stories about their son,” Hein related. “It gave us a window into how we might feel as parents, being so far away and worried about our child.”
Those travelers and the others who came to Gander unexpectedly during one of the country’s worst nightmares found not only food and shelter but compassion and companionship. According to Sankoff, “People weren’t just nice for niceness’ sake. What Gander did was very brave. They welcomed thousands of angry, hurting people from all over the world to their island, and treated them like friends instead of strangers.”
“Ultimately,” said Hein, “the show reminds you that there was good in the world in the midst of so much darkness.”
“It’s the humanity,” answered Bass, when asked about the widespread appeal of the musical. “Whatever mood you walk into the theater with, you walk out with hope.”
“Come From Away,” by Irene Sankoff and David Hein. Oct. 9-Nov. 4; The 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle; $30-$175 (prices subject to change); 206-625-1900, 5thavenue.org