Come From Away will renew your faith in human kindness

The ensemble cast in the Melbourne season of "Come From Away". Photo: Jeff Busby/supplied.

Come From Away is an unlikely stage musical based on the true story of a small Canadian town that rallied during one of the most infamous events in recent history. Rita Bratovich spoke with a flight attendant and police officer who were there, as well as a cast member and the resident director of the award winning show. 

September 11, 2021 marks twenty years since four hijacked airliners devastated thousands of lives and fractured the sense of impermeable security previously felt by US citizens. Images of the imposing twin towers crumbling to the ground in one of the world’s most iconic cities became the emblems of faith in humanity buckling at the knees. 

But humanity had not fully succumbed to terror – at least, not everywhere; a small community on the most easterly point of Canada was about to prove that human spirit triumphs over all. 

A safe haven called Gander

Gander is a tiny town on the island of Newfoundland in the northeastern province of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. Despite its size, the town has a sizeable airport capable of handling heavy air traffic. It was opened in 1938 and used by the airforce during World War II, but, with the advent of commercial aviation and ever-increasing transatlantic flights, Gander Airport quickly became “the crossroads of the world” as the first or last stop for fuel on major routes.  

Technology eventually improved the range of modern aircraft and the number of flights stopping at Gander Airport reduced to a comparative trickle. Until September 11, 2001. 

When a second plane hit the second World Trade Center tower, the US Government realised it was under attack and that every plane in the air was a potential missile. US airspace was immediately closed to traffic and all flights had to either turn around and go home or go somewhere else. Canada quickly initiated Operation Yellow Ribbon – a coordinated response to receive diverted flights at its airports. Thirty-eight such flights were sent to Gander, whose population at the time was just over 9000. For the next five days they would be accommodating an additional 6,595 guests, or, as they referred to people from elsewhere: come from aways

Flight attendant Marian Bradley was about three hours into a flight from London to Houston when the cockpit informed the crew about the attacks in the US. They were told to say nothing to passengers who would have had no other way of knowing. 

“Phones were nothing like they are now back then, so no one was really getting any communication at all,” Bradley tells the Sentinel

“And we were told not to tell our passengers for the simple reason that it could have been any of us – we could have had a terrorist on our flight.”

With that thought in mind, the crew was told the plane would be landing in Gander, two hours away, and to be vigilant and watch for anything untoward. 

Planes diverted to Gander Airport on September 11, 2001. Photo: supplied.

When passengers were eventually advised of the detour, some were angry. One man in particular was quite vocal until Bradley sombrely told him: “Sir, I think you’re going to understand once we land.” 

Theirs was the 37th flight to arrive at Gander. Passengers and crew, however, did not de-plane until the afternoon of September 12 – a full 30 hours after they had taken off from London. 

“We were really lucky we were on a 777. We didn’t have anyone complaining, we didn’t have young children on our flight and people had room to spread out a bit, so we were fortunate compared to some other flights,” says Bradley. 

It was while they were still on the plane that they first experienced the hospitality that was to come. The Gander locals brought food, toiletries, nappies, nicotine patches; all the basic essentials and even a few comforts. 

Makeshift accommodation in Gander. Image: supplied.

What they didn’t get were more details: they were in a complete bubble as to what was unfolding in the wider world.

“I’ll never forget the impact after we came off on the 12th,” shares Bradley. “I’m looking around and it was just so … it was like you had walked into the land of zombies. People were walking with no direction, their eyes were blank.”

Everyone rushed to the few public phones in the terminal, eager to connect with family. It caused major backlogs and eventually ‘out of order signs were put on the phones so that the thousands of passengers could be ushered through the airport. 

Makeshift accommodation was being arranged in schools, community halls, clubs – anywhere that had floor space and amenities. Bus drivers, who were actually on strike at the time, abandoned their picket lines to assist with transporting the “plane people” (as they became known). 

Food provided by Gander residents. Photo: supplied.

“Everybody in all the surrounding towns, they started cooking for everyone. And they just had meals constant. And there were people from all sorts of backgrounds, so everybody was just helping each other. There were people with special needs, and they had to get supplies in for babies, for women – they all had to depend on each other. It was just amazing. Amazing,” says Bradley. 

Passengers were not allowed access to their checked luggage, which all remained on the planes. That meant that over 6,500 people had to buy clothes, toiletries and other necessities from the one Walmart store in town and other smaller stores. Many passengers didn’t speak English or have Canadian currency, but none of this was an issue for the unfathomably generous Ganderites who happily donated much of the goods. 

Meanwhile, everyone was slowly coming to terms with what was happening in the US. Bradley had not seen a TV or other media until she got to her hotel room. 

“It was just shock,” she says about seeing the images for the first time. “You just can’t imagine it, you know … it was certainly something that stays with you for a long time.”

Crew from all flights stayed in hotels near the airport so they could be ready to return to the planes at short notice. It was five days before they got the okay to fly again. 

Bradley’s flight continued on to Houston. Much had happened in those five days including a burgeoning romance between two passengers, Nick, from England, and Diane, from Texas, both in their 50s. Bradley recalls handing out hot towels on the plane when she walked past the two kissing lovebirds and said: “Looks like you two need a cold towel!” 

Phillip Lowe as Nick and Katrina Retallick as Diane in Come From Away. Photo: Jeff Busby/supplied.

The romance and that comical quip made it into the musical, Bradley discovered when she saw Come From Away for the first time.  

“I had not heard about a musical until I saw it opening here the last time it did in Melbourne. (Bradley, born in North Carolina, has lived in Mount Martha, Victoria for 12 years after marrying an Australian.) And I had no idea that this was what it was about.”

She described seeing the show as an emotional roller-coaster and very close to the truth; a fitting tribute. 

“I’ve just gotta say, you’ve gotta salute towns like Gander that just welcome the whole world. You just wish for that joy everywhere and the world would be a lot better place.”

Oswald ‘Oz’ Fudge

Oswald ‘Oz’ Fudge was one of only two municipal police officers employed in Gander on September 11, 2001. He remembers hearing about the attacks in New York and instinctively thinking to himself: How is this going to affect us?

“And we found out!” he laughs. 

Fudge watched as 38 fully laden passenger planes landed at Gander Airport, and he felt nothing but resolute confidence.  

Simon Maiden as ‘Oz’ Fudge. Photo: Jeff Busby/supplied.

“I looked towards the town and a real sense of calm came over me because I knew in my heart of hearts, people wouldn’t have to worry about a thing. I knew that the residents of this town, the residents of this region, were going to take care of them.”

As local law enforcement, Fudge had to drive around and supervise operations, so he got to see what was happening around town and speak with many of the passengers.

“A lot of the passengers couldn’t understand why we were being so nice,” he says, but he believed what they did was just human nature. 

“In most tragedies, where someone has lost someone or something has happened, what did you do? You went and gave them a hug … and you whisper in their ear: ‘Don’t worry, we’ve got you. We’ve got you.’”

Despite the enormous influx of people and unexpected burden on the locals, Fudge says there was not a single incident in the five days, save for a very drunken Irishman who had to be detained for his own safety. On the other hand, there were many stories of compassion and goodwill, including one where Fudge organised a party, a giant cake and improvised ‘characters for a group of Make-A-Wish Foundation kids who were meant to have gone to Disneyland.

For five days straight, Fudge was constantly on the go. It was frenetic. And then, as suddenly as they had arrived, the planes all left. 

“I tell you, there for a while it was eerily quiet. Because, you were driving around town and you were seeing people walking all over the place, you know, on the different streets. Everywhere you went there was passengers and so, once they left it was like, it was almost like – well, part of you left with them.”

It was only then that he and many other officials finally got to sit in front of a TV and take in what had happened in the US. Most of them cried. 

“Once everybody left and you got home and you were able to sit down in your own comfy chair and then watch some TV and go ‘Oh my God, this is what really happened?’ You knew it happened but you never got a chance to …it’s hard to describe when you’re watching and you’re watching the buildings coming down and the reaction of the people and everything else.”

Fudge had a similar but much more positive reaction when he first saw himself depicted on stage in Come From Away. It still feels surreal every time he sees the musical, which to date, has been around 40 times. His favourite thing about it? 

“I like the first song, I like the middle song, the ‘Screech In’ one,  and I like the last one.”

The Come From Away ensemble, including musicians. Photo: Jeff Busby/supplied.

He’s also tickled that they managed to include his catchphrase, ‘Slow The F*ck Down’, which is what he would write on speeding tickets in lieu of a fine when he pulled over young drivers.

After 30 years as a police officer, the born and bred Ganderite is now a town councillor and is involved in planning commemorations for the 20th anniversary of 9/11. With Covid restrictions, it will likely be a virtual ceremony. They had hoped to have Come From Away play in the town. The first time it played it evoked an extraordinary emotional response from actors and audience alike, all of whom were in tears.

“I just wanna let people know there is a little candlelight out there at the end of that tunnel, and to me that candlelight, part of it, is this play, Come From Away,” says Fudge. “If you wanna feel good about yourself and your community and your country, you know, that play is going to be it.”

Being Beverley Bass

Zoe Gertz has vivid memories of watching the 9/11 events unfold live on TV; the Sydney-born actor was in high school at the time. Two decades and many acclaimed productions later, the multi-talented Gertz is retelling someone else’s story from that time while creating special new memories of her own. 

Gertz plays Beverley Bass, one of the more prominent roles in the ensemble cast of Come From Away. Bass piloted a flight that landed at Gander, but it is her own personal story of becoming the first female captain at American Airlines in 1986 that earns her one of the stand out songs in the musical. Gertz describes singing ‘Me and the Sky’  as a show highlight. 

“I sit by myself on a chair at a table, but with the entire company sitting behind me, there to watch and support. It’s just beautifully staged,” says Gertz. 

In any other show there would almost certainly be an ovation after the number, but this musical is different.

“It’s the only show where you get to sing this big song and then it goes straight into a scene, so there is no in-the-moment audience reception, there’s no applause, it just carries on.”

The pace of this musical is frenetic and uninterrupted. The entire cast is on stage for virtually the whole show. 

“It’s definitely the hardest I’ve ever worked on a show. Most of the time you have an interval or moments when other characters are doing things on stage and you can pop down to your dressing room and have a cup of tea, but there’s certainly none of that on this show,” says Gertz. 

It’s very physical: there’s one fixed set and the ensemble has to move chairs and props around and quickly swap costume elements to create new scenes and become new characters. 

Zoe Gertz as Beverley Bass. Photo: Jeff Busby/supplied.

The music is also unique, says Gertz: “Newfoundland, where the show is set is very influenced with Celtic sounds. I mean, even the accent of the Newfoundlanders almost sounds a little bit Irish, and the music as a result has that same sort of Celtic feel. So there are instruments that you never normally see in a musical – amazing percussion instruments and pipes to give that haunting sound. It’s music unlike anything else I’ve heard in a musical before.”

Yet another unusual aspect of this musical is that the ‘characters’ are real people who are still alive and have come – some, repeatedly – to see the show.   

“You certainly do feel a different level of responsibility because, you know, you want the people that you’re portraying to like what you’re doing,” says Gertz.

Gertz had the privilege of meeting Beverley Bass just before rehearsals started in 2019. It was an unexpected encounter. Gertz was asked to sing ‘Me and the Sky’ for a group of graduating students at a Qantas training facility. 

“I turned up and it turned out to be an International Women In Aviation Conference that happens once a year in different locations around the world, and that year it just happened to be in Sydney,” explains Gertz. She was about to get changed into her costume “… and there was Beverley Bass! And she just started walking towards me and she gave me this great big hug and I burst into tears because I suddenly realised what was happening. And she said: ‘It’s such an honour to meet you,’ and I was like: ‘No – it’s an honour for me to meet you!’”

It turned out that Gertz would be singing the song in front of Bass and a room full of female pilots from around the world. 

“It was just the most beautiful experience,” recalls Gertz, “them all watching me and them all getting teary and me getting teary because realising that it was all of their story. It’s one of the best moments of my life.”

Gertz says working on Come From Away has been an experience unlike any she has had with a show before. 

“This has definitely been life changing. Getting to tell this story and see the way that people are affected by it. I really feel like I’m part of something truly special.”

Maintaining the vision

As the resident director for the Australian production of Come From Away, Liam McIlwain bears much of the responsibility. It’s his job to maintain the vision of the original creation, work through details at a granular level, and allow creative expression while respecting the boundaries of fact. 

The last 9/11 plane before its departure from Gander Airport. Photo: Brian Hicks/supplied.

When the show opened in Melbourne in 2019, there were 26 Gander residents in the audience. That’s not unusual; there is always at least a handful of Ganderites at any show wherever it tours. 

“All of those individuals whose stories we tell are unbelievably supportive of the show, so it’s actually a real delight when they pop in to say hello,” says McIlwain, who is not perturbed to have them in the crowd.

“One thing that the writers have been really clear about is that this isn’t a documentary, this is a musical that is based on a true story. Having said that, almost the entire show is verbatim taken from long form interviews with these people, so almost everything you see on stage is completely true – which is why I think the story is so remarkable.”

McIlwain’s ‘Where were you when?’ moment was at the Queensland Conservatorium in Brisbane. He walked into a common room and everyone was stone-faced, glued to the TV. 

“I remember going down the hallway to my room and calling my parents and saying, ‘I think you should put the television on.’”

He, like everyone else, knew the world was about to change. 

Come From Away writers David Hein (left) and Irene Sankoff. Photo: Jeff Busby/supplied.

When McIlwain first heard about Come From Away he thought it seemed like an unlikely idea for a musical, and apparently, so did the many writers it was pitched to. Michael Rubinoff, a Canadian producer and the brainchild behind the musical, received a lot of knock backs before Canadian husband and wife team David Hein and Irene Sankoff agreed to write it. Sankoff and Hein had, at that point, mostly written comedy; their only other musical being My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding. 

It turns out that a humorous spin is the perfect way to tell the Come From Away story, balanced, as it is, with intense drama and poignancy. Hein and Sankoff visited Gander during the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and interviewed many of the residents, as well as passengers who had returned for commemorations. They ended up using many of the transcripts verbatim. 

Come From Away had a humble debut in 2013 and played mostly regional and university theatres, gradually building a groundswell of critical approval and popularity before it opened on Broadway in 2017. 

In that time it also went through several iterations. The original show was longer and included an intermission. Director Christopher Ashley changed that.

Explains McIlwain: “Ashley decided the Newfoundlanders, in those five days, didn’t get a moment, they didn’t get an intermission, they didn’t get to stop and pause and think and go have a drink at the bar, and so he thought the best way to tell the story is to keep barrelling through without a break.”

The current show is about 100 minutes long without intermission; it has one simple set, 12 actors, 14 chairs, three tables, eight musicians and it moves at a cracking pace. There aren’t any stops for applause, although there is almost invariably a standing ovation at the end of each show.

Come From Away has left an impression on those who have been involved with it and those who have seen it, and it continues to do so. 

“I hope this show inspires me to be a little more kinder and more generous and open,” says McIlwain.

“It feels like the right time to be telling a story like this because it is an antidote to all the horrific things that you read about and see on the news.”

Come From Away plays the Capitol Theatre, 13 Campbell Street, Haymarket from Thursday, June 3, 2021. Tickets ($59 to $185 plus booking fees) and further information available from comefromaway.com.au or on 1300 723 038.

Rita Bratovich is the arts and entertainment editor of the Sydney Sentinel.