Immediately following the terrorist attacks on 9/11, air-traffic controllers needed to clear the skies. They diverted 38 planes to Gander, Newfoundland, a small town with a large airport left over from the days when transatlantic flights were harder to make. As the planes sat on the runway for hours, it became clear that the 7,000 people onboard—people with all kinds of different backgrounds from all over the world—needed food and shelter for an undeterminable number of days.
The people of Gander (a town of less than 10,000 beer-drinking, cod-kissing "Newfies") sprang into action. They clothed and fed the "plane people," at one point transforming an ice-hockey rink into a giant refrigerator to store food for their visitors. Here's a line from the show, given by a clerk: "Thank you for shopping at Walmart. Would you like to come back to my house for a shower?"
This is the extremely strong, heart-swelling premise of Come From Away. When producers staged an early version of the musical at the Seattle Repertory Theatre in 2015, it quickly became one of the most successful shows in the history of the Rep. Shows sold out, and they extended the run three times. Last year, it became a Broadway hit and won a Tony for best direction of a musical.
To kick off the 5th Avenue Theatre's new season and also Come From Away's North American tour, they are remounting a slightly new and improved version. I can't tell you what's different about it this time because I've been sworn to secrecy. But I can tell you why Seattleites deserve to be proud the show is doing so well.
Though it's a 9/11 story commissioned by the Canadian government and set in Newfoundland with characters from all over the globe, "artistically it was born in Seattle," says Kenny Alhadeff, one of the four founding partners of Junkyard Dog Productions, which partners with the 5th Avenue on new work.
Alhadeff and the other producers of the national tour—Marleen Alhadeff, Randy Adams, and Sue Frost—originally saw a reading of the show at the National Alliance for Musical Theatre's Festival of New Musicals in the fall of 2013. "We knew it was something special in that very first reading," Alhadeff said.
The team brought the show back to the 5th Avenue for an intensive workshop period, where they brought together the choreographer, the music supervisor, and other back-of-the-house players to get the show on its feet.
"The first time I was really aware that there was something very special happening was when we did the reading in Seattle and one of my best friends from childhood—who isn't prone to tears or heavy laughter—cried harder than I'd ever seen him cry and laughed harder than I'd ever heard him laugh," Alhadeff said.
That kind of emotional response isn't uncommon with this show. When Come From Away premiered in New York, a fire department chief at his first Broadway show "leapt to his feet and applauded with tears running down his cheeks," Alhadeff said. When the show previewed in Seattle, the audience "stood up as one" for the ovation. It even moved me—an unyielding stone with little but pitying love for musicals—to write a glowing review. You should be more than satisfied by the show, and doubly so given that this city helped give it birth.