The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hit musical ‘Come From Away’ brings its message of compassion back to D.C.

The cast of the North American tour company of “Come From Away” at the Kennedy Center. (Matthew Murphy)

When Canadian writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein workshopped “Come From Away” in the fall of 2016 at Ford’s Theatre, they were only beginning to understand the staying power of their modest tale.

The musical, partially funded by the Canada Council for the Arts, tells the story of the small Newfoundland town that opened its doors to thousands of stranded airline passengers in the aftermath of 9/11. Although the musical had heart, “Come From Away’s” commercial appeal raised questions: Would audiences flock to an ensemble show without recognizable stars? Could anyone remember the title? Was the show doomed to be known as “the 9/11 musical”?

‘Come From Away’ stirs powerful memories of 9/11

“We were pretty sure that, after getting this grant from the Canadian government, that the high schools and colleges in Canada would be forced to do this show as a piece of Canadian content,” Sankoff says.

“That was our highest hope,” Hein adds. “So anything else was great.”

The husband-and-wife team, who co-wrote “Come From Away’s” music, lyrics and book, began working on the show in 2011, when they visited the town of Gander to interview travelers and residents reunited for the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. By the time the musical arrived at Ford’s Theatre, it had completed tryout runs in San Diego and Seattle. The D.C. production, however, was the show’s first stint in a city directly affected by 9/11. Looking back, Sankoff and Hein recall the Ford’s Theatre opening as a moment when they realized “Come From Away” was destined for bigger things.

“The opening night audience was this bipartisan reflection of the country, and everyone was cheering for this tiny Canadian town that had welcomed the world,” Hein says. “There were congresspersons and senators from both sides, and we were introduced to a lot of people. It was an overwhelming experience for a couple of Canadians.”

“Come From Away” moved to Broadway in early 2017 and earned seven Tony nominations, winning best direction of a musical for Christopher Ashley. Now, the show has five versions spread around the globe: sit-down productions in New York, London, Toronto and Melbourne, along with the North American tour that began its Kennedy Center run this week.

‘Come From Away’ comes in for an exuberant Broadway landing

“We can’t even keep up with it all,” Sankoff says.

The show takes place in Gander, a town of 9,000 that abruptly found itself home to 38 planes and 7,000 strangers from 90-plus countries when American airspace was closed after the terrorist attacks. With a dozen actors playing multiple roles and a Celtic-influenced score, “Come From Away” captures the compassion that united these people.

“It never feels like a bad time to tell a story about human kindness and about people coming together,” Hein says. “But particularly now, when D.C. in particular is so divided as a representation of the entire country, it’s been good for us in this climate to remember that we’re all in the same boat and that we have to work together, and that we can welcome strangers and people from away.”

The last time “Come From Away” visited Washington, Sankoff and Hein were particularly struck by the response of one attendee: Kathy Dillaber, a Pentagon Memorial docent whose sister died at the Pentagon and who barely survived herself. Dillaber, who gave the “Come From Away” team a tour of the Pentagon, attended a performance of the show for 9/11 survivors and their family members at Ford’s Theatre. A few weeks later, as the cast and crew performed a concert version of “Come From Away” in Gander, Hein and Sankoff turned around to see Dillaber sitting a few rows behind them.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, she’s thousands of miles from home,’” Sankoff says. “But she had this big smile on her face, and she was surrounded by Newfoundlanders. I was like, ‘Of course, I should not be worried about her. She’s going to be fine.’ ”

Asked about the musical’s return to Washington, Dillaber says, “I will be seeing it several times while it’s here; does that say anything about this show?”

“Come From Away” has since connected with theatergoers around the world, turning Gander into an unlikely tourist destination. Next, Sankoff and Hein plan to bring the show’s unifying message to an even broader audience with a feature film, which they’re co-writing, with Ashley attached to direct.

“We tried to imagine what it would be like for almost 7,000 people to land in the town of 9,000, for 38 planes to be parked on this tiny airport runway, for people of all walks of life to be streaming through the town streets, and we finally get to actually see that,” Hein says. “We’ve been very lucky to have over 3 million people see the show so far worldwide, and this gives us a chance to share Newfoundland and this story about kindness with even more.”

Come From Away

Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600.

Dates: Through Jan. 5.

Prices: $49-$169.