The best of humanity in the aftermath of tragedy

Standing ovations have become practically de rigueur on Broadway.

But the one that follows the new hit musical “Come From Away” feels different. The cheering audience rises as one as if borne on a wave that goes beyond spontaneous emotion to a sense of recognition and connection with the actors onstage. 

As the cast recedes and the musicians take over for a lively jig, the patter of clapping slows rhythmically in time to the music. Turning around to watch the crowd, still on its feet, you think:  The audience hasn’t been merely watching the show; the audience is part of the show. That’s because “Come From Away” powerfully depicts a story that audience members, with the exception of the youngest in the crowd, have actually experienced — the aftermath of 9/11.

No wonder there’s Tony Award buzz and attendance by the likes of Cher and Rosie O’Donnell.

But it’s fair to say that no celebrity visit has been more pointed than that of Justin Trudeau, the open-hearted Canadian prime minister, who attended the March 15 performance with first daughter Ivanka Trump, Nikki R. Haley, the American ambassador to the United Nations, and some 600 diplomats from around the world.

“There is no relationship quite like the friendship between Canada and the United States,” he said from the stage before the performance. In the musical, Trudeau added, “the world gets to see what it is to lean on each other and be there for each other through the darkest times.”

“He was lovely and gracious,” Irene Sankoff recalls. “He had something to say backstage to each person and apologized to the stagehands for taking over the space with his people.”

She and husband David Hein are the equally lovely duo who share music, book and lyrics credits on the show. (Sankoff says they share everything, including a 3-year-old daughter who is something of a backstage star among the cast and crew.) Of course, the two are lovely:  They’re Canadians as well, she a big-city girl from Toronto and he a prairie boy from Saskatchewan. Today, they make their home in Toronto but have an apartment in New York City where they were on 9/11, living on the Upper West Side at International House along with other graduate students from 110 countries. For Sankoff and Hein, who has dual Canadian-American citizenship, 9/11 was particularly personal: David’s cousin escaped the Twin Towers.

But the work they’ve created is a 9/12 musical, he says:

“It’s not about what happened here. It’s about what happened after 9/11 in a town that had to reach out internationally.”

The town, Gander, lies 1,462 miles away close to the northeast tip of North America on the rocky, forested isle of Newfoundland — “on the edge of the world,” as the musical notes — not far from where the sunken Titanic rests. (The 1997 movie “Titanic” is a motif in the musical.)

But Gander’s spirit is bound up more with aviation than shipping. Because of its strategic location, it was chosen as the site of an international airport that opened in 1938. Gander’s streets are named for aviation legends — Lindbergh, Earhart and Yeager, among them. Its motto, “Volet Gander,” is Latin for “May Gander Soar.”

During World War II, as many as 20,000 Canadian and American fighters and bombers stopped there en route to Europe. In peacetime, it became “the crossroads of the world,” a refueling stop for transatlantic flights, like the one the Beatles first took to the United States in 1964. Even today with jets able to make nonstop flights, Gander International Airport remains a go-to spot for emergency landings, because if anything happens, well, it’s on the edge of the world.

That was the thinking on 9/11, too. With American airspace shut down, 38 civilian and four military flights bound for the United States were diverted to Gander — some 7,000 souls who almost doubled the town’s population of 9,000. For five days, though, the citizens of Gander housed, clothed and fed these people. On a day that showed the worst of humanity, they chose to exemplify the best, forming lifelong bonds in the process with strangers who were strangers no more. 

On the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Sankoff and Hein — who until then were best known for the musical “My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding,” based on David’s mother’s story — went to Gander to interview many of those who were there on 9/11. The characters they created — played by a small cast that does some amazing things with chairs and a few other props on Beowulf Boritt’s spare set of trees and a shuttered backdrop — are sometimes composites in the manner of art. 

There’s Beverly, an American Airlines pilot of a flight bound from Paris to her hometown of Dallas, who had to fight sexism to become a pilot; Bonnie, the SPCA lady, who cares for the cats, dogs and rare bonobo chimps on board the flights; Janice, the newbie reporter at the sole TV station, who finds herself in a larger spotlight when NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw calls; Bob, an urban guy who gradually opens up to the trusting small town; Claude, the salty, exasperated mayor who coordinates everything; Ali, the Egyptian-born hotel chef isolated by the others’ fear of Muslims; Hannah, an Irish-American mom who can’t reach her FDNY son; the two Kevins, gay lovers who wonder how much they should reveal about themselves;  and Nick and Diane, an Englishman and a Texan who fall in love. (They would later marry and honeymoon in Newfoundland.)

Their stories contain a lot of humor. “I’m surprised by how much laughter is in the show,” Sankoff says.  And a lot of pathos that brings a well of emotion to the sniffling, eye-dabbing audience.  “I worked for American Airlines, and I cried through the show,” one woman says during a Q and A with members of the cast and the production team after a recent matinee.

Sometimes the laughs and tears come together. Melissa Jones — a Purchase resident who with her Chappaqua-based mother, Betsy Jones, is a local investor in the show — points to the moment when a group of African passengers, who speak no English, hesitate to get off the bus that has taken them to safe lodging. They think the waiting uniformed Salvation Army workers are actual soldiers. The quick-thinking bus driver points to a passage from the Africans’ Bible, Philippians 4:6 — the numbered chapters and verses are the same in every language — which reminds them to “be anxious for nothing” and gives them the courage to go on.

Says Sharon Wheatley, who plays Diane: “We need to represent these people and let other people tell us their stories.”

In the light of rising nationalism and anti-globalization around the world, these stories have become not-so-distant mirrors of our time. The title, which Sankoff selected, has a double meaning, Hein says. As a noun, “Come From Away” denotes a stranger, a foreigner. As a verbal phrase, he says, it’s an invitation, a welcome.

 “They say ‘timing is everything,’ don’t they?” Melissa Jones adds. “This is a story of kindness in a time of fear.”

For tickets and more, call 212-335-1024 or visit comefromaway.com.

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ABOUT JUSTIN TRUDEAU

When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took to the stage to address the March 15 audience of “Come From Away” that included Ivanka Trump and diplomats from around the world, he signaled a willingness to take up a global liberal banner that has been dampened in the aftermath of the Brexit vote and President Donald J. Trump’s election.

Trudeau has espoused the traditional liberal causes — pro-choice, civil rights, environment and immigration — criticizing President Trump’s ban on refugees from certain Muslim-majority countries. He was praised for his compassionate handling of the Québec City mosque shooting on Jan. 29 that left six dead and 18 wounded.

“Thirty-six million hearts are breaking with yours,” Trudeau told his nation’s one million Muslims. “Know that we value you.”

But he has on occasion also looked naïve and inexperienced, eulogizing Fidel Castro as a “larger than life leader who served his people,” a statement that critics said ignored the complexity of the Castro regime.

Justin Pierre James Trudeau was born in Ottawa on Christmas Day, 1971 to then Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and his wife, Margaret. The oldest of the couple’s three sons, Justin Trudeau is the second youngest Canadian prime minister, after Joe Clark, and the only one to be related to another holder of that office. 

With a Bachelor of Arts degree from McGill University and a Bachelor of Education degree from the University of British Columbia, Trudeau flirted with careers in teaching, engineering and environmental geography. But from the moment he riveted a nation with his eulogy of his father in October 2000, he seemed destined for public office. (His parents divorced when he was 5, with his father awarded custody. He has four half-siblings in addition to brothers Alexandre and Michel, whose 1998 death led him to recommit to his Roman Catholic faith.)

In 2008, Trudeau was elected to the Canadian House of Commons. Five years later, he was head of the Liberal Party and, in 2015, swept the Liberals to the largest numerical increase by a Canadian party as he became prime minister.

Trudeau’s dark good looks have made him a Kennedyesque heartthrob, but the PM is happily married to Sophie Grégoire, a women’s rights advocate, former TV host, and childhood friend of his brother Michel. The couple has three children.

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