You don't truly know Gander, Newfoundland, and its culture until you've taken part in an infamous screech-in, say “Come From Away” creators Irene Sankoff and David Hein.

The quirky denizens of Gander, where the musical's true story took place in the week following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, initiate non-Newfoundlanders, or “come from aways,” into their friendly island culture through the screech-in ceremony.

“You become an honorary Newfoundlander through a series of bizarre, traditional customs including taking a shot of Screech, which is a drink out there, and kissing a fish,” explained Hein, speaking by phone from New York on Monday.

He and wife Sankoff experienced the ceremony when they visited Gander in 2011 on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. The Canadian couple traveled to the small town to talk to the real people who took in 7,000 stranded airline passengers when 38 planes were grounded at their airport after the Federal Aviation Administration shut down U.S. airspace in the wake of the 2001 attacks.

The musical's true story follows the five days following the attacks, when this population of 9,000 housed, fed and befriended the frightened, bewildered passengers from numerous countries.

Sankoff and Hein, who were asked by producer Michael Rubinoff of Sheridan College in Ontario to write a musical telling the Gander story, talked to many locals, returning flight crews and pilots, as well as returning “come from aways” during the 10th anniversary celebration of the friendships formed that fateful week. That included the screech-in at the local Legion, where the couple was “screeched" along with pilot Beverley Bass and her husband, Tom, as well as passengers Nick and Diane Marson, a Brit and American portrayed in the musical who met and fell in love during this time of crisis.

The ceremony was officiated by former Gander Mayor Claude Elliott, also a character in the musical. Participants kissed a cod, specifically. The Screech, a Jamaican rum, has a Newfoundland connection, too: It's blended and bottled there.

Since its beginnings at Sheridan College and original co-production in San Diego and Seattle, “Come From Away” has become a hit musical with five companies now across the world. Its first North American tour will play at Cleveland's Playhouse Square Tuesday  through July 28 at the Connor Palace.

Other productions include the Broadway show and those in Toronto, London and Melbourne, Australia, which will open July 20. The Broadway production won a 2017 Tony Award for best director for Christopher Ashley.

Sankoff and Hein, who hail from Ontario and Saskatchewan and now live in New York, wrote the book, music and lyrics for “Come From Away.” Their previous hit was the beautiful musical “My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding,” based on the true story of Hein's mother, which played to great acclaim at the former Actors' Summit in Akron.

For “Come From Away,” the couple stayed in Gander for a month to gather stories from the locals. Friendly citizens who did interviews in their homes often invited the couple to dinner. Some even asked them to stay with them, including the Kane family, who took Sankoff and Hein in for two weeks.

“I think the traditional way of writing a musical is not drinking with the characters in your show and partying with them and potentially sleeping in their house but that's the way we did it,” Hein said.

That allowed “come from aways” Sankoff and Hein to experience firsthand the kindness and generosity that Gander residents offered as a safe harbor for thousands of strangers in 2001.

“And now people are immersed in basically the world we were immersed in when we were there” by seeing the uplifting “Come From Away,” Sankoff said.

“We just wanted to share this world and these incredible storytellers and this incredible music and culture and this incredible true story,” Hein added.

Many of the Gander stories made the couple cry for joy as they heard them. Audience members have flocked to the musical for its hopeful message about the triumph of humanity over hate.

Sankoff and Hein, who lived in New York at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks, said that as both New Yorkers and Canadians, they had a special interest in making sure the Gander story was told respectfully.

The musical has changed everyone's lives who have been involved with it, they said. She will always remember bringing their daughter Molly and “Come From Away” into the world at the same time, including sending in a draft of the show from the hospital two days after the baby's birth, in preparation for the 2013 National Alliance for Musical Theatre Festival in New York.

Hein stressed that the musical isn't a 9/11 story; it's the 9/12 story.

“It helped us. It helped heal us and remind us that there's good in the world,” he said.

The experience has led to lifelong friendships as well as mini-reunions for the musical's real subjects at openings for each new production and stops on the U.S. tour, which started in October. Passengers aboard the 38 grounded planes came from Muldova, Tuva, the United States, Canada and Australia as well as from Africa and Europe.

Creators Sankoff and Hein receive messages from the real subjects of their musical often online, another reflection of the growing community that the Gander people have formed with outsiders.

“How lucky are we as authors to have the characters in our show actually cheering us on online?” Hein asked.

“Come From Away's” cast of 12 includes nine who have been with the show since its 2015 La Jolla Playhouse production in San Diego. Before the show opened on Broadway, the whole cast got to travel to Gander to meet the characters whom they were portraying at two sold-out benefit concerts at the Gander Community Centre Hockey Rink.

“When we first took the show to Gander it felt kind of like a wedding, because we were introducing our theatrical family to our Newfoundland family,” Hein said.

 

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or kclawson@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her at @KerryClawsonABJ or www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj