Moments after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and the resulting air traffic chaos and shutdown, nearly 7,000 airborne passengers were diverted to Gander International Airport, located in a small town in Newfoundland.
Over the next few days, most of the world heard the story of the welcoming Canadians who took in all these strangers — almost doubling the number of people living there. It was a spot of brightness amid all the tragedy.
Come From Away, about to open at Broadway at the Hobby, is the Tony-nominated Canadian musical with an ensemble cast that tells the story of the townspeople and some of the international passengers who spent several days as their guests after U.S. airspace was closed. Irene Sankoff and David Hein who collaborated on the book, music and lyrics, based much of the musical on the real people involved and used some of their real names.
This story, two of its actors are quick to say, is not a 9/11 tale but a 9/12 one — concerning what happened in the 5 days and nights after these people landed in Gander. And in a special note for Houston audiences, two people who met there — a woman from Houston and a man from England — fell in love and live in Houston now.
Christine Toy Johnson plays Diane Gray, the woman from Houston. She's met her real counterpart and describes her as "kind, compassionate and strong." She had seen the show on Broadway and relished the chance to be in it. "It’s such a beautiful story of intentional compassion and generosity and I was really drawn to it and have been in love with it ever since," she says.
The cast includes a number of musicians who are on stage during the performance, Johnson says. "The music it’s so important. It’s based in the culture from Newfoundland. It is the heartbeat of the story. We have this amazing band of eight incredible musicians who bring it to life and you'll see them on stage too because they are an integral part of the onstage activity."
Chamblee Ferguson plays Nick Marson, the Englishman. He's met his real life counterpart and talked with him several times, adding that Marson has a great sense of humor — something that is reflected in the show. "He was flying from London to Houston when his plan got diverted to Gander, Newfoundland. He did work for an oil company at the time."
Saying he enjoys working as part of an ensemble, Ferguson adds that during his audition he had to show he could handle a British accent (something he's done several times) and sing two songs. Once he was cast, he had to add a Newfoundland dialect, he says, since he plays more than one role, and that accent, he says, sounds to him like a cross between "South Dakota and Ireland."
Both Johnson and Ferguson say they were drawn to theater early in their lives. "I was one of those kids that put on a dramatization of the 12 days of Christmas for my parents' captive holiday guests," Johnson says. Growing up in the suburbs of New York City, it was easy for her to get in to see Broadway shows and to study theater, singing and dancing in the summers during high school and college. She began working professionally the year she graduated from high school and continued doing that in summer breaks while a student at Sarah Lawrence College .
Ferguson who grew up in Kansas City, had a similar early interest in theater. "I played a tree in fourth grade," he says. In high school he saw a production of Hamlet that lit a fire under him.
He got his master's of fine arts degree from SMU and ended up working professionally in Dallas for about 30 years. Finally, at the urging of his agent, he moved to New York City. When he got there he asked his niece who lives there what she'd seen that was good. She named a number of shows but especially liked Come From Away and told him: "There's actually a good part for you in that." He went to see the show. "I was so moved by it." He got a call to come audition and thanks to just seeing the show had a good sense of it and ended up getting cast.
Johnson thinks the story is important right now. "People are craving the good news that it is still possible for our better angels to emerge at times of tragedy and kindness can come out of that. And the way that people in the story helped heal each other is a balm for many of the wounds we feel right now in our divisiveness."
Or as Ferguson puts it: "I’m not a missionary, but if I were I think this would be kind of my mission work to help spread this message. There are moments in the play that make me very, very sad. There are moments in the play that make me incredibly joyous. And there are moments in the play that make me very proud to be an American. It was not a uniquely American story. It did happen on American soil and because of that all Americans need to see the show, but it was a human story because that day affected the entire world and we kind of learned the Canadians offered us something that perhaps maybe we didn’t offer ourselves. And perhaps we can learn from that."
Performances are scheduled for March 3-8 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For information, call 713-315-2525 or visit thehobbycenter.org or broadwayatthehobbycenter.com. $35-$264.