Now we’ve definitely heard it all: a feelgood 9/11 musical
It tells the story of a plane grounded in a small town after the tragedy, and the five days that changed 100s of lives
Beverley Bass did not expect to land her plane in Canada that morning. She was piloting an American Airlines flight from Paris to Dallas along the “Great Circle” route. “There wasn’t a cloud and the sky was crystal blue, everything was perfect about it,” she remembers.
Midway through the flight, news came through that a plane had hit the World Trade Centre in New York. She assumed it was a small passenger aircraft. “It never entered our minds that it was an airliner, never.” Later, she heard that a second plane had hit the second tower and that US airspace was shut.
Told to land in Canada, she expected to be directed to Toronto, Montreal or another major city. In fact, hers was one of 38 planes instructed to land in Gander on the morning of September 11 2001. The town of 11,000 inhabitants on the Canadian island of Newfoundland saw its population almost double in the days after 9/11.
As the US faced its biggest security crisis since Pearl Harbour, every passenger flight across North America was cancelled, and the new arrivals were left stranded in Canada for nearly a week.
Many of the passengers had never heard of Gander and were desperate to return home. For the next five days, however, the town’s inhabitants did everything they could to make their guests feel welcome. They opened up their homes, organised walks and parties. They offered soup, sandwiches and hot showers. Many made friendships that lasted for years. This remarkable kindness is now the subject of a musical, Come From Away, which opens in London’s Phoenix Theatre on Monday.
Packed with upbeat show tunes, the production has been described as achieving a seemingly impossible feat: it is a “feelgood 9/11 musical”. It received critical acclaim when it was performed in New York, San Diego, Toronto and Dublin.
Written by Irene Sankoff and David Hein in 2012, it focuses on a handful of real-life stories from Gander, including that of Bass, who had previously made headlines when she was appointed a captain by American Airlines in 1986 – the first woman to be given the honour. The musical tells the story of how “somewhere, in the middle of nowhere, you’ve found your heart but left a part of you behind” – a lyric from its most popular song, 38 Planes.
It also tells the story of Nick Marsden, a British man who had been flying from London to Houston for a work conference on 9/11 when his flight was diverted. While queuing for registration at Gander Airport he met Diane, a Texan woman. After a five-day romance in Gander the pair, who were then aged 52 and 60, ended up marrying the following year: they now live together in a suburb of Houston, but are flying to London to catch the opening night of the musical, which they have already seen 86 times.
“The whole of this community put their lives on hold for five days, and probably didn’t even go to bed at night,” says Nick. “If it hadn’t been for the kindness and the outpouring of love, Diane and I wouldn’t have met. We’d probably have been in a hangar somewhere or sleeping on the floor, or maybe stuck in the aeroplane. But this community bent over backwards to make us welcome and to take our mind off what was happening out in the real world.”
After touching down in Gander, which saw its last big population influx during the war when 10,000 Allied troops were stationed there, the pair were taken to a nearby community hall, where dozens of makeshift beds were laid out each night. In the morning, the beds were cleared away and breakfast was cooked by locals; at night they played music, served beer and danced.
“There were residents in the shelter 24/7,” Diane remembers. “At night there would be four men and they would stay in the kitchen, and if you needed something they were ready to help. They had a record player and at night they played that. They were trying to entertain us, and what do you do with 70 people who have nothing to do?”
As the couple recount their experience 17 years on, they weave it together effortlessly, each knowing exactly where to pick up when the other one stops. It’s clear they have told the story before at countless dinner parties and summer barbecues.
In Gander, they quickly grew tired of watching looping television footage of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers, and began to bond on long walks around the area’s stunning landscape. One moment they remember fondly came when a local geology teacher led a group to the Dover Fault, a nearby beauty spot atop a major break in the Earth’s crust where, in the words of one of the musical’s songs, “the world has come together”.
“I made sure I was stood close to Diane so we went on the same trip,” says Nick. As he took out his camera to capture the scene, Diane hurried to get out of shot. But he told her he wanted her in the photograph. “I wanted that picture of Diane because I wasn’t sure at that point whether I was going to see her when we got back into our normal life. She lived in Houston and I lived in England, and I didn’t want to forget those few days we’d spent together in this beautiful country. I wanted a picture I’d remember in years to come of the lady I spent those days with.”
It sounds like a moment made for Hollywood, and the schmaltziness certainly didn’t escape the attention of the Broadway producers, who went on to write a whole song, Stop the World, about the image.
The pair kept up contact after returning home, and Nick proposed to Diane over the phone one month later. They married the following September, and travelled back to Newfoundland for their honeymoon.
The first time they saw the musical, at a theatre festival in 2013, they admit they concentrated mostly on their own characters. “It is very humbling to hear your story, your words, on stage in front of 2,000 people,” Diane says. “You’re sitting there and thinking: ‘Oh my God, everybody knows more about me than they should’.”
Beverley Bass, meanwhile, returned home to Texas to her husband and two children, where she was thrown back into harsh reality. With 9/11 deterring Americans from flying, the US airline industry faced its “lost decade”, which brought thousands of job losses. She took early retirement in 2008, but still flies a private jet for business clients.
For many, the Come From Away story has come to symbolise the friendliness of the Canadian character. “What was wonderful was that while our country was suffering its worst tragedy of our lifetime, we were so well taken care of in Gander,” Bass says. “It was able to give the passengers some relief from the horror.”
– © The Daily Telegraph