The Biscuit – 2/22/23
The Day After Everything Changed
Come From Away doesn’t dwell on 9/11.
It celebrates the hope and humanity people found on 9/12.
“It’ll move you in ways you don’t expect.” – Cameron Moncur, Come From Away’s musical director
The U.S.-bound passengers diverted to Gander, Newfoundland on Sept. 11, 2001 may have felt they’d be stuck there for eternity.
Unlike their uncertain ordeal, the musical based on their experience – Come From Away – moves quickly. It’s one hour and 40 minutes without an intermission. It’s efficient: Twelve actors, who change costumes a few times, play 28 roles. The Tony Award-winning musical will play the Belk Theater March 7 through 12.
Musical Director Cameron Moncur has to move fast, too. “The music doesn’t stop,” he said by phone from the tour’s recent stop in Syracuse, New York.
“I can count on one hand the number of minutes I’m not playing music in the show.”
Humanity in the face of tragedy
In the wake of terrorist attacks on 9/11, 33 planes carrying nearly 7,000 passengers from a multitude of nations were rerouted to Gander after U.S. airspace was closed.
By the time they all landed, Gander’s population had doubled. The town and its people were ill-equipped to host all these weary guests, but that didn’t stop them from rolling out the red carpet in the aftermath of the deadliest terrorist attack ever on U.S. soil.
Gander was a haven for the waylaid travelers – a place of respite, a place to begin healing from the shock.
“The show very intentionally doesn’t focus on 9/11,” said Moncur, a New York-based Berklee College of Music graduate. “It focuses on acts of human kindness that came out of that horrific tragedy.”
And there were many, as Come From Away demonstrates. The townspeople of Gander took in the throngs of “plane people” – and in some cases, their pets – and sheltered, fed and comforted them until it was deemed safe for planes to take off again.
Irene Sankoff and David Hein, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, interviewed Gander residents and plane people to get the truth of what happened during those remarkable few days. Some of the play’s characters are based entirely on real individuals; others are composites of several people.
In a short span, the audience gets to know these stranded travelers and their gracious hosts.
We first meet them during Moncur’s favorite moment in the show. It happens while the band is playing Darkness and Trees as the dazed passengers finally come off the planes.
“There are little vignettes on stage showing what the characters are going through,” Moncur said. “There’s miscommunication between the [multinational] passengers due to language barriers. They’re not always able to communicate effectively – but they still find a way to connect.”
By the end of that scene, the good folks of Gander have been able to provide their guests with what they need after being stuck on the tarmac. Mostly, what they need is a way to call home.
We all remember where we were when we heard the news. Moncur, who’s originally from Canada (Hamilton, Ontario), was in high school.
“We were watching but not at all understanding the gravity of it,” he recalled. “I remember having no idea of the global impact it would have. I was young.”
“Once I moved to New York and met people in the Broadway community who lived in New York on 9/11 and heard their stories, it began to hit me,” he added.
“Many people I’ve worked with were in New York at the time, and their stories are incredible to hear. Until COVID shut Broadway down for an extended time, 9/11 was one of the few times Broadway had ever gone dark for days on end. Joining the show and telling this story marries my Canadian life with my now-New York life in a really beautiful way.”
Like many of us, Moncur wasn’t aware of what happened in Gander until Come From Away was in its early stages.
“It’s strange,” he said. “It was publicized at the time – Tom Brokaw even made a documentary about it – but people’s attention was rightfully elsewhere. It took time to be able to tell the story. It’s important for people to know we don’t call the musical ‘the 9/11 musical.’
“We call it ‘the 9/12 musical’ because it’s focused on what happens the day after.”
“I remember when this show was percolating,” he added. “If you had told me then that it would be as powerful and tasteful as it is, I would never have believed you. I didn’t think there was a world in which that could be done.”
‘One giant song’
Moncur has been with the show since 2018; he served as associate musical director the first year of the tour. He conducts from, and while playing, a piano. He and his fellow musicians sometimes – in a mid-show bar scene, for instance – become part of the action on stage.
Including Moncur, seven musicians are on stage. A drummer is backstage, and an associate music director, who conducts three shows a week to give Moncur a break, is standing by.
He never tires of the music he plays night after night. “It’s cinematic in scope,” he said. “There’s not one mood for the whole musical. The musicians establish a mood for each scene. The music can be intimidating and a little scary. Or it can be almost ominous to convey a mood of uncertainty.”
“But there’s a lot of joy and hope, too.” It’s in fact, a love story.
To anyone concerned that a musical that focuses on 9/11 might be too dark and heavy, Moncur reminds you: Come From Away is about the day after 9/11.
“If you have any reservations about seeing it, know that it’s worth coming,” he said. “It’ll move you in ways you don’t expect.”
Come from wherever you are. Quickly.
Come From Away is at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center’s Belk Theater from March 7 – 12. Learn more and buy tickets (starting at $25) at blumenthalarts.org
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