“Come From Away”: Welcoming strangers in extraordinary circumstances

By Lee J. Green

“Come From Away,” the touring Broadway musical which tells the remarkable true story of 7,000 stranded passengers and Gander, the small town in Newfoundland that welcomed them, lands in Birmingham March 14 to 19 at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex. The 7,000 passengers were on 38 planes that were forced to land immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, doubling the town’s population for several days of uncertainty.

Broadway Veteran Kevin Carolan plays several roles in the show, including a Jewish man in Gander named Eddie who consults with the rabbi from one of the planes, to help him greater define and understand his Jewish identity.

“What is so great about this show is that you have people from so many different backgrounds, cultures and religions coming together to get a greater understanding of each other and themselves,” said Carolan. “Eddie was born in Poland but moved to this small town in Canada and really wanted someone to connect with to discover himself.”

Carolan is Catholic, but he has learned some Yiddish and celebrated holidays with friends. He was also in a few episodes of the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” TV show, which is written and directed by starring actor Larry David.

“I played a bartender when Larry was doing a production of ‘The Producers’ and the great Mel Brooks was in some of the scenes,” he said. “Getting to spend the day with Mel and Anne Bancroft was definitely a highlight of my career.

Carolan was born in the Bronx and raised in Wanaque, N.J. At a young age, he got interested in stage and screen. He would go on to graduate with a major in Film and a minor in Theatre from Montclair State University.

After graduating, Carolan did some professional theatre in New York and New Jersey before earning his first opportunity on Broadway as a swing in 2001. A few years later, he would originate the role of Teddy Roosevelt in the popular Broadway show “Newsies,” reprising it in the movie version as well.

Carolan has also toured with “Chicago”and “The Jungle Book,” and he has been in episodes of “Boardwalk Empire.”

He auditioned for the touring production of “Come From Away” in 2017. “My father had read the book ‘When The World Came to Town’ that this show is based upon, so I knew what an incredible story this was,” said Carolan. “My antennae were raised when I heard it was in development and I auditioned for several stand-by roles before the show was on Broadway.”

Carolan said one of the biggest thrills of the tour, which started in 2018 and resumed in September 2021 after a Covid hiatus, has been meeting some of the people who were in Gander and neighboring towns at the time, as well as a few who were on the planes. “That’s really were it hits home — to see their reactions and how this impacted them.”

There are only 12 actors on stage in the show and each plays multiple roles. Carolan also plays the Mayor of Gander and Claude.

“We might just change a part of our outfit and then we have to get into the mindset of another character,” said Carolan. “The way it is written really adds some rich layers to the story.”

A Canadian Jewish married couple, David Hein and Irene Sankoff, wrote “Come From Away” in 2012. The show was first produced in Ontario and played in San Diego, Seattle and Washington, before debuting on Broadway in March 2017.

In a Times of Israel article, Hein explained that “Come From Away” draws from both Jewish and Newfoundland traditions.

“There’s a line in our show of, ‘If a stranger ends up at your door, you welcome them in’,” he said. “That’s important in communities that have defined themselves as willing to help one another.”

To research the show, Hein and Sankoff traveled to Gander for the tenth anniversary of Sept. 11, interviewing as many people as they could and distilling many of their stories into the musical.

One of the stories is about Rabbi Leivi Sudak, a British Chabad rabbi who was traveling from London to New York to visit the grave of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

In the show, the viewer meets Rabbi Sudak when Beulah, a teacher and main organizer of the emergency efforts, is listing some of the options the guests had to eat. Someone points out a kippah-wearing man who hasn’t eaten anything.

“It turns out he’s an Orthodox rabbi and he only eats Jewish food,” Beulah explains to the audience. Newfoundland is home to many faiths, she says, but not many Jews.

Hein and Sankoff got their start in theatre with a much more explicitly Jewish show: the autobiographical “My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding.” That musical, which had a successful tour in Canada in 2009, tells the story of how Hein’s mother rediscovered her Judaism when she came out to her family and met her wife.

Sankoff grew up in an interfaith family — her father was Jewish — and celebrated the Jewish holidays growing up. She said both of their families’ experiences escaping “countries that no longer exist” is a formative aspect of their Jewish identities.

“You can just say, in a different situation, this was me and this was my people. And you look out for people as best as you can,” she said.

Sankoff said “Come From Away” is not directly about the events of Sept. 11, but rather its ripple effects around the world. It’s about the people who responded to help those in need. “It’s about pulling together in the face of tragedy.”