They Just Want to Meet the Nice People
Late last spring, Barbara Pearson, who lives in Kips Bay and works in pharmaceutical advertising, took her 90-year-old mother and 37-year-old daughter to see the Broadway musical “Come From Away.”
The Tony Award-winning production, which opened in March of last year at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater on West 45th Street, tells the true story of what happened on 9/11 when 38 planes from all over the world were rerouted and ordered to land in Gander, a remote, tiny town in the northeastern part of Newfoundland.
Jenni Swan, left, visited Gander with Barbara Pearson, whom she met in a discussion group after seeing the Broadway musical, “Come From Away.” Credit Jeenah Moon for The New York Times
For five days, about 10,000 residents from the province fed, housed and consoled some 6,700 unexpected visitors. Some opened their homes to people in need of showers, a change of clothes or a warm bed. Others bought rounds of drinks for stir-crazy passengers at the local bar. One local, Beulah Cooper, sat by a landline for days with a New Yorker who was waiting for any news about her firefighter son.
Right away, audiences connected to the quirky story of mass generosity. But for Ms. Pearson, seeing it was particularly powerful. For the past year she had experienced heightened anxiety, she said, ever since the 2016 presidential election. “I don’t want to sound overwhelmingly melodramatic,” she said. “But there was a certain amount of survival of hope at stake.”
When the musical was over, long after the clapping and dancing had stopped, Ms. Pearson was scheming. “I had this feeling that there was goodness, that if these people are really like this, I have to go there and meet them.” By November she was on a plane to Gander to explore the area with Jenni Swan, 34, another New Yorker she’d met at a group discussion about the play.
Surprisingly, Ms. Pearson is not unusual. She and Ms. Swan are two of many Broadway theatergoers who have seen the show and made pilgrimages to Newfoundland.
“Our tourism was up 30 percent this past summer from the previous year,” said Claude Elliott, the former mayor of Gander and a prominent character in the production. “The way the world is reacting, the people who want to visit us — never in our wildest dreams did we think this would happen.” Tourism is now a billion dollar industry on the island, according to the Newfoundland’s tourism department.
Ms. Pearson said she simply wanted to visit the region to meet “nice people.” She spent her vacation going to the mall, to the village green, to the local Tim Hortons (the Canadian coffee and doughnut chain), just to talk to whomever was next to her.
One Gander couple with six children persuaded Ms. Pearson to come to their home for a traditional meal. “They made me something called a Jiggs dinner that includes turkey and stuffing and pudding and carrots and potatoes and turnips and these fried bread-bowl things,” she said. “It’s a freaking Thanksgiving dinner, and they invited complete strangers into the house.”
Other travelers are focused on meeting the real-life characters and visiting the locations featured in the show. “The play is 100 percent accurate,” Mr. Elliott said. “Everything that is in that musical happened.”
Rodney Hicks, a former cast member of “Come From Away,” stands at the Dover Fault, a geological feature near Gander that provides the backdrop for where two characters from the show fall in love. Tourists, inspired by the musical, are now visiting the site. Credit Via Come From Away
When Ryan Kraft, a 34-year-old sign-language interpreter in Toronto, visited New York for the Broadway premiere of the show last year, he got to meet Diane Davis, a retired teacher who had inspired a role in the musical. He had reached out to her several weeks before his trip to see if she’d be at the premiere.
“I was obsessed, so I sent her a message on Facebook and said, ‘I would like to meet you because I’ve seen all your videos and interviews,’” Mr. Kraft said. “Her response was something like, ‘Oh! My first stalker.’” After they met in New York, she helped him plan his trip to Gander.
He visited every site in the show, from the international terminal of the airport to the Dover Fault, where two stranded passengers fell in love. “I laid on a picnic table and listened to the soundtrack,” Mr. Kraft said. “That’s what you do when you’re on a ‘Come From Away’ trip.”
Mary and Burt Emerson, of Naperville, Ill., saw the musical in both New York and Washington, D.C. They traveled to Newfoundland for their wedding anniversary, wearing their souvenir shirts wherever they went. “People noticed them and then started telling us stories of what happened during 9/11,” Ms. Emerson said.
They visited the mayor’s office, where they flipped through binders of thank-you notes sent by stranded passengers after they’d made it home. They also got “screeched in,” a ceremony performed on non-Newfoundlanders in the musical that involves a speech, a shot of rum (or “screech”) and kissing a dead fish. “It was a three-month-old cod they kept in the freezer,” said Mr. Emerson. “It was nasty-looking, but it was fun.”
The cast, crew and creative team behind “Come From Away” at the international arrivals escalator of Gander International Airport, in Newfoundland. Credit Candace Kennedy for The New York Times.
“All you have to do: the first Newfoundlander you meet, tell them what you want to do, and we will take it from there,” Mr. Elliott said. “I would say within an hour you can meet whoever you want to meet.”
Ms. Swan, the executive assistant from New York who traveled with Ms. Pearson, said that the trip to Gander was therapeutic. “I’ve been in New York City for 13½ years, so it’s easy to get bogged down in the pressures,” she said. “Going there and seeing what a positive mind-set these people have, I catch myself more when I’m stressing.”
The people of Gander may be welcoming tourists with open arms, but they are also taking full advantage of their moment in the sun. The town now has official van tours, welcome centers and signs for “Come From Away” fans. Gander’s website warns those planning to visit during peak season (summer) to book accommodations and car rentals well in advance. Mr. Elliott, however, doesn’t think this is an issue. “If there is no more room just give someone a call, and you can stay in their home,” he said. “That’s just the way we are.”
Mr. and Ms. Emerson are heading back sometime in 2018 to see sites like Gros Morne National Park. Ms. Pearson and Ms. Swan are also taking another trip in June to take in the icebergs, the whales and some little towns they missed on their first trip.
The exchange goes both ways. The “Islanders,” as they call themselves in the musical, are visiting New York, too.
“It was an eerie feeling being at ground zero,” Mr. Elliott said. “It was like I was walking on sacred ground. You look around and close your eyes and you can envision what these people were going through that day and what terror must have been going through everybody over here.”
For Ms. Davis, the retired teacher, the Broadway premiere provided an opportunity for her to visit New York for the first time. She found that when she opened up to New Yorkers about her story, they were as hospitable to her as she had been to them. While in line at the 9/11 Tribute Museum, one man insisted on paying her admission fee. Outside the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater, she asked a local couple to take her picture. They ended up inviting her to their home for dinner. “Saying no was one of my biggest regrets of my time in New York City,” she said. “It was being on the receiving end of people giving. Going to places and having someone pay your meal or offer to take you somewhere,” she continued. “It’s an overwhelming experience.”