Published March 16, 2017
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — along with first daughter Ivanka Trump as a guest — welcomed a new musical that celebrates Canadian compassion and openness to international travelers following the Sept. 11 attacks.
Trudeau and Trump and some 120 ambassadors from around the world attended the show "Come From Away" on Wednesday night at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, in a city where the bulk of the 3,000 people on 9/11 died.
The musical is set in the small Newfoundland town of Gander, which opened its arms and homes to some 7,000 airline passengers diverted there when the U.S. government shut down its airspace. In a matter of a few hours, the town was overwhelmed by 38 planeloads of travelers from dozens of countries and religions, yet locals went to work in their kitchens and cleaned up spare rooms.
In remarks before the show, Trudeau got on the stage and said he was pleased that, "the world gets to see what it is to lean on each other and be there for each other through the darkest times."
The show got a standing ovation, including from Trump, who sat near Trudeau, his wife and U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley. Also in attendance was Jean Chretien, a former Canadian prime minister, and the mayor of Gander. Trump was seen clapping along happily as the band played at the curtain call.
The actors did not make any changes to the script or acknowledge the special audience, but one afterward was still buzzing.
"When do we have the opportunity to share a story about kindness, gratitude and love that takes place in a country that is known for opening their hearts to people," said actor Rodney Hicks. "It just meant the world to all of us."
Trudeau, who champions global free trade and has welcomed 40,000 Syrian refugees, was celebrating the 150th anniversary of Canada's confederation and also hoped to reaffirm the special friendship between Canadians and Americans.
"Our friends are there for those tough times, when you lose a parent or a loved one, when you get knocked off your path at a difficult moment in your life. Where you go through difficult times, that's when you turn and you lean on your friends," he said. "That ultimately is what this story is all about — being there for each other."
In the show, a cast of a dozen play both residents and marooned passengers, telling true stories of generosity, compassion and acceptance, while fear and suspicion reigned in America. The show arrives just as a debate over immigration and open borders has reignited following the Trump administration's push for a ban on travelers from six predominantly Muslim nations.
Canadian husband-and-wife writing team Irene Sankoff and David Hein wrote the book, music and lyrics, and it was directed by Christopher Ashley, the artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse. The musical veers its focus from weighty matters — a mother anxious about her missing firefighter son in New York — to more silly events, like a rowdy evening at a local bar where visitors are urged to kiss a cod.
Security at the theater was intense and theatergoers had to navigate through frozen snow drifts as well as black SUVs. But Trudeau seemed comfortable on the stage.
"I have to sort of personally say, on behalf of all Canadians, thank you for making us so welcome with the snow," he said. "It's a nice touch. You really went out of your way."
Trudeau's warm reception was in contrast to the ones that greeted two other world leaders who recently attended the Broadway smash "Hamilton" — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Vice President-elect Mike Pence. Both received more than a smattering of boos.
One woman in attendance on Wednesday was seeing "Come From Away" for the 58th time, having followed it as it made its way from California to Seattle to Washington, D.C., then Gander and now Broadway.
That was Beverley Bass, the first female captain at American Airlines, who was at the helm of Flight 49, going from Paris to Dallas-Fort Worth, when she ended up in Gander on 9/11. She was interviewed by the musical's creators for her story and is portrayed onstage by Jenn Colella.
After almost 60 performances, might she at some point just step in for Colella one night and play her own life? Bass laughed: "I can't sing and dance, so her role is safe from me," she said. Then she thought for a moment and added: "I guess she can't fly jets."