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A lesson on kindness, delivered by the Broadway musical 'Come From Away'

The Broadway musical ‘Come From Away’ tells the true story of a small town that opened its arms to thousands of stranded airline passengers after the 9/11 terror attacks. Cast member Kevin Carolan, and the man one of his characters is based on, spoke with KLCC ahead of this week’s performances at the Hult Center in Eugene.

Carolan, an actor and singer, was at home in New Jersey about 20 miles away from New York City’s World Trade Center when terrorists flew hijacked planes into the twin towers on September 11, 2001.

“I do remember turning on the news thinking I was watching footage of the first tower getting hit. And of course, it was footage of the second tower,” said Carolyn, speaking by phone from San Francisco. 

As Carolan worked to shield his family from the constant stream of news dominating the television, more than 1,000 miles away to the northeast, Claude Elliott, the mayor of Gander, Newfoundland, soon realized the attack would also change things in his small Canadian town.

“We first got the message when the US decided to shut down its airspace, and Canada had agreed to take all the aircraft,” Elliott said, speaking by phone from Gander, his hometown. 

As chaos, fear, and destruction overtook the United States, Elliott readied his community to welcome stranded travelers and flight crews from around the world.

“We knew that we would be expecting planes in Gander," he said. "So we started getting prepared to accept as many planes as we possibly could."

Nearly two decades later, that moment in time has connected the two men through, of all things, a musical.

“He might be I think the first person I've ever gotten to play, that's a real person that I've gotten to meet,” Carolan said. 

Elliott said he wasn’t sure what to expect from seeing himself portrayed on stage. He’s happy to say, the production, and Carolan’s performance, hit the mark. 

“I'm not sure he could improve on it. I think he's done a great job on everything,” Elliott said. 

‘Come From Away’ tells the story of events that unfolded the day after the terror attacks. On September 12th, Gander’s population ballooned as it transformed into a temporary shelter for nearly 7,000 passengers.

Elliott declared a state of emergency, and volunteers began cooking meals and looking for places for the influx of stranded visitors to sleep.

“We wanted to keep the hotel rooms for the crew to make sure that they would be well rested when they were ready to leave. And then we started putting people in schools and churches,” Elliott said. 

In the days that followed, kindness diffused tensions and bridged differences, something Elliott said comes naturally to folks in Gander.

“My grandfather was a farmer, he made sure his neighbor had potatoes. If his neighbor was a fisherman, he made sure that he had fish, and that was passed on from generation from generation, not just to the people that you live with, but to complete strangers if they show up," he said. "And they're in need about you help people regardless of where they're from." 

The show is based on that remarkable generosity, which helped steady the island’s unexpected guests and the uncertainties they faced.

Carolan has played Mayor Claude since October 2018.

“To really see the change that in people's lives in the hope that people get from the show, is quite a gift,” he said. 

Carolan first learned about the events in Gander through his father. His dad had read a book about it and shared stories with Carolan about the extraordinary relationships forged during such an exceptional moment in history. Having the opportunity to bring that conversation of hope and kindness to the stage amid another world crisis – the COVID-19 pandemic – is for Carolan, a dream.

“Really, this job has meant something to me more than almost any other job I've had," he said. "And I'm pretty certain that everybody I work with feels the same way."

Elliott, who had never seen a Broadway show before Come From Away, has seen the production 98 times. He says its message matters as much now as it did more than twenty one years ago when all of those rerouted planes descended on his hometown.

“Our motto is, look, we can disagree on things. But at the end of the day, we should love each other and be able to help each other and, and I think today that the world needs more of this,” Elliott said. 

Come From Away runs Tuesday, April 25 through Sunday, April 30 at Eugene’s Hult Center for the Performing Arts.

The Hult Center for the Performing Arts is a frequent underwriter of KLCC.

Jill Burke became KLCC's arts reporter in February, 2023.