Most theatergoers know Come From Away, the record-breaking, award-winning musical that took Broadway by storm in 2017, has to do with 9/11. But the musical, whose national tour makes a stop in Houston this week, is not the story of 9/11; that’s only where it begins.
Called “a celebration of the best of humankind” by The Daily Beast, Come From Away is about what happened after the Twin Towers fell. After the Pentagon caught on fire. After planes were scrambled around the globe, stranding confused and weary passengers.
Come From Away, which recounts the true events surrounding the passengers who found hospitality in a small Canadian town after their flights were rerouted, is the story of September 12 and the following days. It is also the story of Houstonians Nick and Diane Marson, now in their 70s, who met in Newfoundland after their flight from London to Dallas was forced to land.
Their love story is front and center in the musical’s plot.
Ironically, “neither one of us was supposed to be traveling that day,” says Nick, a native Englishman and now-retired oil engineer. Nick was supposed to travel to Houston for business the day before but had to delay his flight. Meanwhile, Diane, a native Houstonian, was coming back from visiting her son, who was stationed at a U.S. Air Force base in England, and grandchildren. It was a trip she normally made in late September but had rearranged to be with her grandson when he started kindergarten, she says.
After the United States closed its airspace on 9/11, all flights to the U.S. from Europe were forced to land in Canada. Nick and Diane’s plane was among 38 that would eventually land in Gandor, a small town in Newfoundland, which, at the time, had a population of about 10,000. Nearly 7,000 passengers were stranded, and it would be almost a day before any of them were allowed to get off their planes.
“They had to figure out what to do with us,” Nick says. “And we had people from 90 different countries. Can you imagine all the languages?”
The people of Gander quickly rallied to the aid of their unexpected guests. Schools were shut down and converted into makeshift shelters, and striking bus drivers got back behind the wheel to shuttle the stranded passengers. Strangers opened up their homes, businesses provided food and toiletries, and pharmacies filled prescriptions.
Nick and Diane eventually met after they both ended up at a fisherman's lodge in the town of Gambo, about 30 miles away. They were next to each other in line to get blankets, got to chatting, and learned they were on the same flight.
“When it came time to choose I cot, I looked around the room and spotted Diane. I went over and asked if I could take the bed next to her,” Nick says impishly.
“What was I supposed to do?” Diane laughs.
For the next five days, the residents of Gander and its surrounding communities cared for the “come from aways”—what Newfoundlanders call anyone not from their island—and during that time, Nick and Diane struck up a friendship. On a trip to the Dover Fault, about an hour away from Gander, something seemed to change, at least for Nick.
“I wanted a picture of Diane to prove that these five days happened, that I didn’t dream it,” he says. “I had this disposable camera—this was before we had cameras in cellphones, before a lot of us even had cellphones—so I was trying to get as close as I could to her without stalking her.”
“I thought he was taking a picture of the scenery,” Diane says.
“I wanted a memory of her,” Nick responds.
This moment is immortalized in Come From Away with the song “Stop the World.”
On September 16, Nick and Diane headed to the airport, finally able to head back to their respective homes in England and Houston. That’s when the enormity of it all hit Diane.
“You just knew the world had changed,” she says. “And I knew I would never see these people again.” Sensing her melancholy, Nick put his arm around her. “And I just grabbed him and kissed him,” Diane says.
It’s Nick’s turn to laugh: “That changed the dynamic of our relationship!”
Over the next months, they corresponded by email, and visited when they could. By Christmas, Nick had convinced his company to transfer him to the Houston office and told Diane he was coming to the Bayou City “even if he had to sleep in the road.” She promptly moved out of her apartment in the Heights and bought a house in Spring. On Sept. 7, 2002, the couple married. They honeymooned in Newfoundland.
As anniversaries of 9/11 were marked, their story came to the attention of major news organizations and documentary crews. They chronicled their relationship to Tom Brokow, and, eventually, to Come From Away’s writers David Hein and Irene Sakoff, who attended the 10-year reunion of the come from aways in Gander in 2011.
To date, Nick and Diane have seen Come From Away 109 times in four countries and on three continents. And while the musical takes some liberties with their tale, they don’t mind.
“The music is so very, very beautiful,” Nick says.
“And all those details in the show happened to someone,” says Diane. “It’s story about love, about acceptance, about generosity, hospitality. It’s wonderful.”
Thru Mar 8. From $63. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby St. 713-315-2400. More info and tickets at thehobbycenter.org.