It’s one thing to be the real-life inspirations in the musical Come From Away.
It is quite another to hear your own personal history summarized in a song composed by the play’s writers David Hein and Irene Sankoff.
That was the experience of Beverley Bass, who, well before the events of 9/11, had a claim to history as the first female captain to pilot for American Airlines in 1986.
Since retired, Bass became a part of cultural history as one of the more significant characters in the Tony Award-winning Come From Away — an American Airlines pilot whose flight from Paris to Dallas-Fort. Worth was diverted to Gander, N.L., when American airspace was closed after two passenger jets flew into the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
The Winnipeg debut of the musical brought Bass and her husband, Tom Stawicki, to the official opening Thursday, and on an afternoon visit to the theatre, she recalled the moment she first learned of the existence of the song Me and the Sky.
"It was at the opening night in La Jolla in the summer of 2015," she recalls. "I’m seeing this show for the first time and I had no idea there was a song that literally chronicled my entire flying life in four minutes and 19 seconds.
"I could not believe it," she says. "I didn’t know my role was so prominent in the show. It was all a total surprise."
It’s not that Bass didn’t know a musical was in the works. When she and her husband went to Gander to observe the 10th anniversary of 9/11, she met with Sankoff and Hein for what she assumed might be another brief media interview.
"When we got there, there were all kinds of interviews with news people and they were all looking for a five-second sound bite for the evening news.
"Then I learned that there were two playwrights in town and they wanted to do an interview, and of course I said yes," she recalls. "Well, that interview lasted four hours.
"We don’t know a lot about the theatre business, so after the events of the 10th anniversary, we just flew home and we really never thought about it again."
Seeing the story told from that perspective gave Bass an insight into the events depicted in the play while seated next to her husband.
"There’s a moment where my character calls her husband and says, ‘I’m fine, Tom.’
"He just buried his head in his hands and we’re just sobbing through the whole show," she says.
"What I realized was that day was really much harder on him than it was on me," she says. "Because I had a job to do. I had an airplane to manage. I had 156 passengers and I had a flight crew of 15. I was on duty.
"He was at home not knowing where I was and he couldn’t even call me. No one had cellphones. Our children were eight and nine and they had their school locked down. He had to go home and pick up the kids. They eventually learned that I had landed, but they had no idea where.
"So the day was much harder for him," she says. "I was just dealing minute by minute, hour by hour with the situation at hand."
Bass has attended every opening of the play since that première in La Jolla and more besides. Wednesday night at Royal Manitoba Theatre Company "was 91 times for me to see the show," she says.
"Every time I see it, it’s like the first time. I still tear up at certain parts," she says. "My husband cries every single time and he’s seen it about 87 times."
To Bass, the show is an ideal way to handle the trauma of the attacks with a story that emphasizes the positive.
"There’s been enough time since 9/11 that people can now wrap their brain around the thought of going to a show because we call it a 9/12 show as opposed to 9/11," she says. "It’s really about the generosity and kindness that was bestowed after the attacks.
"For me, it’s about the people who are able to go see it who have a closeness to 9/11 that maybe not all of us did — people who lost friends or relatives in the towers or the airplanes," she says. "We have a young man who’s a friend of ours.
"He’s a new pilot with American and I invited him to the show in Washington, D.C.," she says. "His father was the co-pilot on our (American Airlines) airplane that hit the north tower.
"I don’t think you could be any more closely connected than he was," she says. "He was 15 years old when he lost his dad in the attacks and he was very excited about coming, and the day he got there, I really started getting cold feet because I thought maybe it’s too much for him to handle.
"But it was so good, and the nicest thing he said to me was: ‘Thank you for inviting me. It gave me a chance to heal a little bit.’
"There is a line in the show, where I say: ‘A pilot will fight till the ends of the Earth to save his airplane. He just will.’ And that young man said to me that that was the most profound moment in the show for him. He said: ‘I knew that’s what my dad was doing.’"
Come From Away is playing to sold-out houses at RMTC until Feb. 3.
In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.
Updated on Friday, January 12, 2018 at 8:24 AM CST: Adds photos