In honor of Come From Away‘s upcoming Broadway opening, this month we checked in with Irene Sankoff and David Hein to see how the piece has changed since we last spoke to them after the 2013 Festival, and what’s different about preparing for a Broadway opening. We also took a look back at the show’s beginnings in a interview with Michael Rubinoff.
The last time we checked in with you both, you were preparing for Come From Away’s world premiere at La Jolla Playhouse. The show has had a whirlwind journey since then! What have been some of your favorite moments along the way?
David: La Jolla was incredible! It was our first production, our first reviews, and our first time working with most of our team.
Irene: We went from being this unknown show to people lining up for 3 hours in the hopes of getting tickets. I was walking around in a daze. Then at Seattle Rep, the theatre was much bigger and I remember the look on the cast’s faces after the blackout when the audience responded. They said after it was like being hit by a wall of sound.
David: The phone lines crashed there because of people looking for tickets. And they flew the Mayor of Gander, Newfoundland out—they declared it “Gander Day” and gave him a key to the city. Seattle was very good to us.
Irene: Ford’s Theatre in DC was surreal because there were so many politicians in the audience, from both sides of the aisle. And they reacted the same way to this story of kindness—with laughter and tears. We also had a lot of repeat visitors—some who were survivors of the attack in D.C. and some who had lost loved ones.
David: We got to tour the Pentagon and meet with many of the survivors and families. It was incredibly moving. Then we took the show out to Gander, Newfoundland to share it with the people whose generosity had inspired this show. We’re used to watching the people we interviewed as they see their stories onstage, but seeing almost 3,000 people have their community reflected was overwhelming. They started cheering in the opening number, sang along to parts (all 3,000 of them), and started a standing ovation ten minutes before the show ended. Most importantly, it was a benefit concert with all proceeds going to local charities, giving back to the people who gave so much.
Irene: [During the show in Gander]…I looked over [at a friend], and I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was a docent from The Pentagon Memorial, she was a survivor and had lost her sister in the attacks. And she had made the decision to make the not-at-all easy trip to Newfoundland to experience a concert version of a Broadway show in a Hockey Arena. That entire weekend—the experience was beyond words.
David: Finally, we returned to where we first started writing Come From Away, our home in Toronto—and it was wonderful to finally share the show with our friends and family—in one of the theatres where we first fell in love with musical theatre. The show sold out, they added seats, and then standing room – and on the last day, which was freezing cold—we went down with our team to give donuts and coffee to the standing room line and perform for them. And now we’re back in New York, which is a homecoming in itself, to where we studied and interned and saw as many shows as we could on Broadway. We’re thrilled to still be working with almost the same team we started with, which has now become a family, all telling the same story together.
You’ve worked with NAMT member Junkyard Dog as a partner since the NAMT Festival; what has your partnership with them looked like and how has it informed the development process?
Irene: Laughter, lots of laughter. Since our very first meeting. They have always been extremely supportive of us as artists and as people new to the biz at this level, and we’ve never been afraid to express our ideas or opinions. We were afraid we would be intimidated by their accomplishments, but they have always been extremely easy to talk to. And, they took a chance on a married writing team from Canada with a newborn. Our daughter has fallen asleep on Sue Frost’s lap. I think that says it all.
David: It also speaks volumes that they traveled to Newfoundland with us and our director, Chris Ashley, in 2014—and then brought back our entire team for the benefit concert. From the start, they have been committed to getting this story right, to supporting us, as well as the people we’ve interviewed, and to assembling the best team we could have asked for. We’re unbelievably lucky to be working with them.
Your path to Broadway brought Come From Away through many varied communities. Has presenting the piece in different regions influenced any changes in the storytelling?
Irene: We haven’t changed content or style to match where we are, but rather just tested the show we wanted to do in these various regions. And it’s gone so well everywhere we’ve been, I think that supports one of the show’s messages, that we are more alike than we are different.
David: The Canadians laugh at the Canadian references of course—and we can immediately identify any Newfoundlanders in the house, often because they’re waving flags—but it’s been surprising how universal this story is. It’s what we remember when we lived in Manhattan after 9/11—and I think the entire world felt the same sense of “being in this together.”
The Broadway opening is right around the corner—what’s been unique about preparing the show for Broadway?
David: There’s more activity, and it’s obviously so exciting, but we’re still doing the same work we’ve been doing for five productions now—trying to make it as good as we can every day.
Irene: We’ve added a few new things. We finally got to spend more time with the family of the fallen firefighter that is referenced in the show—and that inspired a new song.
Why should everyone “come from away” to see the show’s Broadway production?
David: What started as telling a small, Canadian story, has become a show where people from around the world celebrate kindness towards strangers despite race, religion or place of origin. It’s an incredibly powerful story that makes you laugh until you cry and vice versa. The authentic Newfoundland music and instrumentation is uniquely new to Broadway. Beyond that, Chris Ashley, our director, together with Kelly Devine, our choreographer, have brilliantly staged the show—and the cast is one of the finest ensembles you’ll ever see, each switching between multiple characters and accents in an instant. We’ve seen it now hundreds of times, and we never get tired of watching the magic they create onstage.
Irene: What happened in Newfoundland has been called the “greatest story never told.” Having lived in New York over 9/11, I didn’t hear about it until much, much later. And while it doesn’t take away the pain from the day, it is another hopeful memory. And we rarely give enough of a spotlight to the positive, to people changing the world for the better—and that’s what Come From Away does.
For more information, and to buy tickets, visit the Come From Away website.
It was a well-documented story in Canadian media that hundreds of planes were diverted to Canada on that tragic day when US airspace was closed. Part of that reporting included the incredible humanity displayed by the people of Gander, Newfoundland. Their actions made me so proud to be Canadian, a rare feeling in a country that is very polite about our patriotism. As a producer the best way I knew how to share these stories was via a musical. I set out to find writers that shared my passion and vision for telling this story in this way. In 2010 I went to see David Hein and Irene Sankoff’s musical My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding at Toronto’s Panasonic Theatre. I loved the show and David and Irene’s authenticity in telling this autobiographical story about David’s family. We arranged a dinner and I shared my idea about turning this story into a musical and asked if it was something they would be interested in writing. They went away, did some research and came back with an enthusiastic “yes.” Parallel to these early discussions I was leaving my day-to-day law practice to take up the position of Associate Dean of Visual and Performing Arts at Sheridan College, just outside of Toronto. One of my strategic objectives for Sheridan was to launch an incubator to develop new musicals, I made a commitment to David and Irene that their musical would be one of the first we would develop through the newly minted Canadian Music Theatre Project.
What kind of development did Canadian Music Theatre Project at Sheridan do with Come From Away in those early stages?
After returning from a month-long research trip to Gander, on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, David and Irene had stacks of paper from interviews conducted with numerous locals and come from aways that returned for the anniversary. In March/April 2012 we provided them with a director, musical director and a cast made up of our music theatre performance students. They had five weeks, seven hours a day, six days a week to workshop the piece. The only expectation was a 45-minute NAMT style presentation that would be shared with the public for two weeks of performances. The presentation was so strong we ended up taking it to Toronto for two performances at the Panasonic Theatre. After the success of the initial workshop, I set a deadline and committed to presenting a developmental production in our studio theatre as part of our next Theatre Sheridan season. In January/February 2013, they once again had five weeks to rehearse and workshop what was then a two act version. Parallel to the first two weeks of the Sheridan process, the show was fortunate to undergo further development as part of Godspeed’s Festival of New Musicals. We had two weeks of performances in which audiences felt so connected to the piece. David and Irene had found a way to tell these multitude of stories in such a poignant and truthful way.
Since that time, the show has experienced a great deal of development! How have you and CMTP remained involved with the show?
As a result of the incredible opportunity the 2013 NAMT Festival provided, the show found its exceptional commercial producers, Junkyard Dog Productions, which lead to the engagement of a dynamic Broadway creative team lead by Chris Ashley. I have been fortunate to remain involved as a creative consultant and producer. We have developed a wonderful friendship on this journey and I am happy to play any role that is useful to support their success. On a producing level I feel like I have been in charge of Canadian affairs, helping to coordinate and organize the show in concert at the Gander Community Centre Hockey Arena on October 29, 2016 and fostering Canadian partnerships and relationships that are beneficial to the show. Having the show in my hometown, Toronto, prior to the Broadway engagement was absolutely thrilling. The CMTP at Sheridan has been generous in sponsoring previous productions and hosting events in connection with the show. Sheridan’s support and commitment to developing new musicals continues to be incredible. The final preview in Toronto was “Sheridan Night” and it was thrilling to enjoy the show with a number of alumni who first gave life to these roles over the two workshops. It is a very special badge of honour for our former music theatre performance students that were involved.
What has been your favorite moment to see as the show has moved towards its Broadway opening?
The enthusiastic and heartfelt reactions by audiences on both sides of the border. Ultimately, I wanted to share this story to honour the extraordinary humanity displayed by the people of Gander and the surrounding towns. Being able to do that night after night and now on one of the greatest stages in the world, is beyond my wildest dreams. The cast, band, creative team and crew have been so committed to telling this story in the most meaningful and truthful way.
What’s next in the CMTP pipeline?
We have been developing some exciting international partnerships. Currently, we have partnered with the prestigious Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre, a national Chinese theatre company, to develop a Canadian/Chinese musical about a historical Canadian figure, Dr. Norman Bethune. Rather than translating a show from one language to another we have engaged Neil Bartram to compose music and write English lyrics, Brian Hill to write the English book and direct, and Chinese playwright Nick Rongjun Yu to write the Mandarin lyrics and book, to create a very unique new musical. Nick is China’s most produced living playwright and Bartram and Hill are one of my absolute favourite writing teams, having developed the MTI licensed The Theory of Relativity and Senza Luce via the CMTP. Bethune will be workshopped at the CMTP in September/October and further workshopped in Shanghai in 2018. We anticipate a co-world premiere in Shanghai and Toronto in 2019. It has been very exciting pioneering new contemporary musical theatre in China. For more information on our other projects visit our website.