Special Feature: Come From Away

Creators of the inspirational musical Come From Away Irene Sankoff and David Hein talk Gander, Broadway and the ties that bind


When husband and wife creative duo David Hein and Irene Sankoff travelled to Gander on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11th tragedy, they never thought their names would be synonymous with Broadway and a larger-than-life spectacle that thrust the spotlight on an island, all quaint and full of splendour, adrift in the Atlantic.

Open Arms

No, we’d imagine the pair thought that the story of 7,000 stranded passengers, who were taken in with open arms and bathtub loads of love and hospitality, would make for an inspired, if not, reserved offering for schools and colleges in the great white north.

Fast-forward to the summer of 2017 and that little-engine-that-could production, affectionately titled Come From Away, has a thriving slot on Broadway, has been nominated, and won, numerous high-profile theatre accolades, and even banked a coveted Tony award.

Sankoff and Hein were just happy to tell a story, one of courage, heart and fortitude in the face of unspeakable tragedy. 

“Originally we knew it was a good story. We did have a few strikes against us going in,” Sankoff recalls in a candid chat with The Newfoundland Herald. “Unknown team and writers, unknown people in the cast, a story about 9/11 and a title that no one could remember. Our first and foremost priority was to do justice to the story or to do justice to the people who were affected that day, both who spoke to us and who were involved in the tragedy in New York. We said we’d put aside our hesitations and tell the best story we can and we were pretty certain it would be done in Canadian high schools, colleges and perhaps regionally in Canada … but beyond that, no. We started thinking this will never go past the Canadian border. But boy was I wrong.”

Helping Each Other

“It’s been a real testament to the story as well,” adds Hein. “When we started working on it we saw this Newfoundland story that we had fallen in love with and had fallen in love with the people down there and bringing it down to America we realized that this is a similar story to what we experienced when we were in New York at 9/11. We lived with an international community of people around the world and we were all trying to help each other and support each other.

“In each town we went to people came up to us and said that was my experience as well, wanting to help and wanting to do something. We realized that from over the ocean people were all in the same boat on that day. We were all trying to do something to help each other. There’s something about Gander and the story of what happened in Newfoundland and all of the towns in Central Newfoundland that remind people of the goodness and how they felt on that day. We realized it’s a universal story that has touched so many people at this point. I think that’s what led us to where we are right now.”

Remarkable Kindness

Sankoff and Hein were originally approached with the basis of Come From Away by Toronto lawyer-turned-theatre producer Michael Rubinoff, who was convinced that the remarkable kindness of the people of Gander, and surrounding areas, to the stranded passengers of some 38 aircrafts would make for a poig-nant, if not unlikely, work of theatre.

The duo would visit Gander on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks, where they would spend upwards to three weeks in the town, compiling hundreds of hours of recordings with those who lived and experienced the event first-hand.

“We just felt so welcomed from the very first instance,” Sankoff says. “Wanting to be able to capture that and put it on stage for everyone else to see, which felt like this huge challenge. We were up there and on an official level we didn’t want to go home. It was such a great time and we knew that we had to come back.”

“I had grown up on Newfoundland music so it was a joy to get to be there and watch The Navigators play on Sept. 10th,” Hein adds. “Everyone we interviewed pulled out a bodhran or mandolin or some guitar. We went to a Screech-In with a band playing. It was like hearing the soundtrack from a movie you’ve been waiting to see all of your life and finally being able to see it. We just loved it.” 

The original version was work-shopped and produced at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario before going on to launch record-breaking runs in La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego and the Seattle Repertory Theatre. From there, building traction, engagements were launched at the world-famous Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. and the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto, (not to mention a limited run here in Gander) before being picked up for a Broadway debut at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on March 12, 2017.

‘Love the Story’

“We had no idea it would go to Broadway and we had no idea that the music would really translate, but what we learned was that when you start with something that you love – we love Newfoundland music and love the story – you try to pass on that love to the audience,” Hein says.  

“With the music there were so many instruments, so many licks and turns of phrase that I wanted to include in the instrumentation and taking this music, which is traditional and people have been playing for hundreds of years. It’s amazing how fresh it sounds in the context and seemingly this brand new music that people have never heard.

‘Opening Night’

“On opening night in New York Shanneyganock played at our opening night concert and you could see all of these New Yorkers who go to opening night parties staring for a second and then suddenly all the Newfoundlanders, us and everyone in the cast started dancing to it and then suddenly everyone started dancing to it. It’s amazing music that brings everyone together and you can’t deny the response to it, no matter if you’ve heard it your entire life or heard it for the first time.”

Crowd-fatigue and the long-expected post-launch die-off never seemed to take hold for Come From Away. Engagements have been packed to the rafters since that mid-March premiere and the cast of the critically-acclaimed musical, including Newfoundland’s own Petrina Bromley and Tony nominated Jenn Colella, are quickly becoming household names.

Amazing Story

“It was non-stop, from opening night to award season. I remember our press agent said to us that there would be a little dip after opening and then we’d have to ramp up towards award season, but there was no dip.

“Part of what was amazing was seeing this New York audience standing up and cheering for the people we interviewed,” Hein explained. “There’s nothing better than that, having this story be recognized and celebrated. Celebrated by the prime minister and all of the guests who come. Being part of the Tonys was amazing because that’s a celebration of our theatrical family that we’ve been working with for six years now and the entire theatre community. There was a real sense that we were all building this season together with new shows and new ideas and stories being celebrated.”

At the heart of perhaps the most shocking and large-scale tragedy in decades lies stories of kindness, of people rising up when called upon, of open arms, baked warm homemade bread, cots for weary travellers and songs to help them sleep. It is that universal story, that extend well past the boundaries of Gander, or even Newfoundland and Labrador, that has endeared Come From Away to audiences here, there and everywhere. It’s a story that we need now more than ever, whose meaning continues to grow, and one that is bound to endure long after the final curtain call.

“It feels like there are so many things more and more these days that divide us and there’s a real sense of us and them,” Hein says. “This story’s about it not being us and them but us all being in it together. It’s been so inspirational to us in our lives as parents, raising our daughter alongside this show. It’s been really incredible and it has inspired us to be better people and to remember we should all be welcomed and kindness is something you should have accessible, not just for a tragedy but every day.”

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