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In this Musical, Kindness and Songs Repel Tragedy

Date: Feb 14, 2017

The true story behind Broadway's Come From Away


At a time when Canada is looking very, very appealing to many Americans, Come From Away gives us yet another reason to embrace our neighbors to the north.

The new musical by Irene Sankoff and David Hein takes place in the small town of Gander, Newfoundland, where 38 flights carrying nearly 7,000 passengers from every corner of the world were forced to land on September 11, 2001. How the town welcomed and cared for their guests for the next four days -- and how the experience changed the lives of everyone from the pilots and passengers to the local mayor, teachers, and townspeople -- will resonate with audiences long after the final note is sung. (Performances begin this Saturday at Broadway's Schoenfeld Theatre.)

But while Newfoundland's thick accents and unique rituals (one involves swigging rum then smooching a dead cod) feel as Canadian as a Tim Hortons' double-double, Come From Away has an unmistakable dash of America in its genes.

First, consider the actors. The chameleon-like cast of 12 performers (who create dozens of different characters just by switching a hat or adjusting a speech pattern) hail from both sides of the border, including Broadway favorites Jenn Colella and Chad Kimball, and Canadian stage veterans Petrina Bromley and Astrid Van Wieren. Then consider the history: Come From Away was first born in Ontario as part of the Canadian Music Theatre Project at Sheridan College, but it was developed further at Connecticut's Goodspeed Opera House. Since then, it has been all around North America, with highly praised productions in California, Washington, D.C., and Washington state; a benefit performance in Newfoundland; and a sold-out commercial run in Toronto.

But the deepest connection between the two countries comes via the show's creators. Though Hein and Sankoff are Canadian, they lived through 9/11 right here in New York City. "I was in grad school, and we were living in international housing up near Columbia University," Sankoff recalls. The couple experienced the day much like millions of other New Yorkers did, huddling together with neighbors and waiting for news. (Hein's cousin worked in the Towers. Thankfully, she got out in time.)

"There were people from 110 different countries living in our residence, and we were all scared, and I remember a friend of ours sat down at the piano and started playing," Hein says. "There's something about music that got us through it. I remember New York being incredibly open afterward. There was a sense of community -- that we were all in this together."

While they wouldn't write what Hein calls their "9/12 musical" for another decade, the world-shaking event affected them in a very immediate way: They ran down to City Hall a month later to tie the knot. "We were part of that wedding boom," Hein says. The couple returned to Canada in 2003, and their bracingly funny yet deeply compassionate storytelling first caught the theatre world's attention with their musical My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, based on Hein's true family story. The show was a hit at the Toronto Fringe and won Most Promising New Musical at New York Musical Theater Festival in 2010.

As they were contemplating subjects for their next project, a friend asked if they had heard what happened in Newfoundland after 9/11. "As Canadians, we sort of knew the story, but it was only when we got a grant and went out there for the 10th anniversary that we really discovered it," Hein says. At that event in 2011, the pair interviewed as many of the "plane people" (also called Come From Aways, the Newfoundland nickname for newcomers to the province) as they could find, as well as the locals. "We compiled hundreds of stories, made lifelong friendships, and were welcomed into people's homes in sort of the same way the Come From Aways were in 2001," Hein says "We came back home and couldn't wait to share the things that we had seen there."


At first, Sankoff was leaning toward a documentary-style theatre piece that would use their interview subjects' exact words. However, Hein felt the story had to be told in song -- a feeling confirmed by a concert they attended during the 10th anniversary weekend. "This amazing band called the Navigators started playing and everyone -- the flight crew, the Lufthansa executives, the locals in the hockey arena -- started dancing together, and Irene was like, 'Oh, of course,'" he says. "Music is built into the DNA of the people in Newfoundland. It's how they get through their horrible winters. They're freezing cold, so they all bring over three instruments to a friend's house and have a party in the kitchen and tell stories and sing songs and stay warm. They survive by storytelling and playing music. That's who they are."

Though the onstage band plays mostly Irish-folk-inflected Newfoundland music, the score is laced with influences from all the different cultures represented on the stage. "We started with the Newfoundland music, and layered on some of the international music," Hein says. "What does a fiddle sound like in Texas versus a fiddle in Newfoundland? What does a hand drum sound like in Africa compared to Newfoundland? We were able to create this musical metaphor for something that was greater than the sum of its parts."

During the show's journey from Ontario to Broadway, Hein and Sankoff have seen subtle differences in how American and Canadian audiences respond to the humor. "In Canada, the audiences just love laughing at themselves," Sankoff says. She points out that one particularly morbid joke about the sparse population of Newfoundland got uncomfortable groans in the U.S., but had audiences roaring in Toronto.

But ultimately, what audiences react to is the deep and true connections people can make in a time of crisis, even when they have nothing obvious in common. "What we've learned is it isn't necessarily a Canadian story, it's an international story," says Hein. "When we first took it to San Diego, which is about as far away from Newfoundland as you can get, we were surprised at how much it resonated and how much people were hungry for this kind of story."


Marisa Cohen is a freelance writer who can be heard singing show tunes with her daughters at all hours of the day.

Photos (from the Toronto production of 'Come From Away') by Matthew Murphy. Top image: A jubilant scene from the show.

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