The improbable success of the musical Come From Away still sort of gobsmacks the writers David Hein and Irene Sankoff.
After all, how many Canadian stories actually make to Broadway and stay there for a three-year run (and counting). And then how many productions telling a story set in Gander, Newfoundland, have five productions all running at the same time.
It just doesn’t happen. But it did.
For Hein and Sankoff the road to Come From Away actually began earlier.
The couple had met at York University in Toronto on the first day of the fall semester. Hein had transferred from Carleton and met a kindred spirit. Both were interested in the possibility of a life in the performing arts, Hein as a singer-songwriter and Sankoff as an actor, but that dream waited until they finally decided to take the plunge in 1999 and moved to New York so Irene could study acting.
That’s when they moved into a residence called the International House along with 700 other students from some 110 different countries.
“It’s on Riverside Drive near Grant’s Tomb and Riverside Church,” Sankoff said in an interview with ARTSFILE. “It is an amazing place. There were people working and living there who had grandparents who were Holocaust survivors. There were people there who were refugees, along with some lifelong Americans.”
That’s the tight community environment the couple were living in when the planes hit the twin towers of the World Trade Centre on 9/11.
“There were people returning that day who had been working downtown and we were waiting for them to come home. Mercifully everybody did,” she added.
The range of reactions and experiences after the attack was incredible, but essentially there was a sense of the need to help each other that remained with the couple after they moved back to Toronto. The sense of community would become a central theme in Come From Away.
But before that, the pair had to actually start making art.
Hein had written a song about his mother who had come out as a lesbian. She left her husband, rediscovered her Jewish roots, moved to Ottawa and married her Wiccan girlfriend.
David was 12 and living in Saskatchewan when his mom moved out. A year later he was in Ottawa and attending Lisgar High School. The song was called My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding and, a few years later, he played it for the happy couple at the wedding reception where it was well received.
He thought the idea behind the song could be expanded and he and Sankoff turned it into a theatre piece while they were working jobs — day and night.
“It’s been such a life change for us in so many ways over past couple of years. When we started writing Wiccan Wedding together, the original point was we were married but, between day jobs and night jobs, we never saw each other. We really just wanted spend time together.”
The show debuted at the Toronto Fringe festival in 2009 where it was a smash hit and caught the eye of David Mirvish who picked the property up and brought it to a larger audience.
“At the Fringe, we were doing the laundry, designing the poster and running the box office. To suddenly be taken out of that and offered the Mirvish gig,” Hein said, was amazing.
Success can breed more success and for Hein and Sankoff that has certainly been true.
Soon after a guy named Michael Rubinoff knocked on their door. He had an idea for a musical that centred on the the grounding of hundreds of planes in Canada on 9/11 and the warm welcome Canadians had given to the passengers and crew.
Hein and Sankoff were the sixth writing team that Rubinoff had approached and they jumped at the chance.
“We felt we had a handle on what the story should be and just jumped at it,” Sankoff said. “We felt there was something there right away.”
It reminded the pair of the kindness they had seen in New York after 9/11, Hein said.
Plus, “I had grown up on Newfoundland music. I had always loved it. When I went to Lisgar I remember Great Big Sea playing there. So putting that amazing music in a new context and bringing it to a new audience was an exciting prospect.”
They signed on, got a Canada Council grant and got to work in 2011. First step: go to Gander and meet the people.
That trip was “really emotional for us having lived in New York through 9/11. Hearing the stories directly from these people reminded us so much of our time back then. It felt healing and wonderful. We just really connected with them immediately,” he said.
They didn’t think the story would take them to Broadway.
“We thought that maybe at best Canadian high schools would be forced to put the musical on,” Hein said.
“We just felt strongly about it,” he added. “We wanted to tell the story the best way we could and we broke a lot of rules along the way. We did feel very blessed every time someone new would say let’s do another workshop or come to our festival.”
The essence of Come From Away is in the real stories of real people. It rings true.
“We got the essence of the story just by hanging out with people,” Sankoff said. “We have got a perfectionism in us that we needed to get things right. We admired the people we were talking to so much, that we wanted to do them proud.
“At the same time we were pretty sure it wouldn’t be performed outside of Canada so we felt we didn’t have to adhere to the rules of Broadway of musical theatre.”
They did send out the scripts to the principal characters, but they never really look at them
“So, for them, seeing the show for first time was shocking.'” Hein said.
Still, the writers only got a couple of small notes about changes.
“Because we drew directly from the interviews, whenever we were encouraged to make something up or fabricate something, the truth was always more wonderful and strange than anything we could invent,” he added.
The biggest verdict happened in Gander.
“It was terrifying,” Hein said. They need not have worried.
“When the cast started singing I’m An Islander, the chorus in the opening song, the audience stood up and started cheering and we all burst into tears.”
But why has it worked in Broadway?
In part, Sankoff believes, because it’s not typical.
“There is a formula to musical theatre. There aren’t many surprises. You know what the plot will be in advance and when the applause breaks are.
“We didn’t follow any of those conventions. I think it was a surprise. It’s different and it moves very quickly and for once you are seeing something astoundingly brave in a kind way. That’s not something we shine a light on much.”
There is also power in a true story.
“There is something inspirational. You hear audience members say ‘I can’t believe that was real. It reminds you that it could be possible again, that people can come together.”
In a divided world the idea of coming together to help someone is needed today.
“We couldn’t have had a crystal ball as to the what the world would be like today. But we really hoped it would be a piece about Canadian history, about cross-border collaboration,” Sankoff said.
The fact that it is a Canadian story matters to the writers.
“We went out of our way to try to list the communities around Gander. It wasn’t just Gander; it was every small town around there and beyond. Some 200 planes were diverted to airports across Canada from Vancouver to St. John’s,” Hein said.
The show also lets Hein celebrate his roots.
“Growing up in Ottawa, Canada Day was and is still, my favourite day of the year. I used to paint a maple leaf on my face and put a flag around my neck.”
Come From Away “let’s me wear that patriotism on my sleeve which is something we as Canadians don’t often do.
“It has been amazing to do this show and see Canada be proud of representing coming together and be proud of working together and proud of welcoming refugees and welcoming strangers.”
Today there are Come From Away casts performing in Australia, London, Toronto, New York and across North America. The show will be in Ottawa for three weeks starting on Aug. 20.
It is a dream come true, on that happens rarely.
“What I love about starting the way we did was you’re not doing the show because you think it will go miles and miles, you are doing the show because you think it’s important or you want to make your art or because you are doing it with people you love,” Hein said.
“That has been our experience all along. Now the real people whose stories we are telling in Come From Away get to celebrate their love story or the friends they made in Gander.
“That’s the reason why we do theatre … to come together in a space and recognize we have shared values and that we are in this together and we are not as divided as our social media thinks we are.”
What’s next for them?
“We have a bunch of irons in the fire that we are playing with.” They aren’t trying to match the success of Come From Away. That’s unlikely,” Hein said.
But “we’re doing the same thing that started this: finding stories that we fall in love with, that we hope might help people.”
They certainly do have a new day job now.
Come From Away opens at the National Arts Centre on Aug. 20 and runs until Sept. 8. Tickets are very limited. For more information please see broadwayacrosscanada.ca