Come From Away

Come From Away is a Canadian musical based on the true story of how the residents of Gander, Newfoundland, welcomed stranded airline passengers into their homes in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. The play, with book and music by Toronto-based husband-and-wife team Irene Sankoff and David Hein, was developed at Toronto’s Sheridan College. It enjoyed successful runs in Connecticut, San Diego, Seattle, Washington, DC, and Toronto before becoming the sleeper hit of the 2016–17 season on Broadway. Come From Away has won more than two dozen awards, including three Dora Awards and a Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical. It also became the first Canadian show to win the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Musical in London’s West End. A feature film adaptation was announced in November 2017.

Come From Away
Come From Away on Broadway at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 22 January 2017.

Background

In the wake of the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, DC, on 11 September 2001, United States airspace was shut down. As a result, hundreds of planes were sent back to their points of origin or were redirected to safe destinations. Operation Yellow Ribbon redirected 38 planes to Gander, Newfoundland, adding 6,656 people to the town’s population of approximately 10,000.

Toronto lawyer Michael Rubinoff had long thought this story would make a great musical and had pitched the idea to writers, but with no luck. In 2010, he went to see Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s musical My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding at Toronto’s Panasonic Theatre. Sankoff, an actor and Toronto native, and her husband Hein, a Regina-born songwriter, had co-written the musical. Moved by the quirky show’s authenticity, Rubinoff arranged a dinner meeting with the pair in April 2010 and pitched his idea. Sankoff and Hein, who lived in New York during the attacks, were intrigued by the idea, as they remembered their experience of bonding with people over music in the wake of the tragedy.

Development

In 2011, after Rubinoff became Associate Dean of Visual and Performing Arts at Sheridan College in Oakville, he offered Sankoff and Hein the opportunity to be the first show developed in the Canadian Music Theatre Project, which he had set up through Sheridan College to foster production of Canadian musicals. Sankoff and Hein agreed, and with the help of a grant from the Canada Council they headed to Gander for the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. Many of the stranded “plane people” were visiting to commemorate the event. Sankoff and Hein spent a month interviewing the locals and the “come from aways” (Newfoundland slang for those not born there) and created a 45-minute show for the Sheridan student workshop.

The show is built directly from the interviews Sankoff and Hein conducted with thousands of people who had either been living in Gander in 2001 or had arrived as a result of the flight diversions. Sankoff and Hein combined stories from multiple people to create composite characters for the show. For example, the character of Beulah Davis reflects the experiences of Gander residents Beulah Cooper and Diane Davis. As Hein told Murray Whyte of the Toronto Star, “I always say we wanted to tell all 16,000 stories, but it’s a 100-minute musical.” Other characters, such as pilot Beverley Bass, were very closely based on their real-life counterparts.


With the success of the Sheridan College workshop in 2012, Rubinoff asked Sankoff and Hein to finish the show for a student production in 2013. It was subsequently picked up by the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut for their Festival of New Musicals, and was then discovered by Christopher Ashley, Artistic Director of La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego and director of the Tony Award-winning musical Memphis. Together, Sankoff, Hein and Ashley further developed the show. (Ashley stayed with the production as director throughout the show’s Broadway run.)

During a 2013 showcase for the National Alliance for Musical Theatre in New York City, the presentation of Come Form Away led to an onslaught of interest from production companies, with more than 30 companies competing for the production rights. Junkyard Dog Productions, led by Kenny Alhadeff, eventually signed a deal with Sankoff and Hein.

Professional Productions

After a series of workshops, the show was ready for a professional production. On 7 November 2014, Come From Away was announced as part of La Jolla Playhouse’s 2015–16 season. The show opened on 29 May 2015 and ran until 12 July. It then became the highest-grossing show in the history of the Seattle Repertory Theatre. A subsequent run at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC, was followed by two benefit concert versions at the Steele Community Centre in Gander. The next stop was the final pre-Broadway run at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre from 15 November 2016 to 8 January 2017. The show sold more than $1.7 million worth of tickets in one week, setting a record for the 109-year-old theatre.

Broadway Run

Come From Away is only the fifth Canadian musical to make it to Broadway. Of the previous four, only one, The Drowsy Chaperone, secured an extended run and earned numerous awards. Come From Away opened on Broadway at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on 12 March 2017. With strong critical reviews and stellar word-of-mouth, the show became the sleeper hit of the 2016–17 season. It received seven Tony Award nominations (including Best Musical, Original Score and Choreography), won the award for Direction of a Musical, and recouped its $12-million investment within eight months.

While the show continues in an ongoing production on Broadway, a North American tour company has also been created. The North American tour began at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre in October 2018. A third, all-Canadian company was created for an open-ended return engagement at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre that began on 13 February 2018.


Synopsis

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, 38 planes full of stranded passengers were diverted to Gander, Newfoundland, described in the musical as “somewhere in the middle of nowhere.” The story focuses on one planeload of passengers and their interactions with the locals. As Christopher Ashley said to Peter Marks of the Washington Post, “It’s more sort of a ‘9/12’ musical, a response to the moment of crisis.”

After being stuck on their plane for up to 28 hours, the stranded passengers are greeted with open arms by the tightly knit community, which welcomes them, houses them and feeds them. Amid the fear and confusion, lifelong bonds are made. The ensemble cast plays a variety of characters, with each cast member playing at least one passenger and one local. The characters include: Beverley Bass, the first female pilot for American Airlines; Bonnie, the SPCA manager who cares for the pets that are not allowed off the planes; Claude, the long-serving mayor of Gander; Diane and Nick, two “come from aways” who meet and fall in love while grounded in Gander; the Kevins, a gay couple who are concerned about their welcome in a small town; Ali, a Muslim passenger under increased scrutiny in the wake of the attacks; Hannah and her husband, the parents of a missing New York fire fighter; and Beulah, the legion organizer who opens her home to them.

For five days, the locals and the plane people deal with grief, hope, frustration and anxiety. Ultimately, they show what a difference simple kindness can make in a time of need.

Critical and Audience Reception

Come From Away received almost unanimous praise from audiences and critics alike. In San Diego, Seattle, Toronto and Washington, the runs enjoyed record-breaking ticket sales. In Toronto, extra seats and standing-room tickets were added to meet the demand. Mirvish Productions spokesperson John Karastamatis told Tony Wong of the Toronto Star, “We didn’t expect the emotional reaction that Come from Away received when it first ran; it took us totally by surprise. In the 26 years I’ve been here I haven’t seen this kind of audience response to a show.”

The critics were also enamoured with the musical. New York Times theatre critic Ben Brantley wrote, “Try, if you must, to resist the gale of good will that blows out of Come From Away, the big bearhug of a musical... But even the most stalwart cynics may have trouble staying dry-eyed during this portrait of heroic hospitality under extraordinary pressure.” The Toronto Star’s Karen Fricker called Come From Away “a big-hearted, thoroughly enjoyable new musical,” while the Globe and Mail’s J. Kelly Nestruck wrote that “The accessible story, strong emotional core and gorgeous songwriting should not distract from how original and smart this gem of a musical is.”

The actual people who are depicted in the show also gave it glowing reviews. Diane Marson told Peter Marks of the Washington Post, “We never tire of it,” while Beulah Cooper told Sue Bailey of The Canadian Press, “It was beyond my wildest imagination… I'm just so humbled by it all.”


Film Adaptation

In November 2017, the Mark Gordon Company made a deal to adapt Come From Away into a feature film. Irene Sankoff and David Hein will adapt the theatre script into a screenplay. The Mark Gordon Company will finance the project and eOne will manage worldwide distribution of the film.

Awards

2015 San Diego Theatre Critics Circle Awards

  • Outstanding New Musical
  • Outstanding Direction of a Musical (Christopher Ashley)
  • Outstanding Original Score (Irene Sankoff, David Hein)
  • Outstanding Ensemble
  • Outstanding Featured Performance in a Musical, Female (Jenn Colella)
  • Outstanding Sound Design (Gareth Owen)

2016 Gypsy Rose Lee Awards (Seattle)

  • Excellence in Production of a Musical
  • Excellence in Direction of a Musical (Christopher Ashley)
  • Excellence in Performance as an Ensemble
  • Excellence in Musical Direction (Ian Eisendrath)

2017 Helen Hayes Awards (Washington, DC)

  • Outstanding Musical
  • Outstanding Direction, Musical (Christopher Ashley)
  • Outstanding Ensemble, Musical
  • Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Musical (Jenn Colella)

2017 Drama Desk Awards (New York)

  • Outstanding Musical
  • Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical (Jenn Colella)
  • Outstanding Book of a Musical (Irene Sankoff, David Hein)

2017 Outer Critics Circle Awards (New York)

  • Outstanding New Broadway Musical
  • Outstanding Book of a Musical (Irene Sankoff, David Hein)
  • Outstanding Director of a Musical (Christopher Ashley)
  • Outstanding Sound Design (Gareth Owen)
  • Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical (Jenn Colella)

2017 Tony Awards

  • Best Direction of a Musical (Christopher Ashley)

2017 Dora Awards

  • Outstanding Production, Musical Theatre Division
  • Outstanding Performance – Female (Jenn Colella), Musical Theatre Division
  • Outstanding New Musical/Opera (Irene Sankoff, David Hein)

2019 Olivier Awards (London, UK)

  • Best Sound Design (Gareth Owen)
  • Outstanding Achievement in Music (Irene Sankoff, David Hein, et al.)
  • Best Theatre Choreographer (Kelly Devine)
  • Best New Musical

2019 Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards

  • Production (Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre)
  • Ensemble Performance (Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre)
  • Musical Score (Irene Sankoff, David Hein)
  • Musical Direction (Ian Eisendrath)