Like many Americans, “Un-Block The Music” was on a natural high last week with the inauguration of a new administration, and the hope that we will come back together as one HEALTHY nation. We’ve been talking a whole lot about the lack of empathy in the last few years, but instead of me saying the same thing you’ve heard over and over, I thought I would let Irene Sankoff talk to you about Come From Away, the musical she co-wrote with her husband David Hein. This show, I suspect, will be even more powerful than ever after this pandemic wanes and theaters re-open. Irene said exactly what I have been preaching… ‘putting art out into the world will keep us sane!”
Anyway, if you don’t already know, the story of Come From Away, it follows the story of American planes that landed in Newfoundland on September 11th.
The terrorist attacks resulted in U.S. airspace being closed, forcing 38 international aircraft to be diverted and land unexpectedly at the Gander Airport, doubling the population of the small Newfoundland town. The people of that town, housed, fed and clothed 7000 scared strangers. Their kindness diffused what could have been an added disaster to what was already happening in New York City, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania on that horrific day.
Before I get further into the story of Come From Away, let me tell you a bit about Irene. She said, becoming a musical theater writer was not on her “to do” list growing up in Ontario. “I was focused on being a dancer and was a dance major in high school, but I had a lot of injuries. It was very traumatic. (She later found out she has an autoimmune disease that cause her to injure herself.) I was always having to call out of rehearsals. So, I started singing and acting…one of my teachers said ‘you can act on one foot!!’” Irene found that she loved acting and later attended The Actors Studio Drama School in New York. She went even further and got her Master’s Degree in acting. Like most actors, Irene lived a double life for quite a while, working a full-time job and juggling her craft as well. She actually even performed in Mousetrap, Canada’s longest running play. Eventually, however, she got sick of living a double life.
“I thought about going back to teacher’s college, but my husband suggested we write something for the Toronto Fringe Festival.” Irene resisted at first. “I thought I didn’t want to write but, I looked at what he wrote and I told him, ‘you should do this…you should do that…women don’t talk like this’. Before I knew it, we were writing together,” she laughed. “What we wrote was My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding.” It ended up attracting the attention of David Mirvish the biggest producer in Canada. He put the show out in a Broadway sized theater in Toronto.
My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding “tells the story of a mother and son,” according to production notes. “The mother feels lost in life, wrestling with her identity. A new job brings new opportunities and with it a chance to truly find herself…discovering her sexuality, rediscovering her faith, and eventually coming out to her teenage son, ex-husband and homophobic Jewish mother.” The show is based on David Hein’s real life. It ran for five months in Canada, but really took off in the U.S., probably because same sex marriages are legal in New York, Irene said.
As a result of My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding‘s success, theater producer Michael Rubinoff approached David and Irene with his idea about a show based on the experience of the American plane passengers that landed in Newfoundland. The Canadian couple were a good choice as they experienced 9-11 first hand;they were living in New York at that time.
Michael was turned down by other teams who were perhaps afraid to talk about this topic for fear of triggering negative emotion, Irene explained. But there is nothing negative about the Gander experience. While at first, Irene didn’t think it was necessarily good material for a musical, she quickly realized it did not have to be a musical in the traditional sense. Putting the show together, the book and the music came at the same time. “We decided to let the music keep us moving…let the music be the storyteller,” she said.
In 2011, Irene and David visited Gander on the tenth anniversary of the attacks to interview locals and returning passengers. The couple translated some stories directly to the musical while others were merged for story purposes. In 2012, Michael Rubinoff used their initial script to produce a 45-minute workshop version for the Canadian Music Theatre Project, part of the Sheridan College Music Theatre Performance Program. The workshop was sufficiently successful that Michael asked the couple to finish writing it for a full production at Sheridan in 2013, as part of the college’s regular theatrical season.
The full production, directed by Brian Hill was an artistic success, but Michael was unable to attract a Canadian producer for further development. In stepped Goodspeed Musicals in Connecticut. It was surreal Irene said, producing the show in Connecticut in 2013, only an hour and a half away from where the Twin Towers were attacked. The show then went on to have record-breaking runs in California, Seattle and Washington D.C. before opening on Broadway in 2017.
“We didn’t expect the show to be accepted into New York because it was a Canadian story, but it resonated with the students that saw it, and they were the ones that convinced people to come to the show. A lot of people didn’t want to see it at first, but it is not something that makes you sad. It encourages people to find a way to put more kindness out into the world,” Irene said. Lord knows, we all need that.
By the way, in 2017, the musical was nominated for seven Tony awards including Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Book of a Musical and Best Featured Actress in a Musical for Jenn Colella, winning for Best Direction of a Musical for Christopher Ashley.The good news is…that amongst other projects she couldn’t talk about as yet, Irene and David are working on the screenplay for the Come From Away movie!
Another piece of amazing news…after 10 months of shutdown, Come From Away played its first live performance last week in Australia. On the night the show opened, Producer Rodney Rigby said, “The Australian production is incredibly fortunate to raise the curtain tonight. We are able to do so because of the resilience of everyday Australians, who have a spirit of kindness and humanity that we have seen throughout the bushfires and the pandemic – it is the same spirit that Come From Away embodies.”