ON the Broadway set of Come From Away, some of the trees – ostensibly dead – have sprouted leaves. With any other show, this might be considered a miracle. But in a Canadian musical that has defied so many expectations, unorthodox signs of life qualify as par for the course.
A work that some thought New Yorkers would cold-shoulder because of the subject – airline passengers stranded in Newfoundland as a result of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 – is instead being widely and tearfully celebrated, just as it was previously in La Jolla, California, Seattle, Toronto and, perhaps most significantly, Washington. The audience embrace has been so overwhelming that the musical has emerged as the biggest surprise of the Broadway season, bringing in more than $1 million a week at the box office, filling to more than 100 per cent of capacity and accumulating advance sales now whispered to stand at more than $10 million.
And in the most crowded season for new musicals in decades, with 13 of them opening during 2016-2017, the show is viewed as a front-runner, with the emotional blockbuster Dear Evan Hansen, for the Tony Award for the best musical. It received a total of seven Tony nominations, among them nods for its director, Christopher Ashley, for the book and score by David Hein and Irene Sankoff, and for supporting actress Jenn Colella. Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 and Groundhog Day are also in the contest, but it is the two musicals with roots in Washington – Evan Hansen from Arena Stage, and Come From Away from Ford’s Theatre – that are considered the odds-on favourites.
What might be even more remarkable is the impact Come From Away is having on hearts and minds far from the stage door of the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on West 45th Street, where it officially opened on March 12. Although the musical has been criticised in some quarters for wearing its sunniness too transparently, the sentimental portrait of Newfoundlanders opening their homes to bewildered and bedraggled passengers from around the world seems to carry a special resonant power at this moment in history – a turbulent political moment when people are looking for the common ground that good will can provide. Why else would it have occurred to the prime minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, to invite President Donald Trump and his family to join him at the show in March? (The president and his advisers were reported to have argued over Trudeau’s invitation and ultimately turned it down, but Ivanka Trump accepted.)
“Who could have guessed where this country would be right now?” declares Sue Frost, one of Come From Away’s lead producers. “People are exhausted by all the bad news, and this is a show about how being good to each other is so important. People want to be reminded that human beings are basically good. This is a show that we need right now.”
Born five years ago in a musical-incubator programme at Ontario’s Sheridan College, the musical is based on stories the Canadian-American husband-and-wife team of Hein and Sankoff collected from Gander residents and the passengers who lived among them for the week after September 11, 2001, when US airspace had to be shut down. An airport capable of handling big planes was built in Gander, on a remote tip of North America, in the 1930s and became a major way station for the Allies in World War II, and afterward, a refuelling stop for commercial transatlantic carriers.
Augmented by a score infused with an indigenous Celtic lilt, Come From Away reveals, through a cast that doubles as the locals and “the plane people,” both the insular nature of Gander’s hardscrabble island mentality and the soft spot the Newfoundlanders harboured for outsiders in crisis. That generosity of spirit, set to song, has been a boon to the image of Canada, at a time when its magnetic young prime minister has also been putting a fresh and vital face on a nation too often seen to exist in an American shadow.
Still, the role that Come From Away has fulfilled is one that musicals rarely do: casting an entire country in a light that it wants the rest of the world to see. “The Come From Away production tells a fantastic story about the strong and long-lasting Canadian-US friendship,” Trudeau’s press office said in a statement, “and celebrates the warmth and generosity demonstrated by the people of Gander in our neighbours’ time of need. And we embrace the opportunity to highlight how we are there for each other in these times of need.”
That Canada could present the portrayal of Gander’s outpouring of friendship as a model for international relations is an extraordinary endorsement for a theatrical venture of any sort. Trudeau, after all, made it a compelling instrument of his diplomacy. Earlier this month, a Canadian television network, CTV, reported the government spent $22,000 on tickets for its Come From Away mission.
“We had hopes of it doing competently, and this is beyond anything we had imagined,” Sankoff says of the attention Come From Away has drawn, and the public response to the couple’s maiden Broadway voyage. “It is an international story,” Hein adds, as he and his wife sat together for an interview recently in a midtown Manhattan office. “And as we have travelled, it has become for us much more of an international story.”
Michael Rubinoff, producer of the Canadian musical theatre project at Sheridan College, says Come From Away has had a profound impact on him and many of his countrymen. “It affected me in a way that made me proud to be a Canadian,” he says. “The wild card was how Americans would react to this piece.”
For that reason, developing the show with actors from both countries under Ashley’s auspices at the company he runs, La Jolla Playhouse near San Diego, was a key decision. And following the California run with stops in Seattle, Toronto and Washington proved just as crucial. These gave the director, writers and producers gauges for how audiences in diverse localities responded to material prompted by heartbreaking tragedy.
Sankoff and Hein say the warm reception Come From Away experienced at Ford’s Theatre last fall was perhaps the most encouraging harbinger of the welcome mat they hoped to have laid out on Broadway. Washington was the first city visited by Come From Away that had gone through the agony of Sept. 11 firsthand, and there had been anxiety on the creative team over the possibility of the musical being taken less as a tribute than an intrusion. But Frost and others found that when the production set up private performances of the musical for survivors and family of the Pentagon victims and later in New York, for a foundation for the New York City Fire Department, which lost so many members, the reaction was one of gratitude.
“We had people come up to us who had been directly affected, who said, ‘Thank you for giving us something positive about that day,’ “ the producer recalls. “ ‘Thank you for giving us a better memory of that day.’ “