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How Canadian 9/11 tale made the journey to Broadway

A scene from Come from Away. Photo: Matthew Murphy
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Absolutely no one thought the notion of developing a feel-good musical about a good Samaritan story that took place in Gander, Newfoundland, in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001 was a good idea. Except, that is, for Toronto attorney and aspiring producer Michael Rubinoff, who stumbled one night across a musical called My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding at the Panasonic Theatre in Toronto.

It was an autobiographical show, created by Canadians David Hein and Irene Sankoff, who were married to each other.

“I didn’t know who they were,” recalls Rubinoff, “but I was quite moved by the work, its authenticity and their obvious commitment to Canadian musicals, and I wanted to meet with them.”

At dinner several weeks later, where Rubinoff pitched the story of how the 9,000 residents of Gander opened their homes up and fed almost 7,000 airline travellers stranded on September 11, he discovered something else.

Both writers, it turns out, were living, and studying theatre, in New York on September 11 – Hein’s cousin worked in one tower but got out alive – and they connected immediately to Rubinoff’s interest in telling a highly humane story.

“The story of what happened in Newfoundland,” says Sankoff, “the coming together of people in response to this horrible event, felt familiar to us – the main difference being we lived in the city where one of the attacks happened.”

The feel-good result of that collaboration, Come from Away, opens on March 12 on Broadway. Directed by Broadway veteran Christopher Ashley, with book, music and lyrics by Sankoff and Hein and choreographed by Kelly Devine, the show features a cast of 12 singing and dancing alongside a nine-piece Celtic-infused band playing instruments one doesn’t associate with Broadway musicals. These include accordions, fiddles, mandolins, pipes, whistles and a mop-and-bottle-caps-screwed-into a-boot instrument called an ‘ugly stick’.

A scene from
Come from Away. Photo: Matthew Murphy

The cast includes three Canadians, including one Newfoundlander – Petrina Bromley – while the band also includes a pair of Canadians, all of whom were able to obtain work visas with a minimum of drama.

In an increasingly corporatised Broadway world, where new productions are more likely to be mega-million-dollar musical adaptations of Hollywood blockbusters – Frozen: the Musical, anyone? – the story of how Come from Away came from away to make it to Broadway is almost as impressive as the story it relates in the show.

The foundation was laid in 2011, on the 10th anniversary of September 11, when Sankoff and Hein received a Canada Council grant that allowed them to travel to Gander to interview locals and visitors – the ‘come from aways’ of the story – to learn the tales of what happened that week.

Around the same time, shortly after connecting with Hein and Sankoff, Rubinoff was hired to be associate dean of the visual and performing arts programme at Sheridan College outside Toronto. It included a programme dedicated to developing new Canadian musicals – the first of which was to be Come from Away.

The Canadian Music Theatre Project grew out of that first year, when the programme expanded, after 40 years as a three-year programme, to a four-year honours bachelor degree in music theatre performance. The fourth year is dedicated to a capstone project in which students work on a project that puts to use the skills learned over the first three years.

“It is curricular,” says Rubinoff, “it is funded. We are able to pay writers a writer’s fee and to hire professional directors and musical directors to come in and work with the students for five weeks. The emphasis is on process and development, not on product. The only requirement is a 45-minute presentation.”

He adds: “I just want the writers to have a safe and useful environment to fail and fail again – and perhaps succeed a little bit. This vibrant process allows them to try out the songs, throw it out today, write a new one overnight and bring it in the next day and see if it works.”


5 things you need to know about new musicals in North America

1. The National Alliance for Musical Theatre, founded in 1985 in New York by Frank Young, was created to address a shortage of new musicals. Since then, the annual festival has introduced more than 326 musicals and more than 500 writers to industry insiders and producers, including shows such as Come from Away. namt.org

2. Prior to Come from Away, the La Jolla Playhouse in suburban San Diego has been the launching point for 26 Broadway productions that have earned 35 Tony awards, including Side Show, Memphis and Jersey Boys.

3. The New York Musical Theatre Festival is a yearly summer showcase that features top new musicals from around North America, including, in recent years, a trio of musicals created by Calgary composers: Crossing Swords (2013) and Austentatious (2007), both created by Joe Slabe, and Mata Hari in 8 Bullets (2013), created by David Rhymer. Crossing Swords has been optioned and a tryout production presented in 2016 by the American Theater Group in Rahway, New Jersey.

4. Broadway-bound shows that received out of town tryouts in Canada, some of which froze to death, include: Camelot (Toronto, 1960); Baker Street (Toronto, 1965); Treasure Island (Edmonton, 1986); Ragtime (Toronto, 1998); Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Toronto, 2011).

5. Two (potentially) Broadway-bound musicals being developed in Canada in 2017: Sousatzka, a new musical starring Tony award-winner Victoria Clark, opens on March 23 at the Elgin Theatre, Toronto, while Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre is presenting Hadestown, the new folk-opera inspired by Orpheus and Eurydice. The last Canadian musical on Broadway was The Story of My Life, which closed in 2009 after 19 previews and five performances. The longest-running Canadian musical to hit Broadway was The Drowsy Chaperone. It ran for 674 performances between 2006 and 2007, winning five Tony awards and seven Drama Desk awards.

That was the backdrop against which Hein and Sankoff arrived at Sheridan College in the spring of 2012, to use a five-week-long development process in which to shape a first draft of the script.

“My expectation was just a 45-minute, books-and-stands presentation of the show,” admits Rubinoff. “I remember being called in, a few days into the rehearsal process, to hear the opening number called Welcome to the Rock – and gosh, I was so moved by it. Like, this was something special.”

Why any commercial-minded producer would want to devote the time, resources and sheer emotional energy to finding ways to sing Canadian stories on stage is another question: Canada’s largely not-for-profit theatre ecology can’t afford – or isn’t inclined – to develop musicals, particularly musicals that tell Canadian stories.

Rubinoff believed in his Gander yarn, however. “It made me very proud to be a Canadian – which is a rare emotion, with our (so-called) polite patriotism. At a very dark time, here was this outpouring of humanity; no questions asked, unconditional. They mobilised to take care of nearly 7,000 people that showed up in their town.”

It was also, he was certain, a story that had to be sung. “Music is in the DNA of Newfoundlanders. It’s so much a part of who they are. And how they tell stories is through music – and I believed that in the right people’s hands this could be a compelling musical.”

Following workshops in 2012 and 2013 featuring students from Sheridan College’s musical theatre programme, with an encouraging books-and-music-stands presentation at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut sandwiched in between, the show was invited to showcase at the National Alliance of Musical Theatre in New York, where Junkyard Dog Productions (Memphis) optioned it for further development as a potential Broadway property.

Come from Away’s authors Irene Sankoff and David Hein. Photo: Alixandra Gould

From there came pre-Broadway try-out runs at the La Jolla Playhouse, Seattle Rep, Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC, and, in December 2016, at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto – along with a couple of special performances at the hockey arena in Gander. All of these runs received the show’s blend of Celtic folk-rock, wit, heart and soulful exuberance with great reviews.

However, until the show was ‘Broadway-ised’ and opened for real at La Jolla, Rubinoff was uncertain how US audiences would respond to it. “For Americans to be reminded that there was goodness and there was an outpouring of humanity at such a dark time was comforting,” he says. “I think that is what has really connected [American] people to it.”

And as it turns out, Come from Away arrives on Broadway at a moment when its message couldn’t feel more timely, given all that is happening with the global migrant crisis.

“The ‘come from aways’ – the non-Newfoundlanders – have reminded us that they were refugees on that day. They were stranded. The people of Gander embraced them. They brought them into their community halls, their churches, into their homes, into their communities – and it didn’t matter if they were coming from Africa, from Europe or from Russia or were going home to the USA. They were all refugees.”

Given the less-than-stellar track record of Canadian Broadway shows over the years (an obvious exception being The Drowsy Chaperone), why would any enterprising producer take it upon themselves to sell a Canadian story to the world – even a Canadian producer who wears his polite patriotism on his sleeve?

“I don’t know if I would have ever believed that a musical about Gander, Newfoundland, would have been the one to get me to Broadway,” Rubinoff replies. “But I couldn’t be more proud of it. We have many stories we have yet to tell, and this is one that I think is important for the world to know, for so many reasons. And how do you tell a story that touches on 9/11 as a musical?”

It may have required a 15-year-long journey, but Rubinoff finally has the answer.

Profile: Canadian Music Theatre Project

Artistic director/producer: Michael Rubinoff
Founded: 2011
Location: Sheridan College, Oakville, Ontario, Canada
No. of productions/ projects to date: 15
No. of professional premieres: five
No. of courses/workshops: Five-week workshops for three or four projects per year
No. of students: 10-12 per project
Staff: One producer; one coordinator; a professional director and music director are hired for each project
Funding: C$100,000 (£61,000) – academic programme and fundraising
Spend: C$25,000 (£15,250) per project
Added value: One project is selected to join the Theatre Sheridan season the following year
Key contacts: Michael Rubinoff, Email: michael.rubinoff@sheridancollege.ca Tel: +905 845 9430, ext. 2118 cmtp.sheridancollege.ca

Come from Away runs at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, New York, until March 19