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Come from Away writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein: ‘Truth is not only stranger than fiction, it’s better’

Irene Sankoff and David Hein, the writers of Come from Away. Photo: Andrew Rowat Irene Sankoff and David Hein, the writers of Come from Away. Photo: Andrew Rowat
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The events of September 11, 2001 shook the world, but had a particular effect on husband and wife Irene Sankoff and David Hein. Not only did it push them towards getting married, it inspired their musical about the attack’s effect on a small Canadian town. Mark Shenton meets the writers of the much-acclaimed show now coming to the West End

Come from Away is a feel-good show about a world-shattering disaster, revolving around the impact of the September 11 attacks on a tiny community called Gander in Newfoundland, Canada.

It is a true story in which the inhabitants found themselves offering hospitality to 6,579 people whose flights were diverted to Gander International Airport when US airspace was shut down on that fateful day. For a town of 10,000 people it was an extraordinary challenge to take on.

Despite the unusual subject matter, the show became a runaway success on Broadway where it is now in its third year. What is also extraordinary is that this heartfelt gem of a show was created by a previously little-known husband and wife team.

‘That we’re telling a story about Newfoundland in five countries around the world and working on a film version is amazing’

Meeting Irene Sankoff and David Hein, even electronically via FaceTime, is to discover the sincerity of their ambition: simply to tell this profound story of human kindness as honestly as possible. But also how much further it has reached than either of them could ever have dreamed.

They were introduced to the story by Michael Rubinoff, a producer friend. Hein says: “We found out there was a commemoration ceremony happening on the 10th anniversary [of September 11, 2001], and we applied for a Canada Council for the Arts Grant from the Canadian government and they sent us out there to join it.”

It was an event where all the ‘Come from Aways’ – as the people stranded in Gander were called – were returning to reunite with the friends they’d made, to commemorate what had happened and the kindness they experienced. “So we had this opportunity to interview not only the locals but also everyone from away,” Hein says. “We pretty much interviewed everyone we possibly could, sometimes for hours at a time. By the end we got invited to their houses for dinner and to stay with them.”

Hein and Sankoff’s top tips

• Write something you love, that you’re ready to live with for a long time.
• It’s like a marriage, you’re in it for good and you’re going to spend years with it, so you better love your material and your characters.
• Love the people you’re working with. There are a lot of unhappy teams out there.
• If there’s anything else you can do, do it, because theatre is a bizarre world.
• Follow your instincts before you follow the rules of musical theatre. They’re only tools, and if they take you away from how to tell a good story, they’re not useful.

Sankoff says those they spoke to didn’t really know what the pair was up to, beyond writing a piece for a college theatre project. “Neither did we,” she says. “We didn’t know it would go on beyond that. But we were just so enthusiastic about what they were telling us and they were so sincere and authentic in telling their stories. The people from away were so passionate and dedicated to making us understand how absolutely wonderfully they had been treated. And we had to do everything in our power to tell the stories they wanted us to.”

When it came to writing, the couple shared the responsibilities for book, music and lyrics between them. “We’re a husband-and-wife team so we can’t keep out of each other’s business,” says Hein. “We share everything a little. We both work on lyrics and music, so it would be strange to put up walls.”

To underline the point, the pair has a way of speaking almost in unison, though they defer to each other in turn for each question.

Composers and lyricists are often asked what comes first, the music or the lyrics, but in this case, I ask them what came first: the marriage or writing musicals together? Sankoff answers instantly: “The marriage.” But it turns out that September 11, 2001 cast its own shadow on that too.

“We eloped in 2001 and we were living in New York,” says Hein. “We were there on 9/11, and one of my cousins was actually in the towers but fortunately she got out. A month after the attacks, we said: ‘what are we waiting for?’ and went down to City Hall to get married. My cousin came to be our witness. It was four blocks from Ground Zero.

“So the day began with us celebrating our love, then we went with my cousin back to the site and she retraced her steps in escaping from the tower. That strange combination [of emotions] is what you feel in Come from Away – the kindness and love in the shadow of what happened that day.”

Sankoff had come to New York to do a master’s in acting, and Hein says: “I followed her because I loved her.” They only began writing musicals together eight years after their wedding. They both had day jobs; Sankoff was acting and Hein working as a singer-songwriter. They combined forces to write a musical for the Fringe Festival in Toronto “so at least we could spend a summer together”, Sankoff says. That show was My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, based on another true story of Hein’s own mother, and it was a hit at the festival, transferring for a commercial run and Canadian tour.

Q&A: Irene Sankoff and David Hein

What was your first non-theatre job?
Hein: I was a flower-store clown. I had a giant rat puppet that would terrify children.

Sankoff: I was a dancing Fred Flintstone at Canada Wonderland in Toronto.

What was your first professional theatre job?
Hein: I worked backstage – stage management, building sets and hanging lights.

Sankoff: I was Molly in the Toronto production of The Mousetrap.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Sankoff: I was such a good student and I tried hard to be the best – but everyone gets their jobs and connections at the bar, and I never went.

Hein: To go to the bar as much as possible.

Who or what was your biggest influence?
Sankoff: My aunt, who passed away this summer. She was always there no matter what happened.

Hein: Newfoundland musicians have influenced me a lot, but I wouldn’t write every musical in their style.

What’s your best advice for auditions?
Sankoff: There’s a way actors stand, especially younger actors, with their bodies facing you, but their feet towards the door because they’re so uncomfortable. So my advice is to be present in the room and own your space.

Hein: With Come from Away, not only do we check actors fit the multiple roles they have to play and can sing the notes, but we also ask: are these people who we want to be part of our company? Are they people with whom we would like to work? That will bump you up to the top regardless of what happens in the room.

If you hadn’t been a writer of musicals, what would you have done?
Sankoff: Acting. I always wanted to be a Rockette.

Hein: Somewhere between a set and lighting designer, a singer-songwriter, an animator or maybe an astronaut – I always wanted to be one.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Sankoff: I have a model of Goodspeed Opera House that I keep nearby.

Hein: We follow most superstitions to play it safe.

But it was Come from Away that has turned their lives around. The musical’s creation was a slow-burning process, beginning as a 45-minute college theatre project, then in a longer version in Toronto. After that it was staged at Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut as part of a new musicals festival, before becoming a full production at La Jolla Playhouse in California, which then played in Seattle and Washington DC, before finally arriving on Broadway. “Chris Ashley, our director, has this long-term view of how to slowly improve the show,” says Hein. “And that’s included the London company now, where we still tweaked the show some more in the rehearsal room.”

Its success has taken them both by surprise. Hein says: “It pretty much exceeds our expectations every single day. That we’re now telling a story about Newfoundland in five countries around the world and working on a film version is amazing.”

Beyond that, families and survivors have told them the show has really helped them, while the five companies all do “acts of kindness” such as raising funds for the Gander and Area SPCA animal shelter. “The way it has ricocheted and resonated has gone far beyond our wildest dreams,” Hein adds.

Why does he think it has struck such a chord? “What we’ve discovered is a universal story – how on a day like this we’re all in the same boat together. It eliminates racial, religious or regional differences, we all come together in times of crisis, and it reminds people we can all come together on a daily basis.”

In the process, the show has established a profound sense of community, between the players on and off stage as well as the people they represent. Sankoff and Hein have a daughter, now aged five, and Sankoff says: “She’s grown up with the show – they’re like siblings, she’s been raised by the entire cast, producers and creative team. It’s funny, they say it takes a village to raise a child, and it takes an even bigger village to raise a child while also raising a new musical. But you couldn’t ask for a better community.”

‘You couldn’t ask for anything better to celebrate our friends in this way.’

They’re working on the film version and that will present its own challenges. Sankoff says: “The show is such a wonderful magic trick of what [director] Chris and [choreographer] Kelly and the actors do, of taking 12 chairs and turning them into legion halls and buses and airplanes in a dime. What we can do with the film is what we’ve always imagined, seeing 38 planes and thousands of passengers coming into the streets.”

And ultimately, the real lives it has shown are being honoured. “Truth is not only stranger than fiction,” says Hein, “but it’s better and more wonderful. It provides a constant inspiration. Most playwrights don’t get the actual characters in the show coming to the theatre and cheering them on social media.”

On the first night on Broadway – as will happen on the first night in the West End – some of the real people who inspired the show will appear on stage at the end. “In New York, we didn’t even have to say who they were; this jaded New York audience just cheered and cheered,” Hein says. “What’s amazing is that what started at the 10th anniversary is something we get to recreate each time with every opening. You couldn’t ask for anything better to celebrate our friends in this way. They’ve become the best community we could ever have asked for and we never expected it.”

CV: Irene Sankoff and David Hein

Born: Sankoff: Toronto, 1975; Hein: Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, 1976
Training: Sankoff: undergraduate degree in psychology, York University, Toronto creative writing and a master’s in acting at Pace University. Hein: BA in set and lighting design, York University, Toronto.
Landmark productions:
• My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, Toronto Fringe Festival (2009), then Toronto’s Panasonic Theatre and Canadian tour

• Come from Away at Sheridan College, Ontario (2012); La Jolla Playhouse, Seattle Repertory Theatre (2015); Ford’s Theatre, Washington DC, Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto (2016); Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, New York (2017); Abbey Theatre, Dublin (2018); Phoenix Theatre, London (2019)
All for Come from Away
• Helen Hayes Award for outstanding musical (2017)

• Tony award nominations for best musical, best book, and best original score (2017)
• Drama Desk award for outstanding musical and outstanding book (2017)
• Outer Critics Circle award for outstanding book (2017)
Agent: Max Grossman at Abrams Artists Agency

Come from Away runs at Phoenix Theatre, London, until September 14. Visit comefromawaylondon.co.uk  for full details

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