Their breakout hit musical has opened in New York, Toronto and in 2019 Melbourne, but for the husband and wife writing team of Come from Away, it was opening night ina tiny Canadian town on the far east coast that gave them the most butterflies.
Gander, a town in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, is the setting for David Hein & Irene Sankoff’s extraordinarily successful musical, based on the period immediately after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Two hundred airborne planes were diverted from the US into Canadian cities, with 38 planes and 6,600 people sent to Gander – which usually has a population of around 10,000 – in that frantic period.
Irene and David took their show to Gander in October, 2016, just prior to opening on Broadway.
“Oh my gosh, it was kind of like your wedding and your prom and the birth of your child all on the same night – in front of 2500 people. We were more nervous about that than we were for any other opening night, including Broadway,” Sankoff said.
“We really wanted the people of Gander to be proud of what we did, because if we didn’t have their blessing, telling their stories the way we did, then what’s the point?”
“Our goal was never to take the show to Broadway, certainly not to take a show to Australia!” he laughed.
“Our goal was always to get it right and for them to say ‘that’s what happened’.”
The pair said the story of what happened in Gander, as well as in a number of other Canadian cities which took stranded passengers, resonated with them because of their lived experience during the attacks.
“We’re Canadian, obviously, but we were actually living down in New York on 9/11, we were living in a residence called International House, which is an international residence for graduate students, and so it had students from Canada, from around the world,” Hein explained.
“Our experience on 9/11 was that community taking care of each other – our neighbours came and knocked on our doors soon after it happened, we all came together as a community. We were aware that planes had been diverted into Canada, but we didn’t really know the full story. When we started researching it, it resonated with us because we remembered our experience with the kindness of this international community coming together.”
It was a decade after the events that Sankoff and Hein made the decision to further investigate the story of what happened in Gander, and it was their own experience in the town meeting the local inspirations for the show’s characters that truly helped to shape their musical.
“We applied for a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council, and they sent us out to Newfoundland for almost a month, we got to stay there a little bit longer because the Newfoundlanders wouldn’t let us spend money on hotels,” Hein said.
“We interviewed as many people as we possibly could and just came back with thousands of stories, and each one was better than the next.”
The pair see Come from Away as a universal story of hope, caring and unity – and given there were passengers from all around the globe who ended up in Gander, it definitely has a worldly feel.
“The world landed in Gander … but on the other side it’s an international story and universal because everywhere we take the show, we find that it resonates with people,” Hein said.
“On that day we were all in the same boat, we were all inthe same moment, we all wanted to help, we all felt helpless, and time andagain it becomes more and more resonate because there’s more moments when wefeel those same tragedies and we want to help in some way.”
But it is also a uniquely Canadian story, and not just because that’s where the planes landed. Sankoff says the support for the musical within Canada started well before the concept was ever even considered.
“Let’s go all the way back to high school!” she exclaimed.
“I went to public high school, and it was an arts high school, I got social assistance, I got what they call the Ontario Student Assistance Plan, the OSAP, along with grants and scholarships, and also higher education is reasonably affordable in Canada.”
And from concept to creation, Hein says Canada as a whole has been part of the collective team.
“We’ve been supported by municipal, provincial, and federal grants along our career. Beyond that, to have an entire country adopt your show as an important message for Canada and as an important part of our cultural identity has meant the world,” he said.
“I grew up in Saskatchewan, and then I moved to Ottawa, and on Canada Day I would paint a maple leaf on my face, I would run down the street with a Canada flag flying behind my neck as a cape, I’m not sure you could find someone more patriotic or proud to be part of this country, and to have the country behind us on this journey has meant the world.”
This is the couple’s first trip to Australia, and with the show opening in Melbourne in July 2019, they will stay involved with the development of the new production. They are confident that Australians will feel the same sense of warmth and connection to the show that’s been seen around the world.
“Even just being here so far, it does feel like being at home, it’s so very similar to Canada, I have to admit I’m actually surprised by it,” Sankoff said.
Hein agreed with his wife’s assessment.
“We’ve often been told when we’re away from home that we should find Australians, because they share the same sense of humour, they share the same values, and they’re good people, and it’s already been proven, we’ve been welcomed with open arms, in similar fashion to Gander.”
The Come from Away writing team of David Hein and Irene Sankoff were in Australia thanks to the support of the Consulate General of Canada (Sydney) through Global Affairs Canada’s Mission Cultural Fund.