Day 6

'We let the stories guide us': Come From Away writers find inspiration in kindness

Irene Sankoff and David Hein are the Canadian couple who wrote "Come From Away," the musical about the passengers stranded in and around Gander, N.L., after the September 11th attacks.
Actors take part in a rehearsal for the play "Come from Away." Canada's "Come From Away" has won three Drama Desk Awards, including outstanding musical. (Handout/Canadian Press)

by Brent Bambury

The most beloved pieces of musical theatre are usually built around a basic conflict.

Hamilton vs. Burr; Christine vs. The Phantom; The Von Trapp family vs. the Nazis.

But it's hard to pin down the conflict in the raucous, infectious, Canadian-produced Broadway musical Come From Away.

Will the generous people of Gander, Newfoundland, accommodate the 6,800 instant visitors as their planes — banned from American airspace — land at Gander's airport in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks?

And, if they do, will they maintain their dispositions as probably the nicest people on the planet?

(Spoiler alert: They do. And they do.)

Of course, there is conflict.

The show, which is up for seven Tony Awards on Sunday, hinges on the incomprehensible brutality of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. But the theme of Come From Away is kindness, and the richness of human interaction when generosity is reflexive. It's all about the opposite of conflict, thus breaking the law of dramatic tension.

"It's nice that everyone's liking our little show, considering we broke all the rules", David Hein laughs on Day 6.

Nominees for the Broadway Musical 'Come From Away' pose together during arrivals for the 2017 Tony Awards Meet The Nominees Press Reception (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

A modest beginning

David Hein wrote Come From Away with Irene Sankoff. They're married. This is only the second musical they've created. Their first, My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, while successful, didn't make it to Broadway. Now, with Come From Away, they're heading for the Tonys with nominations for Best Book and Best Score, not to mention Best Musical. Sankoff says when she goes to Radio City Music Hall on Sunday, it will be her first time at the awards.

"It's kind of a combination of getting ready for my wedding and the prom and maybe a little bit of childbirth and a bar mitzvah," she says.

"It's just like that for me too", deadpans Hein.

"You're not putting on the dress I have to put on. So you don't get to say that," says Sankoff.  

"Or the shoes."

We set out to write a show that would honor them and would celebrate the kindness that they had shown to the world.- Irene Sankoff

When they began work on Come From Away, the pair had modest ambitions. They wanted to make a musical that high school kids would perform.

"We never set out to write a Broadway show," says Hein. "We went out to Newfoundland on the 10th anniversary (of September 11th) and we fell in love with the people there and we fell in love with the stories and we wanted to share it with as many people as possible."

"We set out to write a show that would honor them and would celebrate the kindness that they had shown to the world. And … you know, there's been this whole journey of us looking at it as a Canadian story that we thought high schools would do and then learning that it's not just that; it's an American story, it's an international story and it's a story that we were all feeling on that day."


Thousands of stories

On that day, the population of Gander doubled. There were not enough hotel rooms, or restaurant tables, or telephones or computer terminals to service the distraught visitors. The people of Gander anticipated the needs of the stranded, and made heroic efforts to meet them. As Newfoundlanders, the acute hospitality they brought to the task came naturally. For the hosts, generosity is matter-of-fact. For the guests, it's life-affirming.

The play is only 100 minutes long. From the thousands of stories they heard, how did Sankoff and Hein choose the ones that made it onstage?

Just seeing a female rise through the ranks despite all odds. I mean, oh my gosh.- Irene Sankoff

"We wanted to tell every single story that we heard because they were all amazing and, you know, we came back from there with papers and papers and papers," says Hein.

"Not only, you know, of the notes that we took on our interviews, but also every letter that was sent back to the schools, to the libraries, to the town hall. We photocopied them all, we watched every documentary, every story we could. And then we continued to Skype people around the world. I think the farthest away was in Tuva which is south of Russia."

One of the stories the show tells is that of Beverley Bass, a pilot and the first female captain with American Airlines. On September 11th, her flight from Paris to Dallas was diverted to Gander.

On stage, she's played by Broadway actress Jenn Colella, who belts out a stirring, assertive number called "Me and the Sky."  Irene Sankoff says it's a resonant moment in the show.

The Canadian musical has been nominated for 12 Tony Awards that will be given out Sunday, June 11. (Handout/Canadian Press)

"Just because of the situation in America right now," she says. "Just seeing a female rise through the ranks despite all odds. I mean, oh my gosh, it is so wonderful at the stage door after the performance to see all of these young women crowding around Jenn. And Bev, when she's there."

(Which is apparently often. Beverley Bass told CBS This Morning that she's seen the show 68 times.)

"And you know," says Sankoff, "we've even had one little girl come dressed as a pilot. You know, I mean it's just, it's wonderful."


The timing of a message of inclusion

Come from Away opened in Toronto in November, days after the U.S. election. When it premiered in New York on March 10, 2017, Donald Trump had just signed his second travel ban. The juxtaposition of the welcoming message of the show versus actual U.S. policy was stark. New York Times drama critic Ben Brantley took note of it in his rave review.

"We are now in a moment in which millions of immigrants are homeless and denied entry to increasingly xenophobic nations, including the United States.  A tale of an insular populace that doesn't think twice before opening its arms to an international throng of strangers automatically acquires a near-utopian nimbus," wrote Brantley

I asked David Hein is he ever grows tired of explaining this "insular populace" to Americans.

"Honestly it is the best job in the world. I would spend the rest of my life every day explaining Newfoundlanders to Americans," he said.

"It's just this culture that we fell in love with and I grew up on Newfoundland music. I grew up on Great Big Sea and Shanneyganock and so, getting to celebrate that and celebrate who these people are, and talking about what a Screech-in ceremony is and what Screech is alone and, you know, why you have to kiss a fish."

The Canadian musical Come From Away is nominated for seven Tony Awards. (CBC)

Sankoff and Hein remain in contact with the people in Gander, where the show was mounted before it began its run in Toronto last fall. I asked Sankoff which was more important to her, opening on Broadway or in Gander?

"I was definitely more nervous in Gander because I knew I just would not feel comfortable if we did not have the blessing of the people whose story we were telling. I mean, it wouldn't have mattered if we'd had like the slickest show in the world that opened on Broadway if there are people back in Newfoundland saying ... "Oh I mean, what were they doing?' and 'What did they know?' and, you know, I just would not have felt right."

"But really I had that in the back of my head. I was like, you know, what we did, we did the people proud whose stories we told."

"So really at the end of the day that's what's most important."

The Tony Awards are Sunday night in New York. Come From Away opens in Winnipeg on January 12, 2018 and in Toronto on February 13 with tour dates coming in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa.

To hear my conversation with Irene Sankoff and David Hein, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.