Husband-and-wife team David Hein and Irene Sankoff began the creative journey that would lead to the critically acclaimed Broadway hit Come From Away with some trepidation. “When we started writing together, we had day jobs and night jobs, and we missed each other,” says Hein. “People had told us that working on musicals can tear people apart.”
For this couple of composers/lyricists/librettists — who previously collaborated on another show, My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding — the opposite proved true. Come From Away, which opened at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre a year ago March 12, has not only earned them box office success and a bevy of awards, it’s both nurtured their bond and created what they describe as an extended family, consisting of the people who have worked with them and the many more who have been moved by the musical, which traces events in a small town in the aftermath of an international tragedy.
“We wrote the show not to tell a 9/11 story, but to tell a 9/12 story,” says Hein. Set in Gander in the Canadian province of Newfoundland, it tells the story of hundreds of air travelers who came to rely on the kindness of strangers after their planes were diverted following the attacks. Sankoff and Hein, who were born and bred in Canada but lived in New York when the Twin Towers fell, went to Gander for the 10th anniversary of the incident to gather material, interviewing locals and the accidental visitors they welcomed into their homes and hearts.
The trip confirmed for the couple, who had considered crafting Come From Away as a play, that it was destined to be a musical. “I grew up listening to this authentic, traditional music of Newfoundland,” says Hein. “It’s the music that helps people survive the winters; they have these kitchen parties where everyone comes together as a community and tells stories and plays different instruments.”
Local instruments include “ugly sticks,” a type of percussion instrument. “It’s essentially a mop screwed into a boot with bottle caps screwed into the side, and you hit it with a stick,” Hein explains. “The music of Newfoundland has been played for hundreds of years, but you put it on a Broadway stage and it sounds incredibly new and fresh.”
Hein says that he and Sankoff were also keen to “layer on world music and its instruments, not just to represent the people who had landed there but to explore the things we have in common. The sound of a Newfoundland fiddle is similar to that of a Texas country fiddle; that’s an amazing musical metaphor for the world coming together.”
The anniversary meeting in Gander also helped inspire the playful humor that pops up in Come From Away. “We’ve been surprised by how funny the show is,” Hein says. “But it’s not too surprising, because of the Newfoundlanders’ skill for telling a story that makes you well up, then saying, ‘No, no, here’s a joke’ and making you laugh harder than you ever have. Their emotional spectrum is so rich, mixing laughter and tears and joy, and it’s thrilling to share that with the world.”
Years later — following other successful runs at the La Jolla Playhouse and in Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Toronto — the men and women whose generosity and courage informed Come From Away remain among its most devoted fans. “It’s a strange experience as writers to have characters in your show cheer you on on Twitter and Facebook and see the show again and again,” says Hein.
Opportunities to see the musical are growing, with a second company now performing in Canada and a third set to launch a North American tour in Seattle in October. A film is also planned, to be helmed by Come From Away’s Tony Award–winning director, Christopher Ashley, and produced by the Mark Gordon Company. Sankoff and Hein will adapt their book; both have studied screenwriting, and Sankoff earned a degree in the craft.
“I think the only type of writing I haven’t studied is musical theater,” Sankoff quips. Though a timeline isn’t yet in place for the movie, Hein says, “we’ve envisioned what it could look like, having 38 planes with people streaming off them. But we’re going to tell the same story we fell in love with in the first place.”
Sankoff and Hein are still happily overwhelmed by the success Come From Away has enjoyed thus far, particularly on Broadway, where they’re newcomers. “No matter what show you’re doing, New York can be a little tricky, I’m told,” says Sankoff. At the show’s first preview at the Schoenfeld, the blackout preceding the curtain call “was the longest 10 seconds of my life.”
There’s been less holding of breath since then. “I don’t want to jinx us,” says Hein, “but I’m not sure we’ve ever had a performance that hasn’t gotten a standing ovation.” The reception in Washington fed their confidence, as “that was another audience directly affected by 9/11.” A pair of special benefit performances in Gander were also crucial. “We wanted to get it right for the people we’d interviewed, and to reflect their culture back to them, so seeing them cheer brought us all to tears.”
New York audiences have included many people close to the tragedy, and to Hein and Sankoff. At a recent performance the couple attended, viewers included both their 4-year-old daughter’s teacher and a firefighter’s widow.
Having their young child accompany them through Come From Away’s progress has been especially meaningful. “The show reminds us to teach our daughter to be kind, how important that is in this world,” says Hein. Sankoff adds, “It takes a unique kind of bravery to do that, to be kind. Sometimes it’s seen as a kind of weakness, but really, one of the riskiest things to do is to open yourself up to people. To sit down and push away is easy.”
To further promote that message, the Come From Away team has done “a ton of education outreach,” Hein notes. “So many teachers have come to see it. People who weren’t born when 9/11 happened have come and been really moved.”
With the musical’s own inspiring story still spreading, Sankoff and Hein haven’t yet turned their attention to another project. “But we have a couple of irons in the fire,” says Sankoff. Nudged for a more specific clue, she adds simply: “We’re attracted to true stories — to stories where people overcome divisions, in unique ways. That’s what we’re always drawn to.”