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Musical captures the spirit of Newfoundland

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The cast of Come From Away [Matthew Murphy photo]

When the tumultuous tragedies of Sept. 11 played out on screens around the world, who could have imagined that the plight of the passengers whose flights were redirected from New York and landed on the unfamiliar turf of Gander, N.L. would inspire a musical production?

Irene Sankoff and David Hein
Irene Sankoff and David Hein

Michael Rubinoff was inspired by the outpouring of compassion shown by the Gander residents who opened their hearts to the unexpected “refugees” – the 6,500 passengers disembarking from 38 planes on their doorstep. As a storyteller, he figured that a musical showcasing hope rising above tragedy, one that features powerful personalities and pervades with joyous Celtic sounds, would be a compelling way to tell this incredible tale of human kindness.

In 2011, Rubinoff, in his creative position as associate dean of visual and performing arts at Sheridan College’s Oakville campus in Ontario, had created the Canadian Music Theatre Project (CMTP), Canada’s first incubator for the development of new Canadian and international musical theatre works.

“My idea was difficult to pitch,” says Rubinoff, who also works as an independent theatre producer and entertainment lawyer.

READ: SHERIDAN PLAY IS AN INTERACTIVE ADVENTURE

After presenting the idea to several composer/lyricist teams who could not envision the joy of “a 9/11 musical,” Rubinoff contacted Toronto’s Irene Sankoff and David Hein. The husband-and-wife writing duo, had created My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, the quirky story of Hein’s mother that ran to rave reviews during the 2009 Toronto Fringe Festival.

On the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Sankoff and Hein flew to Gander, hoping to connect with “the come-from-aways,”  the refugees returning to renew friendships with the hospitable locals. Beyond the expected short stay, they remained for over three weeks.

“We didn’t know what we were looking for, and came away with hours of interviews,” Sankoff says.

Michael Rubinoff with his students.
Michael Rubinoff with his students.

When writing the play, they wanted to reflect the authentic Newfoundlanders’ spirits, “their smiling and laughing,’ Hein says. “For all the characters and incidents, we wanted to get the story right for the people who lived through it, to portray it as an extraordinary, whole experience of joy.”

Among the people who inspired favourite characters in the play: Capt. Beverley Bass, the first female pilot for American Airlines, was flying the Paris to Dallas route when she was grounded in Gander. Bonnie Harris, head of the Gander SPCA, worked zealously to rescue animals that were trapped in the planes.

The writers’ efforts combined effectively with Rubinoff’s work in Sheridan’s CMTP program, as scripts and scenes could be tested by students, then revised for maximum production values.

Now Broadway-bound, the musical has played at various venues, including the Goodspeed Musicals Festival of New Artists and the Fords Theatre in Washington D.C., where it promised to be a smash success.

Ultimately, Rubinoff says, “David and Irene captured the spirit of the community. When we brought the show to the hockey arena in Gander [prior to the opening in Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre], there was an energy that I never experienced before at a theatrical event, particularly as the locals saw how the writers portrayed the people of Gander respectfully and honourably in a magnificent production presented in such a creative and meaningful way. The audience was inspired by the universal themes of people giving kindness.”

As for playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, Rubinoff, Sankoff and Hein praise David Mirvish to the hilt for his willingness to restore the historic Royal Alex to its status as a beautiful, comfortable theatre.

Rubinoff says since Come From Away showcases Canadian writers and producers, it will help his CMTP program provide support to help more writers tell Canadian stories with Canadian writers and producers.

Sankoff and Hein, whose daughter was born just as the show started to gain momentum, say, “Bringing the show back to the people of Gander was a dream come true.” After writing their next musical, Mitzvah, they are considering moving to New York.