Ten years ago today, David Hein and Irene Sankoff found themselves in Gander, Newfoundland, on a research trip with the assignment of putting material together for a musical based on the events of September 11, 2001, when 38 commercial flights carrying 6,600 passengers were diverted from the sky and told to land immediately at the Gander airport.
The rest is history. Former Toronto Star theatre critic, Richard Ouzounian, was an early champion of Come From Away as it made its way through workshops, the difficulties in finding a Canadian main stage to present the show, and the eventual path it took through the American regional theater circuit that led it to Broadway. At the core of the story are the writers, Hein and Sankoff, a husband and wife team whose serendipitous journey Ouzounian wrote about in an interview for intermission magazine here.
The critical reception for the show when it opened on Broadway in the spring of 2017 was positive with the exception of some high profile dissenters. Ben Brantley, then chief critic for the New York Times, gave it a rave with the lead: “Try, if you must, to resist the gale of good will that blows out of Come From Away, the big bearhug of a musical that opened on Sunday night at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. But even the most stalwart cynics may have trouble staying dry-eyed during this portrait of heroic hospitality under extraordinary pressure.”
Other critics were not so generous. It’s a good thing that Jesse Green, who has now replaced Brantley as chief theatre critic for the NYT, was not in the job at the time of the show’s opening or it might have closed early. Writing then in New York magazine Green called the musical “aggressively nice” and went on to sound just like the “stalwart cynics” that Brantley referred to in his review. Said Green “If that sounds, cynical, perhaps New Yorkers may be permitted a bit of side-eye about a work that borrows our local tragedy as background for 100 minutes of Canadian civic boosterism.” Ouch, that really hurt Jesse!
The cynicism and hostility begins to verge on xenophobia as he describes the people of Gander with their “quaint traditions and Irishy accents…” Irishy? The Gaelic heritage that has resulted in a regional accent is unique in parts of Atlantic Canada, it’s true. But would Green review a play in Montreal and understand that Canada is officially a bilingual country? If he encountered a Francophone actor working in English with an accent, would he call it Frenchy? Does he get out much?
Green also found the cast of “12 actors playing at least 40 roles” daunting. It all sped by so fast it was hard for him to keep track. Poor man. Paula Vogel’s Tony award-winning play, Indecent, calls for seven actors to play 42 roles while David Edgar’s stage adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel, Nicholas Nickelby, featured 39 actors playing multiple roles. Both make for great theatre.
Green goes on: “The songs, also by Sankoff and Hein, are pleasant, in a folk-rock-meets-Celtic-revival vein that the show exploits with the mercilessness of a phlebotomist.” Setting aside comparisons to vampirism, Green reaches his nadir by charging that a poignant sub-plot of the show involving the story of a gay couple was “hoary gay material (that) feels like pandering or pinkwashing.” Really? Someday Green should do an interview with the real life couple (then) that the story is based on. I’d love to hear what Kevin Tuerff and Kevin Jung would have to say about their story being described as nothing but a pander for pinkwashing. I bet the readership of the New York Times would be interested as well.
I wish it ended there, but Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal was equally cruel. Although he professed sympathy with the idea that motivated the project, he ends the first paragraph of his review with this censure: “But Come From Away is, in hard point of fact, a gushily sentimental piece of theatrical yard goods that makes every mistake a musical can make.” Apparently in total they make up a litany.
Teachout wastes no time in getting to the point. “The problems start right at the top,” he asserts. “The results play like a volume of oral history transcripts set to music…”; “…a cluttered top-heavy show with too much exposition…”; “…the characters, major and minor alike, are all walking cliches…”; “…Ms. Sankoff and Mr. Hein have given us 15 forgettable musical numbers, most of them fragmentary, whose music is a peppy melange of folk, pop, country and Canadian-Irish jiggery-pokery and whose lyrics defy all attempts to remember them for longer than it takes to hear them sung”
Yeah, right. As if Teachout could remember any of the lyrics to Hamilton when he walked out of the room where it happens.
This mixed critical reception profiled here put me in mind of Les Misérables when it first opened in London. The critics were divided but it had no effect on ticket sales. The public made up their own mind and embraced the show warmly. It soon became “critic proof” as is Come From Away now.
This past Friday night (September 10) an extrordinary outdoor performance of the musical occurred in Washington, D.C., at the National Mall. Peter Marks, the theatre critic for the Washington Post, described the scene:
“Thousands of people gathered under a pink-hued Friday evening sky on the National Mall for a deeply meaningful, moving and melodious event: the performance of a Broadway musical enshrining acts of extraordinary grace that occurred amid the indelible horrors of 20 years ago.”
“With the renowned visage of Abraham Lincoln gazing on from his memorial, the cast of “Come From Away” — the story of a Canadian town that sheltered 7,000 airline passengers stranded there on 9/11 — sang for what had to be one of the largest audiences ever for theater in the nation’s capital. Theatergoers in folding chairs and on picnic blankets ringed the Mall’s Reflecting Pool for 100 minutes of boisterous harmonies and anecdotes about the largesse of a small Newfoundland community. One with not many more citizens than the throngs who had assembled here.”
It was a pleasure to see the Apple TV+ screening of “Come From Away” the other night as part of the mirvish.com preview for critics and arts journalists. I had only seen the show once previously when I reviewed it for publication just prior to its Broadway opening. Perhaps it was the similar feeling of isolation and of being stranded during the pandemic that had something to do with it, but the emotion I felt watching the filmed version of the show was palpable. My original review follows here as does a much more in-depth piece from my colleague, Barry Freeman (a Newfoundlander ex-pat), whose insightful article appeared in Canadian Theatre Review and was the winner of the Nathan Cohen Award for Excellence in Critical Writing awarded by the Canadian Theatre Critics Association. The article can be found here.
Come From Away will return to the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto on December 7th.
AISLE SAY in Toronto, November 15, 2016
Come From Away
Book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein
Directed by Christopher Ashley
Scenic design by Beowulf Boritt
Choreography by Kelly Devine
Musical direction by Ian Eisendrath
Featuring: Petrina Bromley, Geno Carr, Jenn Colella, Joel Hatch, Rodney Hicks, Kendra Kassenaum, Chad Kimball, Lee MaDougall, Caesar Samayoa, Q. Smith, Astrid Van Wieren, Sharon Wheatley, Josh Breckenbridge, Susan Dunstan, Tamika Lawrence and Tony LePage.
Presented by David Mirvish and Junkyard Dog Productions. Playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto until January 8th (the run is sold out) www.MirvishProductions.com
Reviewed by Robin Breon
If you “come from away” (the native Newfoundlander’s expression for those folks who visit but don’t live on “The Rock”) the locals might share with you a meal of fresh hunted turr (in season right now) or you might end up down at the local pub to get yourself “Screeched in” after you kiss the cod. All to the good sounding Celtic leaning folk music that you might hear in any kitchen ceilidh party on a Saturday night.
But on the night of September 11, 2001, all was not well on The Rock and throughout North America as airports shut down and all air traffic was grounded in the wake of the terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon. This included 38 civilian and 4 military international flights that were diverted to the small town of Gander, Newfoundland. Why Gander? Because at one time you couldn’t get where you needed to go in Europe or vice versa without stopping there to refuel, it being one of the largest airports in North America. This hasn’t been the case for some time now, but as Gander’s Mayor, Claude Elliot, observed on 9/11, “Damn good thing we didn’t tear the place down.”
Now at first glance, you might think it would be a bit of a stretch to take this scenario, which involved a deluge of almost 7,000 hungry, frightened passengers (some stranded on their planes for over 20 hours after landing) that swelled a town whose population numbered only about 11,000, into a heartwarming musical. Well, I’m here to tell you that you would be wrong about that. Come From Away is the kind of good, compassionate story telling that we need in times like these when good news is hard to come by.
Irene Sankoff and David Hein are a Canadian writing team, married to each other in life and to the theatre by profession. Their first go at musical theatre was a quirky, semi-biographical piece called My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding that was a hit at the Toronto Fringe Festival and went on to be picked up for a successful commercial run by Mirvish Productions and then on to successful runs in New York and across the U.S. with Sankoff and Hein performing in most productions.
The backstory of Come From Away is interesting in that it was conceived by Michael Rubinoff, associate dean of visual and performing arts at Sheridan College in Mississiauga, Ontario. The playwrights got some grant money to travel to Gander and do research on the project by gathering up stories much in the “verbatim theatre” style of docu-dramas so much in vogue these days. Their own composing vocabulary is more on the folksy side of the musical staff, so the Celtic folk phrasing, fiddle playing and clog dancing blended quite nicely with the rhythmic story telling that really sounded more like a sung through musical then it did a book show.
After completing workshopping at Sheridan and then additional workshopping at Goodspeed Musical Festival of New Artists, they were unable to find any local producers in Canada willing to mount the show so they began to pitch the project in the U.S. where it was picked up by the La Jolla Playhouse in California and the Seattle Repertory Theatre. There they enjoyed sold out runs and went on to play the Ford Theatre in Wash. D.C. With that track record behind them, Come From Away received its Canadian premiere in November in Toronto where it was immediately embraced by local audiences who sold out the limited run at the Royal Alexandra Theatre. It plays there until January 9th before moving on to its Broadway preview at the Gerald Schoenfeld beginning on February 8th and officially opening on March 23rd.
This is a close knit, 16 member ensemble cast (see names above) that moves swiftly and seamlessly from airline passengers in one scene to local Gander residents in the next and it seems unfair to single out leading roles and singular stand out performances although there certainly are some. But better you the audience should choose your own favorites from this heartfelt and soulful production. Also worthy of note is the eight member band led by Ian Eisendrath (keyboard/accordion) and supported by Ben Power (flute/pipes/whistles), Caitlin Warbelow (fiddle), Alec Berlin and Nate Lueck (guitar/mandolin/bouzouki), Carl Carter (bass), Romano Di Nillo (bodhran/percussion) and Larry Lelli (drums/percussion). They even get their own well deserved curtain call.
Come From Away is a bit of a love letter for our American cousins to the south or, better still, a get-well card as in, “just a short note to let you know we’re thinkin’ about ya, eh?” If you happen to be in New York City and have an opportunity to see this show during its run at the Gerald Schoenfeld, don’t miss your chance. As those cold winter gusts sweep through the wind tunnels of Manhattan, drop in for a bit of warming spiritual uplift from the northern most tip of the continent.
A little touch of Canada in the night.