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Come From Away’s Journey From 9/11 to the Tony Awards

Irene Sankoff and David Hein, the married couple who created ‘Come From Away,’ describe how 9/11 formed the foundation of a multi-Tony-nominated musical hit.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

When the writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein were offered a house to stay in Gambo, near Gander, Newfoundland, in 2011 as they researched their multi-Tony-nominated Broadway musical, Come From Away, the home’s owners warned the married couple to lock the doors.

“Not because anything bad would happen,” Sankoff told The Daily Beast, “but because someone might drop in for tea.” Gander and its environs, as you will know if you have seen their rollicking musical, is that kind of place.

One night Sankoff and Hein forgot the instruction, only to wake the next morning to find a complete stranger at the kitchen table having a cup of tea. “Oh good,” the man said. “You’re up. I heard you were in town and thought I’d show you around.”

Nearly six years later, it is, says Sankoff, “completely surreal” for her and her husband to be nominated for two Tony awards—best book of a musical and best original score—having written the book, music, and lyrics for Come From Away, which focuses on what happened when Gander took in 6,579 international plane passengers after 38 flights were forced to land there on Sept. 11, 2001.

Come From Away, which contrasts the experiences of the travelers and locals as they live alongside one another for a week, all undergoing various changes and mini-transformations, has had a six-year gestation period, and so its seven Tony nominations—its competition for best musical is Natasha, Pierre, & The Great Comet of 1812, Dear Evan Hansen, and Groundhog Day: The Musical—are sweet indeed.

“It’s overwhelming,” says Hein, sitting beside his wife in an Upper West Side coffee shop. “It’s so nice to see not just our work recognized, but beyond that the story of what happened in Newfoundland itself.”

The show’s amazing journey has happened alongside a just-as-special personal one: The couple had their first child, Molly, now 3 and a half, just as Come From Away itself was finding its path.

It was Michael Rubinoff, associate dean of Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario, who first suggested that the couple make the subject matter into a musical. This led Sankoff and Hein to attend the 10th anniversary of the “plane people’s” return to Gander in 2011, where they met the characters who would later become the characters in the show. Some are the individuals themselves—like Nick and Diane, the middle-aged couple who fall in love—and some are composites, like a TV reporter.

Everything that happens in Come From Away really happened: The couple recalls Hannah O’Rourke, the mother of a New York firefighter who died on Sept. 11 and who was forced to wait for news of him while in Gander herself, watching the musical for the first time. “She held both our hands and leaned on us and cried,” said Sankoff. “Then she laughed as it went on.”

There really is a “screeching in” ceremony, involving kissing a fish, for visitors to the “Rock.”

The musical contrasts the scale of the task facing Gander’s residents with the practicality of Newfoundlanders themselves, and their friendliness and open-heartedness. They think nothing of taking in these strangers to their homes, feeding them, and taking care of them. The amount of detail—right down to the men of the town making sure female travelers had enough sanitary pads—was gleaned through hours of Sankoff and Hein’s patient listening and interviewing.

“We had done so much pre-research beforehand,” says Sankoff, “that they felt like rock stars to us. But you know how rock stars can sometimes be disappointing in person? These guys were so much more vibrant. They were vibrant—everything we hoped and more.”

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The people of Gander, said Sankoff, were both humble and kind. “They didn’t want thanks for what they did, but they were also proud of how the community responded, and so seeing Broadway and other audiences leap to their feet” in appreciation of the humanity on display in Come From Away is “wonderful. ‘This thing we thought was ordinary is extraordinary to everyone else.’ ‘Pride’ might be a negative word for them. You don’t do good deeds with pride. You do them because you are meant to.”

The affection, pride, and warmth Sankoff and Hein have for the people of Gander is clear. That has been shared, as Come From Away has taken shape, with the production team more generally. You can see it at many performances: Audiences generally go wild for the show, and the Celtic, folk-style rock played by the band led by conductor Ian Eisendrath. Canadian flags are waved.

The show has given Nick and Diane, who felt odd having fallen in love because of such a terrible event, a chance to actually celebrate their love. “Young people in particular are really into Nick and Diane’s love story,” says Sankoff. “We can’t figure it out. We’re children of divorced parents, so we wonder if it’s just a ton of kids of divorced parents who just want two older people to be in love.”

“They also can’t figure out what the box in Nick’s hand is,” smiles Hein. “It’s a camera. We say in the show that cellphones were not as common in 2001 as they are now.”

Beverley Bass, the first female American Airlines pilot—played by Tony nominee Jenn Colella—says she knew she was in a safe place when she disembarked from the plane to be confronted by platters of sandwiches, juice boxes, and packed lunches. The couple also heard from a young local who remembers making all those sandwiches, “and never wanting to look at another sandwich ever again.”

The couple stayed in Gander for around a month gathering material. At every stage of the musical’s development they kept the subjects abreast of what was happening. They recall being so nervous when the musical played in Gander itself, the theater packed with 2,500 people—“5,000 eyes watching us”—and everyone bursting into loud applause and a few tears, including the actors on stage, at the end of the first song, “Welcome To The Rock.”

“We were never writing a Broadway musical,” said Hein. “We were only writing a musical for those we had interviewed and met. We wanted them to sit there and feel honored, and feel we had gotten it right and not to be a bad experience. If the people we had spoken to weren’t happy, we wouldn’t feel good. We didn’t want it to be exploitative.”

Newfoundlanders, said Hein, “have an amazing sense of humor and sense of self-awareness. Petrina (Bromley, a Come From Away actress from Newfoundland) likes to play Spot the Newfoundlander during a performance. They laugh in two places where others might not: Once when a character notes Newfoundlanders “have less people to lose,” and another time when a character notes the place has “trees, rocks and nothing.” If something gets a Newfoundlander down, said Sankoff, a joke isn’t too far behind.

Sankoff and Hein were initially inspired by Moisés Kaufman’s The Laramie Project, which looked at how that town responded to the brutal, anti-gay murder of Matthew Shepard. Come From Away was initially conceived as a spoken word play, but then—having seen everyone from mayor to Lufthansa executives dance to exuberant local music, they knew music had to be central to the show. The music itself, said Hein, becomes a metaphor for the coming together at the heart of the show.

At the beginning, the couple imagined that the show might appear in schools and colleges, or have a Canadian touring life. But the response at the Goodspeed festival of new musicals, and then NAMT (National Alliance for Musical Theatre) festival, sent it on a much larger path that has taken it to La Jolla, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and now Broadway—and possibly Tony glory.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took Ivanka Trump to see it; its message of inclusiveness and welcome-to-foreigners has become only more potent and pointed in the era of her father’s presidency.

***

Sankoff and Hein—raised in Toronto’s North York district, and Regina respectively—met at York University. They were in New York themselves during 9/11, both living at International House near Columbia University. “We were in such a good group, with students from all around the world. We were all ‘come from away’ ourselves,” said Hein, whose cousin worked downtown and whom he worried about for hours until discovering she was safe.

“The next day everyone we knew was accounted for, but that day a friend of ours started playing something soft on the piano. There are a lot ‘come from aways’ in Manhattan anyway. The spirit over the next few days was amazing—gathering, coming together, offering to donate blood. It was the recognition of shared experience, of trying to do what we could to help. It was exactly the same in Newfoundland: They could do something, and turn their energy into something.”

The couple married a month after 9/11. Sankoff wanted to be an actor, but a bad shoulder injury led both she and Hein to leave New York and return to Toronto (and publicly funded Canadian health care) in the mid-2000s. Hein wanted to be a musician. Both balanced temp jobs with acting and music. Sankoff had a degree in psychology and wondered if she should specialize working with autistic children; Hein was thinking of focusing on set design.

Their breakthrough was crafting a cult hit musical about Hein’s mother’s coming out, My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, which premiered in 2009. Aged 13, he had overheard his mom talking to her then-partner, now her wife, about how to tell him about herself. The next morning, she came into his room, while he remained dead-set on his comic book. He told her, “‘It’s fine, dad has a girlfriend, I don’t know why you can’t too.’ When you have divorced parents you just want them to be happy.”

The show he and Sankoff wrote looked at how brave his mother was to come out at the same time as he realizing he knew all along. The problem was his mother and her wife, who loved the show, would come to performances, and sing along too loudly.

Before Come From Away, the reception to that show showed the couple “the power of true stories,” said Sankoff. “At the end of one performance, a woman came up to us and said, ‘I’m 70, Jewish, and my granddaughter is marrying another woman and I wasn’t OK with it, and now I am.’ It showed us theater can change the world in really small ways.”

When Michael Rubinoff first told them the story of Gander during 9/11, they immediately “started going down rabbit holes” to research the story. It has made them proud to see the little stories they unearthed become so much more powerful, and also a source of national pride for Canadians.

Hein said he and Sankoff started writing together because they were in love, and wanted to spend time together (Sankoff says she is more of a musical traditionalist than Hein, namechecking Singin’ In The Rain and Guys and Dolls as favorites).

The couple acknowledge that some people are uneasy with such a directly 9/11-themed show happening in New York though not about it, and with such an upbeat focus. But Come From Away was as sensitively constructed as it could be, they say.

“Many people who were directly affected that day have been to see the show,” said Sankoff. “They told us how glad they are to see something that gives hope. We never want to take away or detract from what happened on 9/11, but what was common was that there were helpers, here and in Newfoundland. There were far more many people trying to do good in response to this than there were bad perpetrating it.”

It has been described as a “feel-good” musical, which Sankoff thinks is a shorthand that means Come From Away can be written off too easily. There are no neat bows tied on O’Rourke’s grief, or the racism as experienced by Ali, the show’s Muslim character. But at its root the show is about kindness and goodness.

“Instead of keeping 7,000 scared, angry people who could have turned into a riot they made 7,000 friends. That feels like a message we should be talking about now,” said Sankoff.

She and Hein didn’t have a crystal ball: Come From Away was written long before Trump’s Muslim ban and subsequent travel ban, and the chaos that unfolded around them.

“At a time when refugees are being spoken about in the way that they are,” said Hein, “when the talk is of differences and divisions by race and religion, to illustrate a story where the characters and we are able to come together through shared experiences and values and overcome these things feels very important.”

As for what they hope Ivanka Trump took home from it, Sankoff offered a diplomatic, “We wanted her to see the show and be inspired as we are.” Hein said they used to disagree at university whether theater could change the world. And now they agree: “Any good conversation can be a spark.” It’s wonderful, for Sankoff, that “everyone—actors, audience, and musicians—are standing at the end of Come From Away,” as the story, she hopes, connects everybody.

Of course, they want to win at the Tonys, but they say more than once how honored they are to be nominated in original musical categories with a collection of very different shows nominated alongside one another.

The difficulty is how to follow this stunning success as writers. They are cagey about what might come next. It sounds as if it will be another piece that uses real or reported material, because “there is a power to true stories,” said Sankoff. It may well be a musical, although Sankoff would like to work with just the spoken dramatic word.

As co-workers and married parents they are together “pretty much 24/7. Some people say we’re crazy, that they would have killed their spouse,” said Hein. “It’s certainly not for the faint of heart. We couldn’t have done this 10 years ago. You learn to overcome differences and make compromises. It may not be Plan A, and not Plan B, but Plan C, which you end up figuring out, that is strongest. At the end of the day you have someone you love very much, and you’re both on the same page; someone who can say, ‘This is a terrible piece of writing, we need to redo it.’ And that is insanely valuable.”

Are they each other’s best critic? “You have to be,” said Sankoff. Our daughter’s future depends on it. Our future depends on it. There’s no room for ‘That’s the best you can do.’”

The inclusive values of Come From Away—and the example of women like Beverley Bass—they hope Molly imbibes. Her parents have heard her recite slices of dialogue from the text, editing out the swearing (with no request from them to do so); she loves certain songs, and certain lines. Two days after giving birth to her, Sankoff finished the script for the NAMT festival; at 8 weeks old they first brought her to New York. Molly got her first tooth, and said her first word (“eyes”) in Newfoundland. Hein laughed as he recalled he and director Christopher Ashley’s two-hour battle to install Molly’s child car seat.

Come From Away and having Molly are inextricably intertwined, the couple said. Rewrites were done while nursing (not fun, said Sankoff). Packing for trips meant “a ton of diapers.” Car journeys led to 12 hours of song. Molly has been raised by her parents, and also the company and joy of Come From Away.

The next production of the musical will open in Toronto, which they are both proudly anticipating. (Hein, a proud Canadian patriot, describes bedecking himself in maple leaf everything on Canada Day in his youth.) A London production seems inevitable.

But for now, it’s Tony Award campaigning, and the pleasure of watching Come From Away win over New York. “It has really been something to create something that could have been viewed really negatively here,” said Sankoff. “Instead it has been celebrated, and New York has embraced us.”

Come From Away is at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th St., New York City. Book tickets here.