How ‘Come From Away’ be­came sea­son’s sur­prise hit

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY PETER MARKS THE­ATER peter.marks@wash­post.com

new york — On the Broad­way set of “Come From Away,” some of the trees — os­ten­si­bly dead — have sprouted leaves. With any other show, this might be con­sid­ered a mir­a­cle. But in a Cana­dian mu­si­cal that has de­fied so many ex­pec­ta­tions, un­ortho­dox signs of life qual­ify as par for the course.

A work that some thought New York­ers would cold-shoul­der be­cause of the sub­ject — air­line pas­sen­gers stranded in New­found­land as a re­sult of the ter­ror­ist at­tacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — is in­stead be­ing widely and tear­fully cel­e­brated, just as it was pre­vi­ously in La Jolla, Calif., Seat­tle, Toronto and, per­haps most sig­nif­i­cantly, Wash­ing­ton. The au­di­ence em­brace has been so over­whelm­ing that the mu­si­cal has emerged as the big­gest sur­prise of the Broad­way sea­son, bring­ing in more than $1 mil­lion a week at the box of­fice, fill­ing to more than 100 per­cent of ca­pac­ity and ac­cu­mu­lat­ing ad­vance sales now whis­pered to stand at more than $10 mil­lion.

And in the most crowded sea­son for new mu­si­cals in decades, with 13 of them open­ing dur­ing 2016-2017, the show is viewed as a front-run­ner, with the emo­tional block­buster “Dear Evan Hansen,” for the Tony Award for best mu­si­cal. It re­ceived a to­tal of seven Tony nom­i­na­tions, among them nods for its direc­tor, Christo­pher Ash­ley, for the book and score by David Hein and Irene Sankoff, and for sup­port­ing ac­tress Jenn Colella. “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” and “Ground­hog Day” are also in the con­test, but it is the two mu­si­cals with roots in Wash­ing­ton — “Evan Hansen” from Arena Stage, and “Come From Away” from Ford’s The­atre — that are con­sid­ered the odds-on fa­vorites.

What might be even more re­mark­able is the im­pact “Come From Away” is hav­ing on hearts and minds far from the stage door of the Ger­ald Schoen­feld The­atre on West 45th Street, where it of­fi­cially opened March 12. Although the mu­si­cal has been crit­i­cized in some quar­ters for wear­ing its sun­ni­ness too trans­par­ently, the sen­ti­men­tal por­trait of New­found­lan­ders open­ing their homes to be­wil­dered and bedrag­gled pas­sen­gers from around the world seems to carry a spe­cial res­o­nant power at this mo­ment in his­tory — a tur­bu­lent po­lit­i­cal mo­ment when peo­ple are look­ing for the com­mon ground that good will can pro­vide. Why else would it have oc­curred to the prime min­is­ter of Canada, Justin Trudeau, to in­vite Pres­i­dent Trump and his fam­ily to join him at the show in March? (The pres­i­dent and his ad­vis­ers were re­ported to have ar­gued over Trudeau’s in­vi­ta­tion and ul­ti­mately turned it down, but Ivanka Trump ac­cepted.)

“Who could have guessed where this coun­try would be right now?” de­clares Sue Frost, one of “Come From Away’s” lead pro­duc­ers. “Peo­ple are ex­hausted by all the bad news, and this is a show about how be­ing good to each other is so im­por­tant. Peo­ple want to be re­minded that hu­man be­ings are ba­si­cally good. This is a show that we need right now.”

Born five years ago in a mu­si­cal-in­cu­ba­tor pro­gram at On­tario’s Sheri­dan Col­lege, the mu­si­cal is based on sto­ries the Cana­dian-Amer­i­can hus­band-and-wife team of Hein and Sankoff col­lected from Gan­der res­i­dents and the pas­sen­gers who lived among them for the week af­ter Sept. 11, 2001, when U.S. airspace had to be shut down. An air­port ca­pa­ble of han­dling big planes was built in Gan­der, on a re­mote tip of North Amer­ica, in the 1930s and be­came a ma­jor way sta­tion for the Al­lies in World War II, and af­ter­ward, a re­fu­el­ing stop for com­mer­cial tran­sat­lantic car­ri­ers.

Aug­mented by a score in­fused with an in­dige­nous Celtic lilt, “Come From Away” re­veals, through a cast that dou­bles as the lo­cals and “the plane peo­ple,” both the in­su­lar na­ture of Gan­der’s hard­scrab­ble is­land men­tal­ity and the soft spot the New­found­lan­ders har­bored for out­siders in cri­sis. That gen­eros­ity of spirit, set to song, has been a boon to the im­age of Canada, at a time when its mag­netic young prime min­is­ter has also been putting a fresh and vi­tal face on a na­tion too of­ten seen to ex­ist in an Amer­i­can shadow.

Still, the role that “Come From Away” has ful­filled is one that mu­si­cals rarely do: cast­ing an en­tire coun­try in a light that it wants the rest of the world to see. “The ‘Come From Away’ pro­duc­tion tells a fan­tas­tic story about the strong and long-last­ing Cana­dian-U.S. friend­ship,” Trudeau’s press of­fice said in a state­ment, “and cel­e­brates the warmth and gen­eros­ity demon­strated by the peo­ple of Gan­der in our neigh­bors’ time of need. And we em­brace the op­por­tu­nity to high­light how we are there for each other in these times of need.”

That Canada could present the por­trayal of Gan­der’s out­pour­ing of friend­ship as a model for in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions is an ex­tra­or­di­nary en­dorse­ment for a the­atri­cal ven­ture of any sort. Trudeau, af­ter all, made it a com­pelling in­stru­ment of his diplo­macy. Ear­lier this month, a Cana­dian tele­vi­sion net­work, CTV, re­ported the gov­ern­ment spent $22,000 on tick­ets for its “Come From Away” mis­sion.

“We had hopes of it do­ing com­pe­tently, and this is be­yond any­thing we had imag­ined,” Sankoff says of the at­ten­tion “Come From Away” has drawn, and the pub­lic re­sponse to the cou­ple’s maiden Broad­way voyage. “It is an in­ter­na­tional story,” Hein adds, as he and his wife sat to­gether for an in­ter­view re­cently in a mid­town Man­hat­tan of­fice. “And as we have trav­eled, it has be­come for us much more of an in­ter­na­tional story.”

Michael Ru­bi­noff, pro­ducer of the Cana­dian mu­si­cal the­ater project at Sheri­dan Col­lege, says “Come From Away” has had a pro­found im­pact on him and many of his coun­try­men. “It af­fected me in a way that made me proud to be a Cana­dian,” he says. “The wild card was how Amer­i­cans would re­act to this piece.”

For that rea­son, de­vel­op­ing the show with ac­tors from both coun­tries un­der Ash­ley’s aus­pices at the com­pany he runs, La Jolla Play­house near San Diego, was a key de­ci­sion. And fol­low­ing the Cal­i­for­nia run with stops in Seat­tle, Toronto and Wash­ing­ton proved just as cru­cial. These gave the direc­tor, writers and pro­duc­ers gauges for how au­di­ences in di­verse lo­cal­i­ties re­sponded to ma­te­rial prompted by heart­break­ing tragedy.

Sankoff and Hein say the warm re­cep­tion “Come From Away” ex­pe­ri­enced at Ford’s The­atre last fall was per­haps the most en­cour­ag­ing har­bin­ger of the wel­come mat they hoped to have laid out on Broad­way. Wash­ing­ton was the first city vis­ited by “Come From Away” that had gone through the agony of Sept. 11 first­hand, and there had been anx­i­ety on the cre­ative team over the pos­si­bil­ity of the mu­si­cal be­ing taken less as a trib­ute than an in­tru­sion. But Frost and oth­ers found that when the pro­duc­tion set up pri­vate per­for­mances of the mu­si­cal for sur­vivors and fam­ily of the Pen­tagon vic­tims and later in New York, for a foun­da­tion for the New York City Fire Depart­ment, which lost so many mem­bers, the re­ac­tion was one of grat­i­tude.

“We had peo­ple come up to us who had been di­rectly af­fected, who said, ‘Thank you for giv­ing us some­thing pos­i­tive about that day,’ ” the pro­ducer re­calls. “‘Thank you for giv­ing us a bet­ter mem­ory of that day.’ ”

Come From Away, book, mu­sic and lyrics by David Hein and Irene Sankoff. Di­rected by Christo­pher Ash­ley. Tick­ets, $47-$225. At Ger­ald Schoen­feld The­atre, 236 W. 45th St., New York. Visit telecharge.com or call 212-239-6200.

MATTHEW MUR­PHY

Cast mem­bers of “Come From Away,” now at New York’s Ger­ald Schoen­feld The­atre. The mu­si­cal played at Ford’s The­atre in the fall and has ex­ceeded all ex­pec­ta­tions with its suc­cess on Broad­way.

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