FROM GANDER TO BROADWAY
How a Canadian musical about Newfoundland and Sept. 11, 2001, made it to the big-leagues,
Who would have thought you could create an uplifting musical out of the existential horror that was Sept. 11?
Lawyer Michael Rubinoff did. He believed that audiences would respond to the power of hope emerging through the tragedy. But most figured his concept — finding the bright side of one of the world’s most notorious acts of terrorism — was too macabre.
Yet Rubinoff’s seemingly bad idea turns out to be the most compelling arts and culture story this year. His concept improbably underscores the power of the arts to imbue meaning in chaos and the value of sticking to a vision and mining your own history. It is the theatre equivalent of a rookie Canadian player making it to Wimbledon. And yes, it’s heading to Broadway.
“If you had told me back then I’m making a play about Newfoundland and 9/11, and it’s going to Broadway, I would think you’re crazy,” laughs Rubinoff.
But the tale of how Come From Away came into being is perhaps as interesting as the art itself. It underlines how much talent, hard work and not a little luck comes into play when making a world-class musical with the potential to resonate with audiences on the biggest and most competitive stage for theatre in the world.
Rubinoff was in the office of his Bay Street law firm when he first heard that planes had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11, 2001. It was his second day of articling.
The event would have global repercussions, but also a particularly Canadian slant: 38 planes would divert to Gander, N.L. The population of the town would virtually double. But the hospitality of the residents in feeding and housing the stranded would reverberate with the passengers, who never forgot the kindness of strangers.
“It just made me proud to be a Canadian,” Rubinoff says. “I kept thinking what a great story this was.”
Rubinoff wasn’t a complete novice to theatre. Before being called to the bar he had formed a theatre company doing local productions in Toronto. Over the years his works have brought a Dora Mavor Moore Award and six nominations.
After Sept. 11 he approached several writers about his concept. They turned him down. But he kept pitching. “Most people didn’t share my passion or enthusiasm. But I really thought it could work.”
What happened next is virtually unheard of in Canadian musical history: an obscure, studentwork shopped production that makes it to the big leagues. To put that in perspective, this is only the fifth original Canadian musical to make it to the musical capital of the world, according to Sheridan College. The last Broadway-bound musical was The Drowsy Chaperone in 2006.
But like most good art, it starts with lunch.
In 2009, Rubinoff went to see the Mirvish production of the autobio- graphical comedy My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, produced and written by the husbandwife team of David Hein and Irene Sankoff.
“I didn’t know what to expect. It had this crazy title. But I was so moved by the show. It was such an honest, funny story about David’s family.”
Rubinoff sent a Facebook message to the couple congratulating them and asking to meet. A month later, at a Yorkville restaurant, they did.
“I told them I was trying to find people to write a musical.”
Hein says they were happy to hear from Rubinoff. And the concept, bizarre to just about everyone else, didn’t sound strange at all to the couple, especially since they had been living in New York during Sept. 11. Plus, Hein grew up on the Celtic-influenced music of Newfoundland, which he loved.
“It immediately sang to me as a story,” he says.
“It was so inspiring. We were in,” Sankoff says. “As Canadians I always thought we should be sharing our stories, instead of stories about New York or Boston. But we had to figure a way how to do this.”
Not only were the couple looking for their next project, Rubinoff had been transitioning from full-time lawyer to associate dean of visual and performing arts at Oakville’s Sheridan College.
Part of his vision was launching an incubator for Canadian musicals. While filmmakers, for example, have the Norman Jewison-founded Canadian Film Centre in which to workshop and develop stories, there is no comparable outlet for musical theatre in Canada.
“I knew we had talented students, a great infrastructure and an academic and artistic objective. It was just to be able to institutionalize all of this at a college level,” says Rubinoff. Before Come From Away was workshopped at Sheridan, Hein and Sankoff flew to Gander, where they spent more than three weeks interviewing key players.
“We would be talking to people for hours. We heard hundreds of amazing stories. And we experienced the same kind of hospitality that the people in planes did,” says Sankoff.
“Newfoundland is based on this culture of freezing cold winters and just gathering in the kitchen and telling great stories,” says Hein. “But they couldn’t understand why we were doing a musical because for them this was not an extraordinary event by any means.”
Reg Wright, the president of the airport, put it best: “You’re doing a musical about people giving out sandwiches and letting people use their showers? Good luck with that.”
Come From Away would be the first musical developed at Sheridan’s Canadian Music Theatre Project.
The cast were students. Over five weeks, for seven hours a day, the writers honed the work. The first run produced a play of about 40 minutes. Students would stand onstage reading from music stands.
“As the saying goes, musicals aren’t written, they’re rewritten,” says Rubinoff. “It’s really invaluable when a writer works on a song to be able to hear it immediately to see how certain things work. It’s also interesting to see how those students left their own imprint on the show as it developed.”
One of those students was Trevor Pratt. He played Gander Mayor Claude Elliott in the first full student production of the show.
“I had never met Claude, but it was great to be able to inform the character by asking Irene and David what he was like,” Pratt says. “It was truly one of the greatest joys I ever felt professionally, that you are at the beginning of a part of something that could be great.”
Ironically, most Canadian producers were not interested in what seemed to be the most Canadian of musicals.
“Our theatres take less risk in Canada and musicals are expensive to produce and develop,” Rubinoff says. “It’s easier to do an existing production than take a chance, unfortunately, and that’s the reality.”
The breakthrough came in 2013. Goodspeed Musicals in Connecticut showcased it in their workshop program while the National Alliance for Musical Theatre in New York selected it for a showcase presentation.
“We were really concerned how the Americans would react. But it turns out they had an even stronger emotional connection,” Rubinoff says.
“People always ask why the story resonates,” Hein says. “But there is never a bad time to tell a story about human kindness. Especially with the political climate right now, a story about welcoming strangers from other parts of the world and just being good to each other just makes sense.”
The production caught the attention of Junkyard Dog Productions, the people behind the Tony Awardwinning musical Memphis.
With Junkyard optioning the show, it had runs at the La Jolla Playhouse and the Seattle Repertory Theatre in 2015.
Earlier this year it played to emotional audiences at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., and most recently in Gander, where cast members met their real-life counterparts.
It plays at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre from Tuesday until Jan. 8, before debuting on Broadway in March 2017.
“This is the work of a really talented husband-and-wife team. And it’s also a story about patience and determination and luck,” says John Karastamatis, director of communications for Mirvish Productions.
Karastamatis should know. He took a gamble on The Drowsy Chaperone after seeing it at the Fringe Festival in 1999.
“Nobody took me seriously. Shows from the Fringe just didn’t go anywhere,” Karastamatis says. With a $100,000 loan from his boss, theatre impresario David Mirvish, Karastamatis went from promoting shows to producing them. He opened at Theatre Passe Muraille later that year.
“I hustled to sell every seat possible.”
The show was a hit, which encouraged Mirvish to put it in the Winter Garden Theatre in 2001. It would eventually run on Broadway from April 2006 to December 2007.
On Broadway the show won five Tony Awards.
The show, like Come From Away, had defied the odds.
“The odds have been surprising us all along,” Hein says. “The fact that Michael saw our first show. The fact he created the Canadian Music Theatre Project at Sheridan. And then we were lucky enough to get it into festivals in New York. That people ended up reacting the way they did. I think the lesson is that Canadian stories are such an untapped resource. And now we’re finding that our stories matter more than ever.”