The Canadian creators behind “Come From Away” were already riding an emotional high after opening night on Broadway, but some unexpected news gave them another reason to cheer.
The lively after-party was in full swing Sunday night when Irene Sankoff learned from a publicist that the New York Times theatre review had been published — and “Come From Away” had received a highly coveted designation as a critics’ pick.
“I’d actually forgotten all about the reviews. It sounds trite but it’s really true. We were having such a great time that I’d forgotten,” recalled Sankoff, a Toronto native. “And suddenly, everyone was looking at their phones.”
The Times piece was among a series of mostly favourable stories in praise of “Come From Away,” and the beginning of a whirlwind week for the homegrown musical.
On Wednesday night, the play welcomed an audience stacked with political heavyweights and dignitaries, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. On Thursday, the production was prominently featured in a segment on U.S. morning show “Today” with interviews conducted by veteran journalist Tom Brokaw.
Sankoff and her husband, David Hein, are still buzzing over the musical they built together — a story of Canadian hospitality that emerged under the spectre of immense tragedy.
Set in the remote East Coast town of Gander, N.L., in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Gander saw its population swell by double after local residents provided refuge to 6,579 passengers and crew from 38 planes diverted when U.S. air space was closed in the aftermath of 9/11.
Taking the show to the Big Apple had its own personal significance to the couple.
“We lived here in New York over 9/11,” said the Regina-born, Saskatoon-raised Hein.
“So bringing the show back here now and being so warmly welcomed by New York — it’s been a long journey.”
Sankoff and Hein began writing “Come From Away” after a trip to Gander that marked the 10th anniversary of 9/11. The couple collected true-life tales during their month in the town and began to use them as inspiration for a bigger story.
“Come From Away” was previously staged in La Jolla, Calif., Washington, D.C., Seattle and Toronto before making its Broadway debut on Sunday.
The excitement continued throughout the week as word of the New York Times review spread before Wednesday’s big event with Trudeau.
The prime minister was greeted with a standing ovation when he introduced the musical with a short speech.
Sankoff and Hein said Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, met with cast and crew members, as well as the real-life subjects portrayed in “Come From Away,” including Gander Mayor Claude Elliott.
“People out of Newfoundland always say: This is just ordinary, this is what anyone would have done. You would have done the same,” said Hein.
“It’s amazing to see their faces, meeting the prime minister, shaking his hand, and having him say ‘thank you’ … for them to realize how extraordinary it is to all of us.”
Trudeau’s visit came just as news was breaking that a U.S. court ordered a halt on U.S. President Donald Trump’s latest executive action freezing refugee processing and limiting travel from a handful of majority-Muslim countries.
Stories published following the show’s official Broadway debut and Trudeau’s visit appear to draw links between the welcoming attitudes reflected by Canadians following 9/11 and the treatment of immigrants and outsiders in the current political climate.
“We’ve always said there’s never a bad time to tell a story about human kindness and to celebrate what they did out there seems like a good thing to do at any point. But we could never have predicted how resonant the show has become,” said Hein.
“It’s become almost less about specifically how the town responded to this tragedy and more about how we can all come together and we can overcome our differences.”
“Musicals don’t happen overnight,” added Sankoff.
“There’s no way we could have had a crystal ball to know that it would be so relevant right now.”
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