Wednesday 12 December 2018

'We didn't want to tell a 9/11 story' - couple behind Come From Away talk Irish links and the influence of Once

Ahead of its European premiere here, the Canadian couple behind the Tony award-winning show 'Come From Away' tell John Meagher about its Irish links and the influence that Dublin-based musical 'Once' had on their work

Story of humanity: The cast of Come From Away on Broadway. The show will have its European premiere in Dublin's Abbey Theatre
Story of humanity: The cast of Come From Away on Broadway. The show will have its European premiere in Dublin's Abbey Theatre
Married team: Sankoff and Hein
John Meagher

John Meagher

On that fateful morning of September 11, 2001, young married couple David Hein and Irene Sankoff were living in New York, dreaming of making it as, respectively, a musician and actress. They were sleeping when the first plane hit the World Trade Centre, but were woken by a call from Sankoff's father back home in Toronto telling them that there had been a terrorist attack and to turn on the TV.

"We'd heard that there had been a helicopter crash and assumed he was talking about that," says Sankoff, "but he was insistent that something really bad had just happened."

They watched in horror as the second plane hit the other tower and they spent much of the remainder of the day on top of the roof with fellow residents at their students' hall in Manhattan, watching the smoke fill the sky. Hein recalls the smell from where they were more than 100 blocks away. "Students were coming in throughout the day, utterly shellshocked," Hein says. "Some were covered with dust."

They weren't to know it then, but the largest ever terrorist attack on the US would prove hugely inspirational when it came to writing a musical together that would captivate audiences and critics, enjoy a glorious run on Broadway and receive multiple nominations for US theatre's most prestigious awards, the Tonys - and winning one. Now, Come From Away is set to make its European premiere at Dublin's Abbey Theatre, before heading for a West End run. Come From Away tells the story of great humanity in an especially troubled time. Hundreds of planes were diverted from New York immediately after the attack, with 38 ordered to land at Gander, Newfoundland. In a matter of hours, 7,000 passengers from all over the world found themselves in a town of roughly the same number of inhabitants. There were only 500 hotel rooms available in the vicinity, so warm-hearted locals opened their homes to complete strangers for the best part of a week. They had come from all over the world - including a flight from Dublin - and lifelong friendships ensued.

"We didn't want to tell a 9/11 story," Hein says, who along with Sankoff, is speaking to Review from Seattle, where a production of Come From Away has just opened before embarking on a pan-American tour. "We wanted to tell a 9/12 story about how this small community responded to a huge tragedy."

They had been vaguely familiar with the idea that Gander and other Canadian airports had accommodated the diverted flights, but their antennae picked up in 2011 when a friend mentioned that there was a special event being held in Newfoundland to mark the 10th anniversary.

"People were coming over to reunite with friends they had made in Gander," Hein says. "We applied for a grant from the Canadian government and they sent us out there for almost a month. The people wouldn't let us stay in hotels: 'Don't spend money in a hotel,' they'd say. 'Come stay with us!' There was one family who literally gave us the keys of their house and their car and said, 'We'll see you later'. And we were like, 'We don't know you!'"

During their stay in Newfoundland, the pair discovered a strong connection to Ireland there. Irish culture - singing and dancing is still significant - and many people speak with an accent similar to that spoken in Wexford.

"Some of the fishing villages were so remote that the accents of the first people to emigrate continued down through the generations," Sankoff says. "They didn't have TV until the 1960s."

"The bodhrán is played in Newfoundland a lot," Hein says, "and it's part of this show, too."

That bond to Ireland is part of the reason why they have opted to bring the show to Dublin before its debut on the West End.

Ten years ago, the couple were pursing separate artistic endeavours - and, David says, not spending enough time together. Then, as fate would have it, he penned a witty song about his mother who had come out as gay late in life. His wife liked it and the pair thought there was a germ of a musical in it. The result was My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, and it became an underground hit in Canada.

"We wrote that musical together in order to spend time with each other," Sankoff says. "And we found that we worked well together."

Thanks to its success, theatre producer Michael Rubinoff approached them about his idea about a show based on Gander and 7,000 guests from all over the world.

Hein and Sankoff say they can't quite believe how huge the show has become. "We thought it might be performed in Canadian high schools, but after a while we saw that this wasn't just a Canadian story, or indeed a Newfoundland story, but one with universal appeal," Hein says.

It's been a runaway success on Broadway, where just one in five new productions turn a profit. Just ask Bono and the Edge after their torrid experience with the mega-budget Spider-Man musical.

Sankoff believes Come From Away resonates with audiences because it's a feel-good story in a time of seemingly unrelenting gloom. "We're so used to seeing things on the news that are devastating," she says, "but to see something that is unbelievably good is such a relief. It celebrates a kind of unique bravery that you don't often see rewarded enough. It's a reminder that people are capable of such good."

"And it's a true story," Hein says. "This really happened. They say that truth is stranger than fiction, but it's also more wonderful than fiction. You can't make up how funny and heartbreaking these stories are - they made us laugh and cry. It's a reminder that we can respond with kindness to tragedies - but we can also respond with kindness to one another every single day."

The pair say they have "a couple of irons in the fire" when it comes to another musical, but admit they are so consumed with Come From Away that there's barely any time to think creatively of anything else. "It's going to Australia next year," Hein says, "and there's talk of a movie adaptation, too."

They also have to juggle the demands of the musical with that of their five-year-old daughter. "Molly has grown up in the theatre alongside the show," Hein says. "She calls the company her 'people' - she essentially gets raised by a village. And, sometimes, when we talk of them - Molly and the musical - as siblings because they take up so much of our focus."

Neither has been to Ireland and they say they are looking forward to getting acquainted with a place so synonymous with great theatre. Hein points out that the musical version of Once was an important touchstone for them. "We loved it, and it sort of gave us permission to put this type of music on stage. Every song was written on guitar - neither of us play piano."

If spending every waking hour with your spouse might fill some with dread, it's clear David and Irene relish the opportunity. But they're both keen to stress that it's not always easy. "In terms of writing together," Hein says, "is certainly not for the faint of heart and some days it doesn't go smoothly, but, in general, at the end of the day, having someone you love and trust and is focused on the same goals as you… well, there's really nothing better than that."

'Come From Away' opens in the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, on December 6 and runs until January 19

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