As a theatre producer in Toronto, Michael Rubinoff was always on the lookout for stories that would translate into musicals. He found unexpected inspiration in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
The remote East Coast town of Gander, N.L., saw its population double in size as it provided refuge to 6,579 passengers and crew members from 38 planes after U.S. airspace was closed. Reports about the hospitality shown by the people in Gander and surrounding communities immediately struck a chord.
“Every time I saw one of these stories, I just got very emotional. I felt so proud to consider myself a Canadian alongside these incredible Newfoundlanders,” Rubinoff recalled.
“As I learned more about the stories out there, (in) Newfoundland the way they tell stories are through music. Music is so much a part of their DNA and who they are. I really believed there was a compelling story and a compelling reason to musical-ize it.”
Rubinoff’s idea would eventually lead to the unlikely success story “Come From Away,” the feel-good musical that’s up for seven Tony Awards on Sunday, including best musical.
But finding the writers to tell the story was a challenge.
“I went to a number of people who didn’t share my enthusiasm, I think because of the subject matter and the backdrop of that day, people didn’t see how this was possible. I’m so grateful my paths crossed with David Hein and Irene Sankoff.”
Rubinoff was sold on the husband-and-wife duo after seeing their acclaimed show “My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding,” based on real-life events in Hein’s life.
“I remember within 10 minutes turning to the person I came with … and said: ‘This is incredible.’ I was so impressed by the authenticity of telling a true story.”
Rubinoff sent a Facebook message to the couple and met them for dinner a few weeks later, where he told them about wanting to find someone to write the musical about the events in Gander. They were on-board.
Rubinoff was in the midst of taking up his role as associate dean of visual and performing arts at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont., which would ultimately serve as a key stop in the musical’s storybook journey from Newfoundland and Labrador to Broadway.
One of Rubinoff’s strategic objectives at the school was to launch the Canadian Music Theatre Project (CMTP) and he committed to Sankoff and Hein that the Gander musical would be among the first shows Sheridan would produce.
Rubinoff also wrote a letter in support of a Canada Council grant to get the couple to Gander for the 10th anniversary of 9/11, where they got to experience the warm welcome Newfoundlanders had extended to the stranded passengers and crew in 2001.
“We would check in every couple of days and they would say, ‘Oh, we just moved out the hotel -someone gave us their house and said take care of the cats,”‘ he recalled.
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“They were being the recipients of this outpouring of kindness and they came back with stacks and stacks and stacks of interviews and materials and stories, and set about this challenge of how to tell 9,000 stories of the locals and 7,000 stories of the people that showed up on 38 planes.”
The working title of the show was originally “Gander,” but after Sankoff and Hein returned from their time there they felt the moniker wasn’t the right fit.
“They didn’t want to call it ‘Gander’ because there were a number of communities involved. Lewisporte, Appleton, Norris Arm, Gambo, Glenwood, they all played a very significant role,” Rubinoff said.
“They were exposed to the term ‘come from away’ (about out-of-towners) and how the plane people were called ‘come from aways.”‘
The name stuck.
In the spring of 2012, Rubinoff paired the duo with a cast of Sheridan students and brought in a director and musical director. The goal was to produce 45 minutes of the show in five weeks.
“I usually like to come in at the rehearsal at the end of the first week … and I’ll never forget hearing the opening number ‘Welcome to the Rock’ and that refrain: ‘I’m an islander, I’m an islander,’ and (thinking) ‘Wow! This is grabbing my heart in the same way the story did initially.”‘
Rubinoff decided to house the initial performances of the show in the rehearsal hall to lower expectations for the fledgling musical.
“I think on the first night, I put out 35 chairs. On the second night, 45. And then 60. And on the next night, 75 – and we could not fit any more people in this room,” he recalled.
“People were just grabbed by what they had created. The emotional heart, the structure of the show was beginning to be built, and it was really, really compelling.”
Sheridan graduate Adrian Zeyl was cast in several roles including the story’s bartender, rabbi, and Doug, the air traffic controller.
Although it’s now a 100-minute show with no intermission, Zeyl recalled the emotional wallop delivered at the end of Act 1 during the musical’s early days.
“We had no idea what we were getting into; we just knew the title of the show, basically, and we all left just crying at the end of just the first act,” Zeyl recalled. “I remember speaking to the writers and just gushing about it and (saying) ‘Just please, please, please continue what you’re doing…. We knew it was going somewhere. I don’t think anyone (could) say, ‘This will have seven Tony nominations.’ Obviously, it was beautiful work.”
Rubinoff encouraged Sankoff and Hein to keep working on “Come From Away,” which was programmed as a developmental production at Sheridan in early 2013.
The show was then submitted for consideration to the Festival of New Musicals, organized by the New York-based National Alliance for Musical Theatre. It was the same festival where Canadian musical “The Drowsy Chaperone” also found its commercial producers. “The Drowsy Chaperone” went on to pick up 13 Tony nominations, including a nod for best musical, and won five awards including best book of a musical and best original score.
“Come From Away” was among eight shows that made the cut. In October 2013, a 45-minute showcase was staged for an invite-only crowd of producers, regional theatres and academic institutions that create new musicals.
“People just reacted so emotionally,” said Rubinoff. “I think there were people who felt ‘I don’t know what this is, I don’t know if I want to see this, I don’t know if I’m ready to see this’ – and there was again just an outpouring of gratitude.”
Sankoff and Hein opted to partner with Tony-winning Junkyard Dog Productions as lead producers on “Come From Away.” Their behind-the-scenes team – including Tony-nominated director Christopher Ashley – began to take shape.
The musical would eventually be staged in La Jolla, Calif., Seattle, Washington, D.C. and Toronto before its current award-winning run on Broadway. But Rubinoff still sees a slice of Sheridan on whichever stage “Come From Away” is playing.
“When I do see the show, I do think of our students, I do think of those moments, the creation, the genesis. It’s really beautiful to see that.”