In the musical Come from Away, a couple passengers stranded in a small Canadian town after 9-11 find common links.
Photos by Matthew Murphy
Irene Sankoff and David Hein, a married couple with homes in New York and Toronto, find themselves traveling to distant places, and it all has to do with the drama of planes forced to stop traveling.
The two created the musical Come From Away, being staged in locations as far away as Australia, to spotlight individual experiences in the small Canadian town of Gander (in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador) that welcomed airline passengers diverted on Sept. 11, 2001.
The production, with a 12-member ensemble taking on different roles, makes its Detroit visit Oct. 1-14 at the Fisher Theatre in Detroit.
“We went to Newfoundland on the 10th anniversary [of the landings] knowing there was going to be a commemoration ceremony happening there,” Hein says about the foundation for the play.
“The passengers who had been stranded there 10 years earlier were returning to commemorate what had happened, reunite with friends they had made and celebrate the kindness they had seen in response to a tragedy.”
As the couple talked to individuals, they were so moved by their stories that they felt compelled to share them publicly and express the unforeseen joy experienced by the linking of people.
“Every story that we tell is based on a true occurrence, but there are some characters that we had to amalgamate to make it into a piece of theater,” Sankoff says. “At the end of the day, it’s not a documentary.
“We needed to keep things moving, and we wanted to include music as part of the DNA of the people. Everything that is mentioned happened, even if it happened to a different group of people, but there’s no event that we made up.”
With Jewish backgrounds, the couple, entering their 40s, was interested in what was learned about a religious leader.
“There’s an incredible story about a rabbi diverted there,” says Hein, whose family background provided substance for the couple’s first reality production, My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, a musical comedy based on his mom and urged on by those who know the couple’s family.
“The rabbi not only set up a kosher kitchen for Jewish passengers, vegetarians and other religions, but he also [aided] a man he met there whose parents had sent him to Newfoundland during World War II. They told him to never tell anyone that he was Jewish, and he never had.
“When he was told a rabbi had been diverted there — and it’s not a big Jewish community in Newfoundland — he sought him out because he wanted to pray with him. He wanted to tell someone his story. The rabbi prayed with him and gave him a yarmulke.”
That story helped lead to the song “Prayer,” which combines prayers from several religions to convey the message of coming together.
“Prayer” is the song that holds the most meaning for music supervisor, arranger and sometimes onstage conductor Ian Eisendrath, 38, who graduated from the University of Michigan. He focused on conducting for choral and musical theater repertoire and has specialized in new musicals.
“‘Prayer’ is a compilation of real prayers that existed in the public domain,” says Eisendrath, who accepts most of the Jewish belief system as impacted by a Jewish mother and a father who is of Jewish descent.
“The idea is to tell the story of how the interaction of multiple faith groups in Gander learned to reach across what might be dividing lines. We hear these prayers sung simultaneously, a metaphor for how these faiths can coexist in harmony.”
The songs, he explains, have Celtic and folk-rock influences that reflect the Canadian area where the production is set.
Sankoff and Hein, who met at York University in Toronto and developed a friendship through theater studies before professional collaboration, have a very personal connection to the subject they have staged.
“We were living in New York on 9-11, and my cousin was in one of the towers and fortunately got out,” Hein says. “We didn’t want to tell a 9-11 story; we wanted to tell a 9-12 story about the people we’d fallen in love with in Newfoundland.
“One of the reasons I think it resonates so much with us was because on 9-11 we were living in a residence for international graduate students with people from 110 countries, and we were in a community of people from around the world taking care of each other.
“Obviously, we’re proud of the story of Canadians, but what we’re seeing now with five companies is that on this day, we wanted to come together and be good to one another.”
The couple, nominated for Tony and Grammy Awards, is excited the story they developed is in movie development. With film, audiences can watch what it looks like for 38 planes to land and bring some 7,000 people from different countries into a town of about 10,000.
A companion book — Come From Away: Welcome to the Rock (Hachette Book Group) — is coming out Sept. 24 and will include the script and songs as well as material cut from the show. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wrote the foreword.
With all their collaboration — in marriage, parenting of one daughter and work — Sankoff and Hein believe in the power of communication to resolve differences.
“It’s open communication as much as possible,” she says. “It’s also trying to foresee problems before they happen.”
Come From Away runs Oct. 1-14 at the Fisher Theatre in Detroit.
Tickets start at $39.