Author Thomas King contends that history isn’t the past, rather, it’s the stories we share to recount it.
If that’s the case, then the new musical Come From Away – first created and developed at Sheridan, and about to hit the Mirvish stage en route to Broadway – is making history, in more ways than one.
In 2011, Canadian writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein were approached by Michael Rubinoff, Associate Dean of Visual and Performing Arts at Sheridan with the idea of penning a musical about the extraordinary compassion and humanity that the people of Gander, Newfoundland and five surrounding communities showed to over 6,500 stranded passengers whose planes were diverted there for a week following 9/11. According to the Dictionary of Newfoundland English, the name of the musical is the local term given to travelers to the province.
And while they joke that they were only asked because others turned him down first, Sankoff and Hein have created what many who have seen the show in La Jolla, Seattle, Washington, and in Gander this past weekend, consider to be not only a work of art, but a true reflection of history and culture, and a rare gift to the world.
A bit clichéd or over-the-top, you’re thinking?
“Everything that was depicted in the show really happened,” was the assurance I was given, no matter who I spoke with. It was similarly the refrain that kept echoing while I exited the arena where it played on October 29, atop covered ice, to a total of 5,000 people in lieu of regularly scheduled hockey games.
Others from Newfoundland posted sentiments of gratitude – and relief – on their social media accounts, thanking the writers and producers for not trivializing the events of that week or misrepresenting their accents, sense of humour, or way of life.
Accurate, fine. But a gift? Really?
Beverley Simmons, a long-time Theatre Sheridan supporter, who has seen the show in every market where it has played, told me that something happens to people who see this show. They may co
me rushing into the theatre to grab their seats completely self-absorbed, but when they leave, they’re all a little bit friendlier, chattier, and more patient and kind toward the strangers around them.
She’s not alone in her thinking.
Bruce Heyman, the US Ambassador to Canada told the actors, locals, producers and guests gathered in Gander for a gala dinner the evening before the performances, “I believe in the power of art to heal and to explain stories in ways that words alone cannot express. This musical is a powerful reminder that even in the darkest of times there are still good people who do good things for no reward other than knowing they made the lives of fellow human beings better.”
“I believe in the power of art to heal and to explain stories in ways that works alone cannot express,” – Bruce Heyman, US Ambassador to Canada
Even before Heyman and his wife Vicki visited Sheridan in 2015, they already knew about Come From Away. Friends of theirs had seen the show in La Jolla and told them the same thing that Heyman tells everyone he meets, “See this show.”
At the Sheridan-hosted brunch, held on October 29, prior to the two benefit performances, real-life “come from away” Kevin Tureff, a US businessman who was on the fourth plane to land in Gander in 2001, urged everyone to learn from the generosity that he experienced as a stranded passenger 15 years ago. He’s taken a page from his own book. Literally.
Every year on 9/11 he gives his staff the morning off and sends them out into the
community in groups of two with $100, tasked to pay it forward by doing something nice for others. He’s also publishing a book on his experiences and announced that 25% of the proceeds would be directed to the Gander Syrian Refugee project. The community of approximately 10,000 people that once rallied to help stranded airline passengers has now sponsored four Syrian refugee families. They were all given front row seats to see the show.
These are the stories that need to get captured and told. But please don’t expect those who were born and raised in Newfoundland to boast about themselves.
“The greatest asset a community has is its people” – Claude Elliott, Mayor of Gander
Claude Elliott, who’s been the Mayor of Gander since 1996 looks at it this way, “We have to help our neighbours. That’s something that’s been bred into us since we’ve been children . . . The greatest asset a community has is its people . . . I’m glad we were given the opportunity . . . a simple thank you is enough.” Or as the Mayor of Appleton says during the show, “you’d ‘a done the same.”
Alongside the humility comes a sense of humour that challenges people not to take themselves too seriously either. When speaking about the actor who portrays him on stage, Mayor Elliott declared, “I know that Joel Hatch will never be Claude Elliott. For one thing, I got a full head of hair. And as he told me, I’m the only living character he’s ever played. Everyone else is fictional or deceased. So Joel, you have a great challenge.”
While it’s normally the ordinary folks in the room like me who are star-stuck in the presence of actors, in Gander this past weekend, the roles were reversed. The actors themselves were humbled and awed to meet the real-life people whose lives inspired the characters they portray.
In another page of history, Come From Away will be the first musical incubated at Sheridan through the Canadian Music Theatre Project (CMTP) to make it to Broadway when it opens at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on March 12, 2017. Like the characters sing in the show, this really is “the start of a moment” for Sheridan.
And I haven’t even mentioned the Celtic-infused music that anchors the show and sends your feet tapping, or the way that the writers amalgamated 16,000 stories into a 100 minute performance. Or how about the unbelievable talent of the 12 actors who somehow manage to toggle seamlessly between multiple characters, keeping straight a myriad of accents and personalities?
It’s evident, wherever you see it, that Come From Away hits the mark. Personally, I found myself laughing and crying throughout the show, often all at once. But don’t take it from me. Check out what the New York Times, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Canadian Press, CBC, Globe and Mail, Toronto Star and Gander Beacon had to say by clicking on the embedded links. Or watch this video by Guy Kwan, part of the show’s production management team, who recorded what was said as his flight out of Gander was gearing for take-off.
I’m very fortunate to have been able to come along for the ride, to have been screeched in by the Mayor himself, and to have experienced even just a 48-hour taste of the town’s legendary hospitality.
There’s only one piece of unfinished business, as far as I’m concerned. When does the cast recording come out?
Pictured at top of page: Performers on stage at the Come From Away concert in Gander, NL. Photo by Shyama McWhirter, Sheridan Applied Photography alumna (2006)
Written by: Christine Szustaczek, Director of Communications and External Relations at Sheridan