Come From Away at the Melbourne Comedy Theatre

There's been a palpable excitement in the Australian theatre scene since the announcement that Come From Away would make its Australian debut in July 2019. On Broadway, this humble but electrifying show has playing to rave reviews and it seems that wherever this show goes, its story of humanity, kindness even in the face of tragedy and its emphasis on the need to celebrate our similarities over dividing based on our differences, captures the hearts of audiences everywhere! The story of the planes forced to land in Newfoundland when the US air space closed on 9/11 has already opened in New York, Toronto and Dublin and has begun its North American tour in Los Angeles. London and Melbourne are the next two cities to open with London beginning its run late January.

Here to announce the Australian cast, Canadian husband and wife dynamic duo Irene Sankoff and David Hein (responsible for the creation of the book, music and lyrics) visited Melbourne and Sydney as they prepared to see their great work brought down under. We met with them at the QT Hotel in Sydney to talk about the show, its inception and its move to Aus. Have a read of our chat below:

L-R: David Hein, Carly Fisher and Irene Sankoff

I wanted to start with getting a bit of the history of the production. When did you first hear about Newfoundland and - I’m using Oprah’s term here - what was that lightbulb moment that made you realise ‘this is a story we need to put on stage’, and as a musical?

I: So we were actually living in Manhattan on September 11th 2001, and we were really focused on what was happening in our city and some people came up to us and said “Canada took planes, thank you so very much” and we just thought, “ok”. But living in the international student community with students from 700 different countries around the world -

D: We were in a residence for international graduate students -

I: What happened in Newfoundland really reminded us of our experience in that community, of all these people from across the world all coming together and all taking care of one another despite our differences, that really resonated with us.

D: So when Mike Rubinoff was starting the Canadian Music Theatre Project and developing new musicals he asked us if we knew what had happened out in Gander. We knew the planes had been diverted there but we didn’t really have many of the details. We found out later that he’d approached five other writing teams before us and they’d all said ‘no, that’s a terrible idea.’

I bet you’re laughing now!

D: Yeah. I think it was something about us being in New York and feeling connected - my cousin was in the towers and fortunately got out - that ensured we took it really seriously. But I think another part was that we didn’t see this as a 9/11 story. We call it a 9/12 story, because it’s about how this small town responded to this tragedy, not the actual tragedy. So we went down the rabbit hole, and we researched and researched, and we found out that there was going to be a commemoration ceremony on the 10th anniversary and all of these Come From Aways - that’s what the Newfoundlanders call people who aren’t from there - that were diverted there in 2001 were returning to reunite with the friends they’d made and to commemorate the all kindness they received. So we got a grant from the Canadian Government and we travelled out there to stay for a month - we ended up staying longer because they said “Ah, don’t be spending money on a hotel, just come stay with us” and they literally gave us the keys to their houses, then they’d leave. We saw a lot of the same generosity that the people in 2001 did. I think there were a lot of people out there who were looking for 5 second soundbites from this town, but we talked to people for hours because we wanted to hear everything, and every story was better than the last one. Eventually we became friends with the residents and they’d invite us back for dinner, and then invite us to stay over with them, so we were really adopted by the community over there.

The process is really fascinating and I’d love to know more about it. Obviously you started by interviewing everyone in the town, but how did you go about interviewing the Come From Aways? What was that process like?

I: We started on the plane actually. On the plane into Gander, we started talking to one of the flight attendants, they’re now quite a small bit in the story because we had to compress all these stories to fit into one musical, but when we first started we had the flight attendant’s whole story in there. But that was when the musical was about 5 hours… it was a bit long.

I mean, I’d happily sit through 5 hours.

D: Same! But, It was probably too long. But we were trying to fit in every single story, and we still have tried to fit in every single story, we’ve just had to compress them. There’s a story about the air traffic controllers and how they’re used to dealing with all the planes in the sky, not just the ones on the ground. But at the time there were no planes in the sky, so for 5 days they made chilli non-stop. Originally that was multiple scenes but we slowly slowly cut it down to just one of the characters coming out with a bowl of chilli at one point and saying “Bonnie, I brought you some chilli” and what was important to us was getting it right. So when the air traffic controllers came and saw the show they said “You got in the chilli!” and they feel like their story has been told.

I: After we got off the plane we kind of continued doing the same thing. We spoke to the woman who checked us in at the front desk, and she had so much to say. We would just insert ourselves into all of the big press events and while most of the press were just looking for that soundbite, we pushed for more, and frankly, Newfoundlanders love to talk, and they’re wonderful storytellers. The Come From Aways had returned to Newfoundland for this commemorative ceremony and we cornered them where we could. We cornered Beverley Bass in her hotel, the same hotel where she’d stayed 10 years earlier, and we were so fascinated by her and her story that we just asked every question we could about her life story. That’s how ‘Me and the Sky’ was written, it’s almost verbatim from her interview.

D: When we first met Buella I think I freaked her out a little bit, I was so excited I just shouted “You’re Buella!” We already knew about all these people and just thought they were rockstars. Then Buella invited us to the Legion to get screeched in and Claude the mayor officiated the screech in.

Does that mean you’ve kissed the fish?

D: Well, we were screeched in with Nick and Diane, and Beverley and her husband Tom, and there was this amazing element of us all going through it together and becoming friends because we were all having the same experience. So then for the screetch in...so the moment in the show when Diane doesn’t kiss the fish is based on Irene not kissing the fish.

I: Ok, I can take spiders, I can take worms, I can take snakes, but there’s something about fish. I know it’s irrational, and I have totally embarrassed myself. At the most recent screech in, I was hiding in a coat closet. Every time we go through it I think, I’ll do it this time, I’ll kiss the fish, I need to be respectful. But it hasn’t happened yet. I just can’t.

(to David) Have you kissed the fish?

D: Oh yeah!! So, on this particular screech in Claude made her a deal. He said, “You can either kiss the fish or you can kiss me.” So Irene kissed the mayor, and then the next morning we had an interview with him and I said “Hi, I’m David, and you’ve already kissed my wife.”

I: What’re you gonna do?

So when you found them at the press event, was that the first time that you’d come across the Come From Aways? Had you already planned to meet them?

I: We pilgrimaged out there to catch them while we knew they were all there. We couldn’t talk to Nick and Diane, because they were there with an Austrian film company, so they were ‘exclusive’.

D: What that triggered is that we went out and met a lot of people and then we did a lot of Skype interviews afterwards, including Nick and Diane, and so many other people from around the world. We spoke with a man from Russia who is a heavy metal throat singer in a heart metal throat singing band called Katya and he was on his way to America to do a tour, but got grounded in Gambo, which is a little town off of Gander. They spent the time there jamming with a Beatles cover band who had also been grounded there. He barely spoke any English, but he just really wanted to say how thankful he was. He wanted people to know how wonderful their experience was, and how taken care of they were.

I know that the New York cast has met with the real people many times, and they’ve been out to Newfoundland. Bringing it here, and having a new cast, how do you think they’ll be able to glean that same experience, that same connection?

D: Within seconds of the cast being announced, the real people and the casts from around the world reached out and said ‘Welcome to the family’. Claude wrote something on the Facebook live feed. When you’re part of the Come From Away family - and it’s growing and growing and growing - you are part of the family. It’s interesting for us as writers of the show to have those characters write to you on a regular basis. and to cheer you on. All of the real people will be coming here for Opening Night, there’s no way you could keep them away.

You’re clearly a very talented duo, working together on all the elements of this musical. What comes first, is it the book, music, lyrics? Who does what and how does it all happen?

I: It’s very intertwined, so we don’t separate music from lyrics, or from book.

D: It seems unnatural to us to be like ‘Oh, you go over there and write part of this which is separate from what I’m writing’. First of all there’s a lot of talking, and we do work separately, but it all happens all at once. One part inspires the next, and whether it’s the book inspiring the song, or the song inspiring the book, it’s all done together.

For each of you, what is your favourite moment of the show?

I: I love ‘Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere’, because that’s kind of the point where we were able to reflect on our gratitude, to anyone who’s helped us along the way, I just used that time to reflect.

D: I absolutely love our exit music ‘Screech Out’. Chris asked us to create some music to just help people leave the theatre, but nobody wanted to leave. They just wanted to dance. People often come into the show thinking that it’s a 9/11 musical, and by the end of it they’re at a kitchen party in Newfoundland. Watching people go through that transition, and in a safe way be allowed to cry, and be allowed to heal, and at the same time experience this joy of humanity, that’s definitely my favourite part.

Has there been a particular performance that has been a highlight for you? Any night that was particularly special?

 

D: Performing in Gander was life changing. To give back to these people who had given us so much and to share their culture and their story with them was amazing. All the actors were so stressed about getting the accents right, they were so stressed to share these stories with the people who had lived them. When they started singing ‘I am an Islander’ they all cheered in the middle of the song. It was truly amazing.

 

I: I really loved when the woman who had given us the tour of the Pentagon, who was a survivor who lost her sister, when I realised that she had come all the way to Gander to see the show there. That’s how much she appreciated that the story was being told. She saw it as honouring people lived and lost. That for me is special.

D: Opening night on Broadway was amazing too.

You said it yourselves: Come From Away is a musical about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. What’s the main thing you hope audiences take away from this?

I: Just how brave and intelligent it is what the people of Newfoundland did. They could have easily kept people on the planes, but they brought them off the planes and into their homes. By the end of the week, these Newfoundlanders had 7000 new friends.

 

D: Remembering that we can respond with kindness when things are darkest, and that there doesn’t need to be tragedy to respond to strangers with kindness, you can do that everyday.

Final question: What’s next?

I: That’s easy! We just keep touring Come From Away.

D: We’re also working on the screenplay for the movie which is exciting. It’ll be filmed in Gander.

Tickets are available here for the Melbourne production and here for international productions. Book early to avoid disappointment - this is a show you will not want to miss!

David Hein, Rosie Niven, Carly Fisher and Irene Sankoff

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