Book Review: COME FROM AWAY: WELCOME TO THE ROCK, Irene Sankoff, David Hein and Laurence Maslon
This new illustrated companion volume to Irene Sankoff and David Hein's Tony and Olivier Award-winning musical Come From Away, which tells the remarkable true story of a small Newfoundland town that welcomed stranded air passengers on 9/11, is just as beautifully and thoughtfully crafted as the show itself.
It features the book and lyrics in print for the first time - with fascinating accompanying notes by the writers - and also two parallel histories: that of the real events in Gander and other nearby towns in Newfoundland, including background info on the airport and traditions like the Screech-In; and the creation of the show, from first idea through to major international success.
As well as being richly informative, this glossy, substantial, coffee table-sized book is a wonderful souvenir for fans of the show, with exclusive photographs throughout of the company and production, plus images and press clippings from September 2001 - including an evocative, eerie picture of grounded planes parked close together on Gander's runway.
Theatre historian Laurence Maslon provides a thorough, detailed account of this extraordinary tale, finding an interesting link between the unassuming, everyday heroes of Newfoundland who changed people's lives, and this initially small-scale work that grew into a theatrical phenomenon.
In fact, Come From Away might have been a straight play instead, per Sankoff's preference. But once she saw how folk band Shanneyganock playing "The Islander" united all those in attendance at Gander's commemorative event, she realised song was in their collective DNA: "Of course, it's a musical".
Maslon's profile of the married writing duo reveals how their different backgrounds created this unique artistic fusion - Sankoff raised on musical theatre and movies, Hein more likely to attend the Winnipeg Folk Festival - and also wryly illustrates how not everyone thought this show idea was a slam dunk. Per Reg Wright, president of Gander airport: "Now what are you doing? A musical about people making sandwiches?".
Nor was it easy distilling enormous amounts of research material and interviews into one piece; the first read-through was close on four hours. This book includes cut lyrics and numbers - and also an account of a telling culture clash. Sankoff and Hein were resistant to replacing their opening number, but were clearly too polite about it. They had to learn to "speak American" in order to assert their views.
It's fascinating to learn how close the show is to their interviews - standout number "Me and the Sky" is, in places, verbatim quotes from Captain Beverley Bass. The amazing Bass has apparently seen the show more than 120 times, often accompanied by other female pilots she's mentored or inspired. Her husband, meanwhile, introduces himself with a line from the show that always chokes me up: "No-I'm-fine-Tom-I'm-fine" Tom.
We're invited to admire, even further, the Newfoundland locals for tackling such an enormous logistical challenge - and there are lovely details like the delivery of a sheet cake so large it couldn't fit through the Gander Collegiate cafeteria doors, and had to be sliced in the parking lot. There are also profiles of Gander-ites like Mayor Claude Elliott, police officer Oz Fudge, SPCA's Bonnie Harris, the two Kevins, and Bass, along with the actors who play them. Particularly touching is the romantic pairing of Nick and Diane, who say that watching the show is "like renewing your vows in the theatre every night".
There's also great insight into the creation of this distinctive show. Hamilton's Lin-Manuel Miranda pointed out how few buttons the composers had put on the end of songs; that was deliberate, so as to limit applause and keep the audience connected to the story. Similarly, there's constant underscoring, with the sound mixer doing "a kind of fader ballet with his fingers" as actors switch between characters.
This apparent theatrical minimalism, in fact, "takes a lot of effort to achieve", notes Maslon. Director Christopher Ashley refers to the movement and seamless transitions as "musical staging" rather than traditional Broadway choreography, with just 12 actors using chairs and tables evoking every person and setting. The direct acting style is likened to Our Town - suiting both the earnest candour of the characters and a tale which has neither a lead nor a real antagonist (other than the tragedy of 9/11).
Ashley cannily realised that audiences will remember that time and fill in the context themselves - and such a personal reference point is more powerful than any literal representation. He also notes that the pertinence of a story "about the importance of taking care of each other" isn't likely to go away; we see, too, how the election of President Trump recontextualised the whole show. Tellingly, every cast member plays at least one local and one come-from-away, reminding us, says Sankoff, that we could easily be in each other's shoes, "helping or need to be helped".
Though the show clearly has resonance for audiences around the world, the book also emphasises that this is a triumph of Canadian art and spirit. In his introduction, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau praises a musical "written by Canadians, about Canadians", which "brought Canadian creativity to Broadway" and now is "bringing us together across borders".
There are references throughout to how it was vital to represent this community with dignity and respect, rather than poking fun. Though there's pleasure too in seeing distinct local references - Tim Hortons always gets a knowing laugh from Canadians in the audience...
Overall, there's a heart-warming sense of people reaching out to one another: from the original Newfoundland hosts and plane passengers, to the writers being equally welcomed into those homes and families when they visited, and now the community of the production, including a close-knit cast bonding with their counterparts, and of course the audiences who are been so profoundly moved by the show.
This is a must-read for any "islanders": a stirring companion to a remarkable production, and further accounts of the best of humanity - which light up the darkest times. Oh, and you'll also learn gems like the fact that we nearly had a recipe song entitled "Cod Au Gratin"! I'm still holding out hope.