My Theatre

03 May 2017

Q&A w/ Come From Away‘s Irene Sankoff & David Hein

By // Theatre

Irene and David in Gander, Newfoundland (the setting of Come From Away)

Before we announce the winners of the 2016 MyTheatre Awards, we’re proud to present our annual Nominee Interview Series.

Irene Sankoff & David Hein were nominated for two Tony Awards yesterday. In fact, their MyTheatre Award-winning, Drama Desk/Drama League/Outer Critics Circle Award- nominated Broadway musical Come From Away was nominated for seven Tony Awards yesterday, including Best Book and Best Music & Lyrics for Irene & David (not to mention Best Musical). It’s selling to standing-room-only crowds and winning over even the grumpiest of New York critics. As for us back home in Canada where the show was created and the story is set, we’re just about as psyched as can be.

Irene performing in As Written in 2015

Back in 2010, Irene and David’s first musical My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding (an autobiographical Fringe show about David’s life, picked up by Mirvish Productions for a remount at the Panasonic theatre) was the first production I ever reviewed professionally. I kept in touch with the husband/wife writing duo over the years and Irene participated in our 2015 play reading series As Written, performing an original piece by MyTheatre Award-winning playwright Alexander Offord and reimagining the role of “Irene” in Matt Murray’s beautiful Remember, Maggy?. I can’t help but be amazed and touched that, in the middle of a crazy schedule with a deluge of press requests at the height of their show’s buzz, Irene and David made a point of taking time to answer questions from a tiny publication that still covers the Fringe circuit where they started.

Sankoff & Hein is a Toronto-based, Canadian writing team. They’re part of this community and the story they’ve brought to Broadway is a true one Canadians are fiercely proud of. I hate to measure Canadian success by New York approval or show indisputable favouritism in a race for award recognition but I have to admit I’m on pins and needles waiting for June 11th, rooting for Irene and David to take home those Tonys harder than I think I’ve rooted for anyone to win anything (I really do think Best Book, at least, is a solid bet; knock on wood). It’s a little bit about proving to New York that Toronto artists are creative and formidable; it’s a little bit about wanting Gander’s story heard as widely as possible, especially for American audiences who need a story like that at a moment like this; it’s a little about the importance of arts funding and development programs like the one at Sheridan College that fostered Come From Away and reminding producers that homegrown stories are worth taking a chance on; it’s a lot about just wanting to see Irene and David succeed. Because they’re great and ambitious and generous and smart and, no matter where they go from here, they’ll always be Toronto theatre people, my favourite kind of people.

David and Irene outside Broadway’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre

Do you remember your first experience with theatre?

Irene Sankoff (IS): I saw a high school production of Guys and Dolls at the local high school. I loved it so much my mom took me back to see it the next night.

David Hein (DH): My mom took me to see Romeo and Juliet in a tent by the Saskatchewan river. Mercutio drove up on a motorcycle and it blew my mind.

What writers have always inspired you?

IS: I love women who write their autobiographies. I find reading about other people’s experiences in their chosen careers extremely inspiring.

DH: We both love true stories, which has clearly inspired both of our shows so far.

Have you always loved musical theatre? What are some of your favourite shows?

DH: I grew up on rock and folk – a lot of Newfoundland bands like Great Big Sea and Shanneyganock, even though I was from Saskatchewan. My first MT album was Chess – I got it for my Dad because I knew he liked playing chess. Then Irene got me into Rent and the rest is history. My favourites are Into the Woods and The Last Five Years.

IS: I’ve loved MT since I was a kid watching black and white movie musicals with my mom on late night TV. Fave shows include Once on this Island, Hamilton, Daddy Long Legs, and I put on the Great American Trailer Park Musical whenever I get grumpy about cleaning the house.

How old were you when you first started writing?

IS: I wrote my first play when I was 10. I adapted one of my favourite young adult novels for a school project.

DH: I always wrote songs and started my first band in high school. I also started writing scenes and my first play then.

My Mothers Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding

The story of how your relationship started was chronicled in My Mothers Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding but how did your professional partnership start?

IS: Working on that show! Between day jobs and pursuing our artistic careers we never saw each other, so we decided to collaborate and work on a Fringe Show one summer.

What is it about the partnership that works so well? Whats your collaborative process like?

IS: We don’t hold back. We aren’t afraid to disagree with one another. The best idea wins.

DH: We have a lot of rules. Never talk about work when you’re hungry, angry, or tired. Or in the morning. Or in bed. But at the end of the day, there’s nothing better than working with someone who you love and who you know loves you.

What did you learn from the MMLJWW experience that you brought with you when embarking on Come From Away?

IS: Have a great lawyer and a team that intimidates you just a little bit because you admire them so much.

DH: Sometimes the more specific a story is, the more universal it becomes.

How did you first hear Ganders 9/11 story? What was it about that story that made you think it would translate well to the stage?

IS: We first heard about what happened in Gander when Michael Rubinoff introduced us to the story and started the Canadian Music Theatre Project. I think you never know if something will translate well to the stage until you try…

DH: We originally thought it might be similar to The Laramie Project, but with Newfoundland Music. And right after we returned from Newfoundland, we saw Once and Peter and the Starcatcher on Broadway, which helped us imagine the musical and narrative style of the show.

Irene and David onstage with the cast and their real-life counterparts on opening night in Toronto

You conducted hundreds of interviews while researching the show. How much of the dialogue and lyrics that we hear is verbatim?

DH: It’s hard to say, it was a lot of work condensing interviews and amalgamating characters and storylines…

IS: I love hearing things like “everybody knew every inch of that plane” and picturing the person who first said it to us. That happens throughout the show.

With so many stories to choose from, how did you choose which characters to spotlight in the show?

IS: Some stories just naturally stood out. But we really tried to include as many details and stories as we could. Even if it was just a line like “I brought you some chili”. That comes from the Air Traffic Controllers having nothing to do because there were no planes in the air, so they made chili for the stranded passengers.

DH: And now, whenever there’s an air traffic controller in the audience, they tell us, “you got in the chili!” That was important to us – we wanted to make a show that they’d be proud of.

Its rare to see a Broadway musical with only one act. How did you land on the 100 minute runtime?

IS: Our producers suggested it, they didn’t want to break the momentum… Once you’re in Gander, you stay there as long as the characters on stage without a break. After all, they didn’t get a break!

Did the real-life counterparts ever give you a hard time about changing some details or amalgamating them with another character?

IS: No. They have always been our biggest fans and greatest supporters. We really did write this show to make them proud of what they saw on stage and how they are represented.

DH: We are very lucky this extraordinary group of people are so supportive. They follow the show on facebook and twitter and come see it. Captain Beverley Bass has been over 60 times!

Tell us about the music. How did you capture the Newfoundland flavour? Was it difficult to write for regional instruments you might not have been familiar with?

IS: David grew up on Newfoundland music, and we (along with our music supervisor Ian Eisendrath and our orchestrator August Eriksmoen) basically immersed ourselves in it for months. We also ran things by Bob Hallett, who acted as Newfoundland music consultant on this piece.

DH: We wanted to get the Newfoundand sound right – but we also wanted to layer on elements of world music to reflect the Plane People bringing their own influences to the story – so we contrasted hand drums from Newfoundland and hand drums from Africa – trying to create a musical metaphor for the community coming together.

The cast of Come From Away

Tell us about your cast. What were you looking for when assembling the ensemble who all had to play multiple parts?

IS: Aside from the obvious skills necessary for musical theatre, a willingness to play, more than anything, and willingness to work as an ensemble.

DH: Each person plays at least a local and a Come From Away – and likely at least five characters each, all with different accents, while slightly shifting 12 chairs that all look the same. And then you think about what our understudies have to do!

How did director Christopher Ashleys vision meld with your own? Are there any scenes that are particularly different in practice than what youd originally envisioned?

IS: The turntable surprised us at first… where we come from, there aren’t often budgets for such things.

DH: We absolutely love working with Chris, and the rest of our team, which is important because it has and will still be a long road…

You did a couple different workshop productions and multiple pre-Broadway stops. How did the show change through the development and tryout process?

IS: We were so lucky to have the time to try things, cut things, refine details… The spirit of the show is essentially the same, but tighter and more cohesive than when we began.

DH: There are some songs that were cut or altered, some scenes shifted around. And we added a new song, “I Am Here”, right before we recorded our cast album – and then we premiered it in New York.

Do you have a favourite moment or song in the production?

IS: Probably “Screech In”. It makes me think of when we were ALL Screeched In when we went out to Gander.

DH: Beulah invited us to the Legion and Mayor Elliot screeched us in, with Nick and Diane and Captain Beverley Bass and her husband – so many characters were inspired by people in that room.

Irene and David with Sophie and Justin Trudeau after a performance of Come From Away on Broadway

Justin Trudeau and Ivanka Trump saw the show just a few days after your Broadway opening. Did you get to hear their reactions?

IS: They both were extremely positive about the show.

DH: Prime Minister Trudeau took time to speak to every member of our team and all of the people we interviewed. Seeing him recognize them for their generosity was incredible.

The Come From Away journey isnt like anything weve ever really seen in Canadian theatre. What have been some of your favourite memories thus far?

IS: Watching our daughter Molly run around La Jolla Playhouse, seeing her fall asleep on one of our producer’s lap while we were doing research at Nav Canada, watching her greet the cast and crew as she sits backstage at the Schoenfeld as they come in for work, going trick or treat through the offices at Seattle Rep one year and with some kids from Syria the next… It’s been very humbling and grounding to go through all of this with her at our side.

DH: Taking the show back to Gander was a dream come true. We’re now used to watching the people we interview as they watch the show, but seeing 5000 people see their town and their culture reflected back at them was overwhelming and life-changing. We didn’t stop smiling or crying the entire weekend. 

Youre open on Broadway, the cast recording is out, and a second production is set to premiere next February at the Royal Alex. Where would you like to see Come From Away go from here?

IS: Anywhere and everywhere!

Is your next big idea already percolating or are you ready for a much-deserved break?

IS: A little of A… a little of B… Being so busy has really made us live moment to moment!

DH: We have a lot of projects we’ve been working on throughout, including returning to our first musical, My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding.

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