I was laughing when I read the anecdote in the New York Times that you told the Come From Away playwrights, and I quote, “a musical about people making sandwiches? Good luck with that”. So … how do you feel now? – Ken, by email
Prez Says: I console myself by saying there were professional theater producers who passed on Cats or The Phantom of the Opera. I feel awful, because the story is true, but allow me to amount a defense.
I met the playwrights, David Hein and Irene Sankoff almost a decade ago. They were conducting interviews that would form the spine of the play. They’d been here a month and made fast friends, which is no surprise, as they are incredibly nice people. The level of research they’d amassed was impressive. This was no superficial treatment, they dove very deep in uncovering the story and characters.
I knew David and Irene had a theatre pedigree and small hit play already under their belt, but they were young and unassuming. I had a vague idea of what they were trying to achieve, but, in my mind, the story of Operation Yellow Ribbon was nearly impossible to dramatize. Any play or movie follows the same general arc: first your meet the main protagonist, that character gets chased up a tree by a bear, the hero finds a way out of peril, reflects on how their experience revealed something about themselves and then curtain or credits. I relayed my concerns about degree of difficulty, and David nodded, unworried. He said something to the effect that “they had some ideas” and then told me it was going to be a musical. I was floored. I couldn’t think of a more difficult subject matter to stage, let alone a musical. I pleaded with them to take on something easier. In fairness, I had no way to know of their brilliance. If David and Irene had been more upfront and informed me of their genius, I would not have been so skeptical about a musical about people making sandwiches for unexpected guests!
Anyway, David and Irene left and I had a secret hope: that, at the very least, they could get a script together and workshopped and perhaps one day the Gander Collegiate Drama Club would put it off. What has since happened, with the amazing success of the musical, and now a feature film in the works, speaks for itself.
I later met with the architect of the concept, Michael Rubinoff, who pushed David and Irene to develop the story, and told him he must have been crazy to embark of this theatrical Mission Impossible as well. He laughed. If their next project is a one-person play about a unicorn who uses its magic horn to open canned goods, I’ll just make a little room on a shelf for their Tony. I’ll just stick to my day job from here on in and refrain from theatrical counsel.
But, really who could of saw this coming? In the days after 9-11, people in Appleton weren’t opening their homes, people in Lewisporte weren’t making casseroles nor were people in Gander weren’t organizing birthday parties for stranded guests with the thought it would produce any real outcome. They were in a position to help and – I don’t care what anyone says – they did what anyone else would do. Not like volunteers were getting bedding and scrubbing school toilets and saying “this will be the basis for a hit musical one day!”
The musical is brilliant. Come From Away is true to source and never bows to caricature. It’s brave enough to let the story – in its truest sense – stand on its own. It never falls to parody or gets cloying and everyone here can see some piece of themselves in it. A lot of locals were impressed with some of the minute details uncovered, a testament to David and Irene’s exhaustive research.
David, Irene and Michael are wonderful people. They all have an effortless Jay Gatsby charm that seems to rest lightly on the shoulders of theatre professionals. I love it when great things happen to deserving people and their success is extremely gratifying.
Maybe 30 years from now, the Gander Collegiate Drama Club will stage their own production of Come From Away. And I hope David, Irene and Michael, grey-haired, less limber and still wildly successful, will find their way back to watch.
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