Make no mistake. The Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre production of Come From Away is a prize offering in its 60th anniversary season.
The musical, set in the community of Gander, N.L., in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, is still packing them in on Broadway.
Its presence on the RMTC schedule has much to do with the cosy relationship between the company and Toronto’s Mirvish Productions, which is collaborating with New York’s Junk Yard Dog Productions.
And then there are the playwrights and their warm feelings towards Winnipeg.
The play’s authors, Irene Sankoff and David Hein, were in Winnipeg last week for the first preview performances of the show before it officially begins Jan. 11.
The work was undoubtedly sparked from Hein and Sankoff’s personal experience: they were living in New York at an international grad students residence at Columbia University when the attacks occurred on Sept. 11, 2001.
But the play really began forming when they visited Gander on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, discovering a narrative that put the emphasis on compassion.
Hein, born in Regina and raised in Saskatoon, has given Winnipeg its due when it comes to inspiring the musical aspect of the show.
"My mom took me every year to the Winnipeg Folk Festival to see all of these amazing Canadian bands that came here," Hein said.
"I saw Great Big Sea here and I fell in love with Newfoundland music and started looking up all the other bands."
One could argue that Come From Away might not have happened without those visits, because that’s where the author’s love for Newfoundland started.
Later, Hein’s solo musical career involved frequent gigs in Manitoba.
"I played the Brandon Folk Festival a million times but also I stopped through Winnipeg and I played the King’s Head downtown and I was introduced to (Folk Fest founder) Mitch Podolak and I crashed on his couch a number of times," he said.
"And so Winnipeg has been a real supporter of ours for a long time."
That support includes Sankoff and Hein’s earlier show, My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, mounted in 2012 by Winnipeg Studio Theatre.
"We were here for a month or so and we just fell in love with it," Sankoff said.
"We loved going to the different coffee shops down by The Forks and the river and made a lot of friends here. Part of what we’re doing during our extensive three-day stay is catching up with people we haven’t seen since we were here five years ago."
This production of Come From Away, directed by Christopher Ashley (who won a Tony award for his work on the Broadway iteration) features a cast of all-Canadian actors.
Sankoff and Hein offer their own perspectives on how this distinguishes it from the Broadway show:
FP: Does a Canadian cast enhance the national identity of a story of how travellers from around the world were welcomed by the citizens of Gander in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks?
Hein: When we started writing this, it certainly felt like a Canadian story and a Newfoundland story.
This was a story we had fallen in love with in Newfoundland, and over its development, we’ve learned that it’s broader than just Newfoundland. There were planes diverted across the country.
But also the story of people responding in kindness in response to 9/11 and in response to many tragedies since then, we’ve seen how universal it is, how it reflects in America but also people from around the world telling us this was their experience after 9/11 and this has been their experience many times since then and how relevant the show still is to them.
And yet there’s something really wonderful about celebrating this Canadian story that has resonated so much on the world stage right now, and bringing it back with a Canadian cast in Canada and being able to share that in a way that says: we should be proud of this.
This is an extraordinary thing that these people did — that we did — in response to something, sharing kindness and human compassion.
It’s something we should be proud of and it’s something we should be remembering.
FP: It seems an especially pertinent moment in history for this show to be out there right now.
Sankoff: Certainly we’re told over and over by audience members how glad they are seeing the show and it’s coming out now.
One audience member particularly stands out and that’s Hillary Clinton.
She was so excited that the show was coming out now and she said: ‘we need this message,’ and I nearly passed out. That’s Hillary Clinton saying that to me.
But at the time, we didn’t have a crystal ball and we couldn’t have known. We wrote the show to honour the people of Newfoundland and the people who were lost on that day. David and I, having lived in New York on that day, that was really our main goal when we started and I guess it’s kind of uncanny that we are where we are, at this point in time.
Hein: We didn’t want to write a 9/11 show, we wanted to write a 9/12 show about how Newfoundland responded and it was six years ago we started doing this.
And yet, in Seattle, our first preview was during the Paris attacks and we had this conversation about how do we respond? And we all decided we should just put this story out there. It’s a story about responding to tragedy with kindness, it’s about reaching out to strangers and welcoming strangers off a plane, and refugees from around the world but also Americans, who were refugees at the time.
Because we were New Yorkers at the time, we were so cautious about the show. There’s language in the show that’s 9/11-specific that we use really sparingly. We use... "World Trade Center" once, we say "terrorist" once.
And because of that, even though the show is very specific to 9/11, it feels like it can be a response to any tragedy that happened. Unfortunately, it’s proven time and again that it feels relevant to be telling this story about coming together in response to this.
We can respond with kindness to any tragedy but also that we can respond with kindness every day of our life.