Come From Away ‘a unique musical about our friends in Newfoundland’

Mike Cohen
13 min readJun 3, 2024


Jewish Telegraph, May 2024

MIKE COHEN speaks to married couple David Hein and Irene Sankoff about their award-winning musical Come From Away — an inspiring story following the horrors of 9/11

SO many horrific stories followed the terrorist attacks in America on September 11, 2001. Among the heartbreak of almost 3,000 people being killed as two planes flew into the World Trade Center in New York, as well as on two other hijacked planes, there were also many tales of heroism and bravery.
But some 1,500 miles from New York, the small Canadian town of Gander, Newfoundland, had to let 38 planes carrying 7,000 passengers land at its airport as America closed its airspace.
The story of the 9,000-strong community taking in almost 7,000 ‘come from aways’ for a few days resonated strongly with husband and wife team David Hein and Irene Sankoff.
The two Canadians were living in New York at the time of 9/11, which they felt made them sensitive enough to tell the story.
“We’re messengers of a very unique, miraculous story. And we try to acquit ourselves accordingly,” Irene told me.
The result was the musical Come From Away, which played for five years on Broadway and four years in London’s West End. It is currently touring the UK and Ireland — and a filmed version is available to watch on Apple+.
“We’ve gone out of our way to not only make it not a 9/11 musical, but also a 9/12 musical,” David explained. “It’s really about how people reacted to that day in a space that was far away, even as we wrote it as New Yorkers who were in New York on 9/11.
“We didn’t want to write a 9/11 musical; we wanted to write a story about our friends in Newfoundland.”
Irene, who was born in the North York district of Toronto, moved to New York in 1999, followed soon after by boyfriend David.
They were staying at International House in Manhattan when al-Qaeda carried out the worst terrorist atrocity in America’s history.
David, who was born in Regina, Saskatchewan, explained that there were students from 110 countries staying there and they “gathered together as a community” after the attack.
He added: “When we heard the story of what happened in Newfoundland later it really reminded us and resonated with us about our own experience and the kindness that we had seen after 9/11.”
Despite being close to the Twin Towers, it was Irene’s father who alerted them to what had happened.
At first they just assumed it was ‘a New York thing’ as their parents would often ring after seeing something had happened there and they would reply: “It’s just New York.”
But this time it was different.
“We turned on the TV and saw the second plane fly into the towers, and we spent the day coming together as a community, but worrying about my cousin (Tanya Chauhan), who was working in the World Trade Center, and trying to get news through to our family back in Canada that she was okay”.
Irene said it was difficult to speak about it for days after.
“We were all still in this sense of trauma, shock and disbelief and you have to be sensitive to that as you go into telling the story,” she told me.
“Then a year or so later we moved back to Canada, and just kind of forgot about it all. We kind of put it behind us, whereas if we’d still lived in New York, we would have kept reliving the day over and over again, which has its own type of trauma, which would have not allowed us to write the story.
“But having the combination of experiences gave us the perspective that we needed and writing it 10 years later gave us time to process and look at it not only as New Yorkers, but as people from outside of America and kind of say, ‘okay, how do we tell this story as neutrally as possible and stick to the truth of it’.”
When I asked if they expected it to become such an international sensation, David joked: “We thought Canadian High School students might be forced to do it as a historical project of some sort.”
He added: “We wrote it because we love the story and we love the people we’re telling it about. We never imagined it would go this far.
“And at the same time, while it’s blown our minds over and over again and the fact that it’s now touring over in the UK and Ireland is like crazy to us, the story inspired us and moved us in such a powerful way that it’s not surprising to see it inspire and move other people around the world.”
Toronto-based theatre producer Michael Rubinoff approached the pair with his idea for a show based on the events in Gander, given the codename Operation Yellow Ribbon.
He chose Irene and David after seeing their musical My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, which was based on David’s mother Claire coming out.
“Part of My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding is about my mom really rediscovering her Jewish faith as we didn’t grow up practising in any way,” David said.
“It was when she moved out to Ottawa that she found a temple, learned Hebrew, started singing and really discovered something she had left behind as a girl.
“She tells stories about when she was at school having her hair held back so that she could prove to people that she didn’t have horns because, when she grew up, everyone said that Jews had horns; it was awful.
“And so in many ways, she pushed it away, but has now found a real community and also found a partner who was Wiccan, and their religions actually worked really beautifully together, and it’s wonderful.”
Like Come From Away, their debut musical is laden with awards and has just been redeveloped with a new production in Louisville, Kentucky.
“A 70-year-old grandmother came to see the show and she talked to one of our actors,” David recalled, “and she said, ‘I’m Jewish and my granddaughter is about to marry another woman and I wasn’t okay with it. And now I am’.
“People come out because of the show, people have proposed on stage because of the show and, particular now, when same sex marriage rights are again being challenged, it feels like this show is suddenly relevant and resonating again.
“When we were first reading Come From Away, we thought this is just about our friends and this tiny town, who’s going to be interested in this — and the reality is, on that day, everyone wanted to help and everyone felt helpless across the world.
“Everyone knows a little town like that; everyone yearns for a time when we can come together.
“And My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding is a love story. It’s about my mom rediscovering who she is. Discovering her sexuality, rediscovering her faith and reinventing who she is, coming out to me, her teenage son, and her homophobic mother. I think we’ve all had challenges; maybe not exactly similar, but similar.”
For Come From Away, Irene and David visited Gander in 2011 to interview locals, as well as speaking to the ‘come from aways’ who were welcomed into the community 10 years earlier.
They held their first staged reading with students in January 2012 with two more the following year.
After more readings and workshops, it had its world premiere at La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, California.
Its journey took it to Seattle, Washington DC, Toronto and two benefit concerts in Gander.
“It actually felt like quite a long journey and we had no idea it would ever go to Broadway or beyond,” David added.
Irene interjected: “We focused more on some stories, we cut some out and all got more compact and more streamlined. And we took out the intermission.
“We had to get some space from having sat in these people’s living rooms and having them relive the events of that day with us to then be able to make it crafted into a story that was going to be an intriguing piece of theatre that wasn’t a documentary.
“There was a time when we thought we were going to do a verbatim musical, but then we realised that we wouldn’t get to say everything we wanted to say that way and for the focus to be on the story, not necessarily the rhythms of speech or the idiosyncrasies of the way individual people told stories.”
One of the main characters in Come From Away is Beverley Bass, the first female captain of an American Airlines commercial plane. She was flying a plane from Paris to Dallas when she was diverted to Gander.
“Beverley gave us a four-hour interview of her life and we distilled it into a three minute song,” David said. “But it’s her words.
“Everything that happens on stage is true, although we had to composite and edit and we met a lot of men named Kevin, a lot of women named Diane and had to combine some of them together, just to make it make sense for people.”
Another story features Rabbi Leivi Sudak, head of Chabad of Edgware, who had been flying from London to New York to visit the Lubavitch Rebbe’s grave.
While in Gander, he was able to acquire kosher food for observant Jews stranded there.
Come From Away shows him meeting Holocaust survivor Ed Brake, who had been warned by his parents to never tell anyone he was Jewish . . including his wife.
“We heard the story second and third hand everywhere we went,” Irene explained. “As soon as we said the name of My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, people would ask if we had heard about ‘the rabbi’.”
The accompanying song Prayer incorporates Oseh Shalom.
“It’s a beautiful moment,” David said. “The rabbi felt like there was a reason he must have been there.”
Come From Away doesn’t shy away from showing the distrust towards visibly Muslim passengers on the planes so soon after terrorists attacked America.
Irene said: “Being welcoming doesn’t necessarily mean just being completely trusting and not thinking. It’s about getting a feel for how to handle the situation.
“And, of course, there was fear and suspicion, but there was also assessing the situation.
“Newfoundlanders will let you come in and will drink with you till three in the morning, but if you’re not going to be decent people, they will also show you the door.
“As the mayor said, they could have had 7,000 scared and angry people, but instead they had 7,000 friends because they knew how to manage the situation. They knew how to manage people.
“They took people who were afraid, starving and lonely, and had them laughing with them in a pub while they were kissing a fish. It’s quite remarkable.”
The true story involved more than 16,000 people — but Irene and David manage to tell it with a cast of just 12.
“We weren’t thinking of Broadway,” Irene said. “We were thinking Canadians would have to do it and there would be no money. We’re used to driving our own prop trucks and changing our own costumes and building the set.
“What we had in mind was how can we do this and not go broke?”
She joked that they had no dining room chairs at home as they were all on stage.
David added: “The theatricality of it became a metaphor on many levels. One was everyone plays a local and a ‘come from away’, so it reminds the audience that at any minute, you could be needing help or be in the position to offer help to someone.
“And then you’ll see on stage the props are handed to people. But we learned really early on that this is a show where you are often moving a chair for someone else to sit on or you’re carrying a jacket and passing it to someone else.
“You’re doing it for others. You’re not just responsible for your own props and costumes. And that’s actually unique on Broadway shows. It’s a community on stage telling the story together.”
When they started to write Come From Away, they had just finished classes at Toronto’s improv club Second City.
“We were working with musical theatre students, so they were a little bit worried about whether they were standing the correct way and hitting the right notes,” Irene said. “We were like, ‘guys, no, have fun, you’re in Newfoundland. No one cares if you’re like standing there, just do it’.
“They didn’t understand how to change into a different character on stage. I’m like, ‘walk across as one character, take a deep breath, sit down as someone else’. That’s as simple as it is.”
David interrupted: “It’s fun for the audience too. Often you think that theatre audiences want giant things shooting across the stage and huge costumes. That can be wonderful. I have a theatre design degree, I love big design.
“But I also think theatre-goers love theatricality and storytelling and the magic of taking 12 chairs and turning it from a legion hall into an airplane to something else. That is what our director, our cast and choreographer have done on stage, It’s magic. We’ve seen it thousands of times and never get tired of of what they do.”
He added: “We break a lot of the musical theatre rules in the show, which is one of the reasons I think people who say they don’t like musicals actually like our show or people who are being dragged by their wives to see the show actually want to see it again afterwards.
“One of them is that we don’t have an antagonist. There isn’t an evil villain in the show — 9/11 and these terrible events were enough of that and the sense of the world shifting, of people being afraid of one another, of recognising that the people on these planes could be terrorists, they could be out to hurt them or they could just be normal people who are scared and angry.
“And the people on the planes had no idea where they were and no idea whether they would be welcomed.”
Do they feel that no matter what they achieve in the future, they will always be known as ‘the writers of Come From Away’?
“Even when we go to our 10-year-old daughter Molly’s school, it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s the writers of Come From Away’,” laughed Irene.
“It’s wonderful, we take it very seriously as a thing to carry.”
David added: “We’ve raised our daughter on the story of people being good to one another. And we get to talk to lovely people around the world about people being kind to one another.
“What a wonderful job we get to do. We should continue to find stories to work on and projects to work on that inspire us in the same way.”
Whereas David was raised in a fully-Jewish family, Irene revealed that her mother was Catholic and her father Jewish.
“They separated when I was nine,” she explained. “So I felt very much like it was my job to keep the peace.
“I remember my dad not liking me going to church and mum not being sure about me going with my dad. And so it wasn’t always harmonious and it became very much my goal to be like, ‘Look, we could have a menorah, we could have a Christmas tree’.
“Now our daughter goes to a school where they try to demonstrate harmony. We sing songs for Kwanzaa, and for Kings Day and we sing songs for Chanukah and Christmas; we sing everything much like the Prayer song in Come From Away and, more than anything, we try to just be welcoming of whatever people want to celebrate.
“I hosted Passover this year. I didn’t do anything because I don’t cook and I haven’t been observant, but I have space. And so my family came and they did everything. It was perfect.”
David continued: “We grew up with a sense of welcoming and helping others. Whether or not that came directly from Judaism, we’ve seen it represented in the Jewish sides of our two families.
“And my mom’s door was always open and she was always bringing people in. We’ve been helped time and time again by wonderful people who have welcomed us.
“And I think the concept of welcoming and mitzvot and healing the world all have directly fuelled our childhoods and have contributed to why we were drawn to a story like Come From Away.”
David believes their families are from the Kishinev area, which was in Russia but is now Moldova.
Irene’s aunt has “wonderful candlesticks” and a samovar brought over by her great-grandparents.
David says their families escaped the region because they were being forced to the frontlines of the Tsar’s army.
His family brought over a mandolin which hangs on his wall.
“My mum fixed it up for me and I’ve learned to play a little bit,” he said. “But what I love is that in a time of crisis, this instrument meant so much to them that they travelled the world with it, bringing it with them when they didn’t need to, but music was clearly an integral part of their family and their world.”
When I asked if working together ever caused friction, David replied with a grin: “Always perfect, never any problems.”
Irene added: “We like to work in public so we have to be civilised.”
Her husband continued: “Wanting something to be the best it can does often lead to arguments, but it also leads to a better show; and having someone by your side is the best thing you can ask for.”
The couple have a couple of “irons in the fire”, with television and film projects, as well as working on new musicals and theatre pieces.
“We have something that starts before the Second World War in Vienna,” Irene said. “It echoes what’s happening sadly today. That one is important and might push its way to the front. It’s a weird time.”
The Come From Away tour ends at The Lowry Theatre, Salford (December 3 to January 5).



Mike Cohen

Jewish Telegraph deputy editor and arts editor. Email with your Jewish arts stories