Stage Door News
New York: Sankoff and Hein share the true stories behind the score of “Come From Away”
Tuesday, April 21, 2020
After a successful national tour, Come From Away opened at Broadway's Schoenfeld Theatre March 12, 2017, and promptly settled in for a hit run (plus five more productions around the world and an upcoming film adaptation). Nominated for seven Tony Awards, it won Christopher Ashley Best Director of a Musical.
With all of Broadway currently on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, Playbill asked the show's writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein to share memories and behind-the-scenes stories about their Tony-nominated score. At a time when people may feel more lost or isolated than ever before, the true story of strangers finding comfort and humanity together is more relevant than ever before. So queue up your Come From Away cast album, and settle in.
"Welcome to the Rock"
David: This was the first song that we wrote for the show. I remember being really nervous sending a demo of it to Irene.
Irene: But I listened to it while I was walking to the subway and I stopped and phoned him immediately saying that's how we’re starting our show!
David: It was inspired by Newfoundland pride songs like "Fling Out the Flag" or "The Islander." When we first went to Newfoundland, there was a huge benefit concert on September 10 where two amazing bands, Shanneyganock and The Navigators, played— and each played “The Islander,” which inspired the chorus. The driving bodhran at the beginning comes from Great Big Sea’s “The Chemical Worker’s Song.”
Irene: Originally the “You Are Here” section began the whole show, but when it was orchestrated, choreographed and lit, it came off as kind of funereal. Eventually our director asked us to write a new song which almost went in, until our music director, Ian Eisendrath, suggested moving the “You Are Here” section to the middle of "Welcome to the Rock," which helps make a huge shift as the news hits Gander—though it did mean we had to cut part of the bridge which introduced the “In The Winter/Water/Wind” element that you hear in Track 3.
David: What I love about this piece, is that whatever fears or assumptions you might have about the show coming in, this song (and the set, acting, directing, etc.) says, “Don’t worry. Come with us to this incredible place far away from New York and Washington—it’s a welcoming song for a show about welcoming people.”
David: This song isn’t really a song‚and it’s where we start to indicate to the audience that these aren’t going to be cabaret songs. Instead, it’s music as a representation of the sound of 38 planes landing, the vocals getting louder and louder as the others try to speak over them.
Irene: I love that Bonnie can smell the fuel. It’s so visceral a detail that was told to us. I also love that in interviews when Oz tells his story here, he now edits himself to just “Holy”—but when he told us, it was the full “Holy shit.”
"Blankets and Bedding"
Irene: This song was inspired by the “Telephone Song” from Bye Bye Birdie, where all the women in the town phone each other. I also love that while Oz is at Shoppers and Claude is at town hall, the women of Gander were also getting shit done.
David: Crystal, who also works in the Tim Hortons scene, was named after Crystal Kane, the first person we interviewed for the show—and who set us up with her parents, Matty and Brenda, who let us use their house (we later named two characters after them in the bar scene). But when the cast went out to Gander, we stopped at Tim Hortons and met a woman named Crystal who worked there!
Irene: The Shoppers story came from an interview we did with a wife and husband. The wife was quiet for most of it, until the husband took David away to look at something, and then she finally talked to me, “now that the men are gone,” about how passengers also needed tampons.
"28 Hours/Wherever We Are"
David: This was originally two songs: "28 Hours," where Bev phones her husband, and "Wherever We Are," where passengers party. We originally thought we’d have to cut one of them, but found a way to mash them together. Shout out to our brilliant music supervisor, Ian Eisendrath, and our arranger, August Eriksmoen, for making it all work. Also, this is the only part of the show that’s written in the past tense—since a lot of it is about how long they’ve been there. It’s tricky time-wise because the characters are singing about being on the plane for over a day, while we’re seeing that day progress.
Irene: The Titanic theme was originally two other songs—"All By Myself" and then "Love Lifts Us Up Where We Belong," but for various reasons we couldn’t use them. Also, Geno Carr who played Oz sings the verses of “Wherever We Are”—his character here is named Joey. When we were in Gambo, Matt Kane read our palms and predicted our future—he told us someone named Joey would be involved, so we named a character after him. He also told us the show would be bigger than Broadway, which we thought was ridiculous, but with five companies around the world, maybe he was right?
"Darkness and Trees"
David: This was originally a solo (sung by Alycia Novak, a student at Sheridan, who then became our nanny for years).
"On The Bus"
Irene: Tracks 5-7 are really one big underscore track, so it was ridiculously complex to make this work on the cast album. We had to cut down the text from what’s on stage to shorten it. But we still got in the moose!
"Darkness and Trees (Reprise)"
David: The Muhumuza storyline using the Bible to translate is an amalgamation of two stories we heard: one was a bus driver who couldn’t communicate with the African passengers, and the other was in the Baptist church, where they used bibles to communicate to a group of Moldovan refugees from south of Russia. We originally wrote a song in Russian and English, but eventually switched it here to Swahili, which took a lot of energy and several translators to help us get it right.
"Lead Us Out of the Night"
David: One of my favorite compliments was when someone told me they thought this was an actual prayer. We wanted it to be simple, something we could all be wishing for.
Irene: This song features one of our favorite moments—at the end when the cast gasps. It was so important to us, as New Yorkers then, to not show anything. We didn’t need to traumatize anyone, and every audience member has an image of exactly what they’re seeing.
David: The music here echoes Bev’s section of "28 Hours" along with some of the lyrics “safe and sound on the ground” and the idea of phoning family far away.
Irene: More friends and family members are referenced here—and Celena’s was a bakery near our house where we used to write.
Irene: This was easily the most rewritten song in the show. It was originally a duet between Beverley and Diane; we eventually cut Beverley’s elements (and it is a hard to cut things when Jenn Colella sings them!) to make it into a foursome with Kevin T and Diane reacting positively, and Kevin J and Hannah reacting negatively. We wrestled with whether the chorus (originally inspired by a phrase Diane used) could capture all their reactions.
"I Am Here"
David: This was the last song written for the show. It was originally only three lines, but then we finally were able to meet with Hannah and her family. Our daughter played with Kevin’s grandson, who’s named after him. They were so kind and it allowed us to write more for her to say.
Irene: Q Smith, who sang this, was incredible here. She had never sung it onstage and we were in the studio rewriting it on Post-It notes that we handed to her.
David: The only line that changed after that was “yes at the Legion in Gander,” which changed to “Yes at the grade school in Gander” because we realized we’d made a mistake: even though Hannah stayed at the Legion (where Beulah Cooper worked), she was set at Gander Academy in the show.
Irene: When Kevin Tuerff first came to see a workshop of the show at Sheridan, he was astounded that we’d put Channel of Peace in, since he’d never told anyone that it was running through his head. Except us apparently!
David: It is a huge challenge to make the prayers of the world work together, but hopefully it’s a nice metaphor that when we put in that work to find the common themes, sometimes you can find something beautiful.
"On The Edge"
Irene: This section of the show originally included a song called “Let’s Go Out”—which was about everyone losing their minds and wanting to go out to a bar. One story we heard was about a Beatles tribute band who got up and did a set (jamming with a Tuvan Heavy Metal throat singer named Albert, who we interviewed), so we originally had a medley of a million Beatles songs, but our producers wisely told us that it would bankrupt the show.
David: Instead, Irene suggested reprising lyrics from the "You Are Here" section of Track 1, and literally making the lyrics “on the edge”—constantly cutting off but building as the tension grows. My wife is brilliant. And Ian Eisendrath created this incredible bass and drum line, which drives it even more.
"In The Bar / Heave Away"
David: I love that we got an ugly stick recorded on the album, even if the ugly stick instrumental with the band joining in has expanded for Broadway and is now even better.
Irene: We searched for a lot of songs to use here, but eventually found "Heave Away," which not only had the word “away” in it, but had so many variations of lyrics that we felt comfortable adding to them to create a male/female dynamic in order to give our choreographer something to play with.
David: We interviewed a lot of our characters, but we also got to screech in with them, which I’m pretty sure few other writers can say. This song was primarily based on our experience getting invited by Beulah to the Legion to get screeched in by Claude next to Nick, Diane, Beverley, and her husband Tom.
"Me and the Sky"
Irene: We first met Beverley Bass at the Comfort Inn Hotel in Gander. I think she expected a short interview, but we talked to her for hours, eating up her whole story. So much of this song comes directly from her verbatim lines—we really wanted it to be in her voice.
David: The first version of the lyrics I wrote had some slight alterations to her story, but Irene insisted that we keep it identical to what she had said.
"The Dover Fault"
David: This is barely a track, but it allowed us to separate the intro from "Stop the World."
Irene: There was so much discussion and headaches over how to handle this and how to handle other parts like "Darkness and Trees." It just highlights what a radio play this album is and how intricately the book scenes are tied into the music, which made it a huge challenge to choose what material would work in album form.
"Stop The World"
David: We sing this song a lot together. For Nick and Diane it’s a song about being thankful for this unexpected moment together, wishing it could last longer, and we’re very thankful for this incredible adventure we’ve been able to go on together and with our incredible Come From Away family.
"38 Planes (Reprise) / Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere"
David: At the end that the rhythm of “I’m an Islander, I am an Islander” changes to “Home, America, Home in America”—underscoring Beverley’s excitement to return—and her final phrase “No I’m fine, Tom, I’m fine” echoes her lyrics in "28 Hours." This was apparently powerful enough that now when her husband introduces himself it’s as “I’m Tom," as in "no I’m fine Tom, I’m fine.”
Irene: I always send out gratitude to all the people that have helped us during this song.
David: I love the moment with the guitar harmonics after “it started to rain.” In a show that’s filled with a lot of words, the moments of silence speak volumes.
Irene: This one’s hard to listen to now—with five companies suddenly out of work along with all of Broadway and the West End and so much of theatre and music and art everywhere, it’s hard to not feel the emptiness and that so much is missing.
David: This was a real response to the passengers who had been in Gander. Their experience has been positive, and they returned to a world that had changed so negatively. But the song ends somewhat positively, that though they’re all in separate worlds, they’re all still together in some way. “You are here” because we share values and shared experiences, things we miss and memories we’ve loved. I think about that a lot now. Being apart now is actually an act of love and caring for one another—and it doesn’t diminish our collective community. We are all still here—and we’ll come back together again.
"10 Years Later"
David: Again, barely a track, but an intro to the "Finale." I miss all the little details we couldn’t fit on this album, most notably Bonnie’s storyline ,which is primarily spoken and barely underscored, so it was hard to get on—and also Janice’s Tom Brokaw joke.
Irene: A reprise of our opening—both used to have many more words, celebrating every aspect of Newfoundland that we’d fallen in love with, but we had to strip it down to make it understandable—much like the Newfoundland accents in the show!
David: The lyrics vary slightly from the opening's “To the ocean and the sky and whatever’s in between,” which turned into, “A kiss and a cod and whatever’s in between”—or “when the sun is coming up and the world has come ashore” turned into “when the sun is setting and it’s darker than before”… but the lyrics that are important remain. “To the ones who’ve left, you’re never truly gone” and “If you’re hoping for a harbour then you’ll find an open door.” The world might get darker, but you can always look for lightness and hope in this story. It’s why we wrote it, because it inspired us, and hopefully we’ll be back soon—with all of Broadway—to remind us that we can come together to overcome tragedy.
David: Petrina Bromley came up with the name for this one. And Ian Eisendrath did such an incredible arrangement—incorporating even more traditional tunes.
Irene: In La Jolla, our director Chris Ashley said that we should have some exit music for the band to play while they were leaving the theatre… but once we tried it, no one left! They just stayed and clapped. It was the worst exit music ever!
By Irene Sankoff and David Hein for www.playbill.com.