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Arts Real-life counterparts serenade Come From Away’s debut on Broadway

Theatre

Come From Away gets a warm reception on Broadway

The cast of Come From Away takes a bow onstage at the Broadway opening night at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in New York on Sunday.

Musical written by Torontonians Irene Sankoff and David Hein, and set in a small Newfoundland town, makes its Broadway debut

Newfoundland and Labrador flags were unfurled on a Broadway stage in New York on Sunday night – as the cast of the new musical Come From Away came on stage for their emotional opening-night curtain call with the real-life counterparts from Gander and other surrounding towns who inspired their characters.

Come From Away, written and composed by Torontonians Irene Sankoff and David Hein, dramatizes the story of the Newfoundlanders who opened their doors and their larders to almost 7,000 strangers when 38 planes filled were redirected there after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"What we did in those days [after] 9/11, never did we think this would turn into a Broadway show," Claude Elliott, the Mayor of Gander, said, after walking past the Broadway press and stopping for photos and interviews outside of the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on West 45th Street.

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Mr. Elliott's counterpart from nearby Appleton, Derm Flynn, added: "Not many media scrums or red carpets in Appleton – it's a special treat for us."

With the recent election of Donald Trump as President, the political climate in the United States has changed drastically since Come From Away had earlier acclaimed runs in Washington, Seattle and San Diego.

Come From Away was written and composed by Torontonians Irene Sankoff and David Hein.

Before, Ms. Sankoff and Mr. Hein's musical might have been considered almost apolitical, with its inclusion of a generous, even affectionate cameo by former president George W. Bush.

Now its gentle message about opening doors to strangers seems almost politically pointed in the wake of Mr. Trump's policies such as the recent executive order blocking visa applications for citizens of six Muslim-majority countries and temporarily suspending the U.S. refugee program.

Canada's differing approach to refugees has been consistently contrasted with Trump's in the U.S. media – and Come From Away, which has been doing solid business since opening in previews on Feb. 18, has been associated by reporters to the policies of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose upcoming visit to the Broadway show on March 15 has been reported on by The New York Times.

Newfoundlanders came from afar to take in the Broadway opening night of Come From Away.

Mr. Flynn, who has previously seen the show in Gander and Toronto, said the message of Come From Away was now a "timely" one. "I really think that we are on the right track [in Canada] – you've got to look after your fellow human beings," said the Mayor of the town of just over 600 people, who is depicted in the show by American Joel Hatch as a man generous with his Irish whisky. "If we're going to turn the tide on terrorism, we'll have more success by touching people's minds and hearts – as opposed to 'them and us.'"

Mr. Elliott and Mr. Flynn, Gander police Constable Oz Fudge, local volunteer Beulah Cooper and others lightly fictionalized in the show had arrived in New York on Thursday, spending the weekend celebrating the musical they inspired and reuniting with the "plane people" they had hosted or met back in 2011. But they also took a solemn trip to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.

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For Constable Fudge, whose family is full of police officers and firefighters, visiting the museum for the occasion made the destruction of the World Trade Centre by terrorists resonate in a new way.

Actor Victor Garber.

"Walking in and seeing the fire truck – it kind of hit me that that if we'd be living in New York, [my family members and I] would have been the ones going into those buildings."

On Sunday night, New York theatre critics and critics from major cities in the United States – tourists make up 70 per cent of Broadway's audience – were set to publish their reviews online. Producer Sue Frost, from Junkyard Dog Productions, was hoping that they would be good – but was encouraged by the show's strong word of mouth already among New Yorkers. "[Reviews] always help, but I don't know if they can hurt when people have been responding the way that they've been responding," she said.

It's not every day that a musical written by Canadians ends up on Broadway – and even rarer that one with identifiably Canadian characters does. The last was Billy Bishop Goes to War in 1980 – John Gray and Eric Peterson's musical about the First World War flying ace, which is still regularly performed in Canada, but did not find financial success in New York.

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